Sputnik will twinkle again. Crews from Ace Sign. Co. of Springfield removed the iconic satellite over the weekend from its decades’-long perch atop the soon-to-be-demolished Bel-Aire Motel building.
The fiberglass ball of spikes, frayed wires and burned-out, multi-colored bulbs was in pieces Monday on a warehouse floor at the Ace Sign headquarters, 2540 S. First St.
Plans are to restore Sputnik for inclusion in a company museum of vintage Springfield signs.
“We spoke with the owners, and they were very gracious,” said Dennis Bringuet, president of Ace Sign Co. “We told them we had a little museum here, and we were just getting started. They thought it would be a nice home for it and donated it.”
The last of the residents moved out of the Bel-Aire, 2636 S. Sixth St., early this year. The property is scheduled for demolition as part of settlement with the city of chronic code violations.
Sputnik won’t be ready for Tuesday’s dedication of an Ace Sign Co. museum through Local First Springfield, a shop-local business organization. The museum resulting from 75 years in the sign business is a neon who’s who of the city’s retail-commercial history from The Hub clothing store downtown to Reisch Brewery.
The best guess, according to the Bringuet family, was that Sputnik went up at the Bel-Aire in the early 1960s. ‘Sputnik signs’ were common across the country as a way of grabbing traveler attention in the years after the former Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1, into space in 1957.
After years of neglect and exposure to the elements, restoring Sputnik to its twinkling, multi-color glory likely will take a little creative tinkering, according to Bringuet.
“The electronics are antiquated,” he said. “The flasher made all the bulbs twinkle. They’d all come off and on at different times. We may have to do some searching to try to find that device.”
“Flashers aren’t used these days. A lot of municipalities have outlawed flashing signs.”
Sputnik completes an orbit in the sign business for Bringuet’s parents, Joe and Louise. The sign museum is named in their honor.
Joe Bringuet recalled installation of the original wooden and metal signs at the Bel-Aire, followed a few years later by Sputnik. He said the then-Bel-Aire owners purchased the Sputnik from a manufacturer in California.
“They made them as a specialty. They had salesmen on the road that would really target motels,” he said. “That (Sixth Street) was city Route 66.”
The Springfield Sputnik, said Bringuet, was a low-end model for its time. More expensive models, he said, would rotate. Bringuet also recalled seeing the real Sputnik in the skies over central Illinois in 1957. Historians credit the launch of Sputnik 1 with kicking off the space race and the eventual U.S. landing on the moon.
“In the evening, right at sundown,” said Bringuet, “it would shine on the bottom side of Sputnik, as it took its orbital flight around the world. You could sit in the yard and see it, because it wasn’t real high.”
Ace also installed a large, metal sign on the roof and a wooden “town crier” sign on the lawn of the Bel-Aire.
“It had a colonial man with a colonial hat,” said Joe Bringuet. “He had three bells on a flasher, and the bells would go up and down with an arm that would go with it. It was pretty neat for its time.”
Joe, 85, and Louise, 86, continue to work five days a week at the company now headed by their son. Louise Bringuet’s parents, Franklin and Alvina Horn, started Ace Sign Co. in 1940 with one truck and a handful of paintbrushes, according to a company history. Early company signs are part of the museum.
Joe Bringuet does much of the vintage-sign restoration work, while Louise works in the front office. Both said they had no plans to retire.
“There’s nothing to do at home but work,” Louise said with a smile.
In Joe’s case, 2015 marks 65 years at the company.
“She’s the boss’s daughter, and it was job security,” he said. “I married her.”
His next restoration, a vintage Anheuser-Busch neon sign, is in the works, said Joe, who speaks with detailed enthusiasm about his projects.
“Why sit at home on the porch waiting to die,” he said, “when we can die here.”
By Tim Landis – The State Journal-Register