LOS ANGELES TIMES
Gas Station Icons Being 86ed
After 45 years of guiding drivers to their next fill-up, 'meatball' 76 signs are becoming casualties of corporate consistency.
By Scott Gold, Times Staff Writer
May 14, 2006
In January, an earnest woman named Kim Cooper was driving through Lincoln Heights when her neighborhood gas station caught her eye. The station's familiar 76 insignia, its stocky blue numbers splashed against a sea of orange, had been supplanted with a sign that looked like, well, everywhere else. The new 76 was set against a backdrop of red, and a boring red at that -- "a queasy color," she recalled with a grimace, "like liver."
Cooper, the publisher of a magazine called Scram -- a "journal of unpopular culture" -- does not typically concern herself with the goings-on of megacorporations like ConocoPhillips, owner of the 76 brand.
But the 76 logo, she decided, isn't just an ad. Not anymore. The orange balls that have rotated above gas stations for 45 years are a piece of roadside Americana, and in Southern California they are an iconic part of the sightline, not much different than palm trees or the Hollywood sign. They no longer belong to a boardroom, Cooper decided, but to the public.
"I felt," she said, "that this shouldn't pass unnoticed."
Later that day, Cooper launched an Internet blog -- www.savethe76ball.com -- dedicated to the balls' preservation.
At first glance, it seemed a little frivolous. In a city of transit and transients, is this what preservationists are left with - - fighting to save relics of urban design known in the subculture of petroliana as "meatballs"?
It hasn't taken long, however, for the campaign to catch on. Heartfelt response has poured in, not just from random drivers, but from prominent voices in architecture and design, a board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, even the 79-year-old man who designed the balls in the first place to mark the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle.
Houston-based ConocoPhillips, which has been quietly replacing the balls with more modern-looking signs for at least six months, declined to respond to detailed questions about its decision. In a written statement, a spokeswoman said the balls were being replaced - - and the logo's color changed to red -- to give a "common image" to the company's 76, Phillips 66 and Conoco gas stations.
"We appreciate motorists' loyalty," the statement said. "Though our look is a little different, the quality of our products and our commitment to our customers remains the same."
To Cooper, 39, who has also worked on an online crime diary of the year 1947 in Los Angeles and provides guided tours based in part on that work, it sounds like a bunch of corporate hooey, "the complete rejection of the goodwill that this brand has built."
"You can look at them as some ugly thing that should be thrown away," she said. "Or you can see them as the best expression of America -- a gleeful, bright California image, a masterpiece of salesmanship and graphic design."
Many of the 1,600 postings to Cooper's online petition suggest that she is not alone. "Please don't destroy my childhood memories," one reads. Another asks: "Why does everything we love in life go away?"
While the testimonials trickle in, the balls continue to fall each week. In Echo Park, at Alvarado and Sunset. Below Griffith Park, at Franklin and Beechwood. And at Dodger Stadium, where Union Oil had a fruitful sponsorship from the start of construction, where Vin Scully once responded to home runs by announcing that Union 76 would be making a donation in a player's name, and where, during some evening games, the orange ball beyond centerfield sometimes made it seem as if there were two suns setting over the city.
In 1961, Ray Pedersen was a hard-charging, 34-year-old art director for the advertising firm of Young & Rubicam, working out of its downtown Los Angeles office. Union Oil Co., the venerable California firm founded in 1890, asked Y&R to design a sign that would rise next to a cable-supported "sky train" at the World's Fair.
Pedersen began fiddling with the advertising schematic Union Oil was already using -- the blocky numbers, the orange-and-blue motif that seemed radical at a time when most of the competition had settled on tamer reds, whites and blues.
"I thought: 'We've got to do something really hot -- a big ball, lit from the inside,' " he said.
By the time he had found someone who could mold plastic into two halves of a ball that would reach 12 feet in diameter, he had spent an estimated $50,000, he said. A Y&R manager called in a rage.
"He said: 'What are you doing up there?' " Pedersen recalled. "I said: 'I'm hanging a sign, man!"
Pedersen said he was nearly fired -- but Union Oil loved it. Company executives declared that they would erect as many balls as they could. The first went up in Redondo Beach. By the end of the decade, there were thousands, mostly in the West.
They became an oddball expression of unity. Union Oil eventually created tiny versions that could be affixed to car antennas, and distributed millions of them. Nowhere, it seemed, did they have as much resonance as they did in Southern California.
Preservationists attribute that to two things.
First, Los Angeles, largely because its economy catered to so many car travelers, was essential in the development of creative advertising and roadside signs. In 1923, for instance, an L.A. Packard dealership is believed to have become the first U.S. business to use a neon sign. That same year, a sign reading "HOLLYWOODLAND" -- later shortened -- was erected to advertise a new development in the hills above downtown.
"The 76 sign is part of a tremendous history," said Alan Hess, an Irvine architect and author of 10 books on 20th century architectural history. "The 76 sign was colorful, it was shapely, and it was delightful. It was also functional; your tank is getting low, you see it far down the street and you knew exactly where you were going to get gas."
Second, unlike some European cities or more mature U.S. cities, Los Angeles has few significant public buildings beyond City Hall, the Department of Water and Power building and a handful of others.
Commercial structures are the foundation of the sightline. Right or wrong, those structures are an important part of the region's history, said John English, a board member of the Los Angeles Conservancy and an architectural historian.
"You could look at this and say that it's the most ridiculous thing in the world," English said. "But our relationship to commercial iconography, that really is our heritage."
When the subject is a hunk of plastic, that's heady talk. And it has been drowned out in recent years by another trend: the effort to protect communities' identities by cleaning up their sightlines -- starting by targeting tall "lollipop" signs that many planners and corporate executives have come to see as clutter.
It was true across the region, but pronounced in places like Orange County, where civic leaders decided, in the name of maturity, to do away with structures and signs that were built to invoke images of postwar prosperity and imagination -- space exploration, for instance, or the solar system. Visiting business executives, those leaders decided, no longer wanted to call their offices to explain that messages could be left for them at the Cosmic Inn or the Inn of Tomorrow.
Tall, flashy signs began to come down at a rapid pace, replaced, with the financial assistance of taxpayers, with lowerlying, more stoic "monument" signs. It was a controversial movement; monument signs are often derided as "tombstones" among those who yearn for more roadside diversity, and English said the loss of commercial art risked "turning everything into oatmeal." But the trend toward uniformity was strong.
"The effort was noble," said Wally Linn, a former mayor in La Palma, one of the cities where the effort was widespread. "We were trying to maintain an image."
The 76 balls, which in most cases are being replaced with either ground-level signs or taller signs in the shape of discs, are merely the latest structures sacrificed to that image campaign.
But Pedersen, among others, can't figure why ConocoPhillips would want to abandon such a powerful image.
"It's their nickel," he said. "But this was a franchise. It just doesn't make any sense."
While the website encourages a boycott of ConocoPhillips, conservationists aren't expecting to save many balls. Many would be content to preserve a few samples as reminders of a different era in urban design.
"It simply improves people's lives to be surrounded by things that somebody cared about," Cooper said. "Yeah, it was an ad. But it was really cool."