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Where there’s a neon shill atop the hill


After years of planning, controversy and hard work, we now have the first phase of that shining symbol on the hill that we’ve dreamed of. And at night, as we gaze up at the glow on its southern face, we can’t help wondering:

Should we pick up some bread and milk on the way home?

It was good that we decided to build an architectural support group around Veterans Memorial Auditorium – a building whose less-than-sleek design once earned the nickname “world’s largest two-car garage.” Let’s hope the concept works. And while we’re hoping, let’s hope Central Iowans can learn more about hockey than how to yell, “Sioux City sucks.”

But maybe we didn’t put enough thought into the signs.

Hy Vee Inc. pitched in a lot of money for the naming rights to the Iowa Events Center’s exhibition hall, which is a terrific civic gesture. But then, like a nice kid who finds himself standing next to a boxcar while holding a can of spray paint, the company gave in to temptation.

The resulting “Hy-Vee Hall” sign doesn’t just appear in the night sky, it looms there. Look up Third Street from the Court Avenue district and you’ll see it peering back at you like that big spooky eye in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Des Moines has a proud history of leaving unusual signs alone, which has added to the city’s character. The Colonial Bread sign remains, long after the company’s last loaf went out the door. The Travelers Insurance umbrella – an inspiration for the Crusoe Umbrella at Nollen Plaza, according to one story – still sits atop the Insurance Exchange Building at Fifth and Grand avenues. (By the way, local historian John Zeller suspects that another reason we wound up with a shipwreck survivor symbol is because a visit to our fair city made artist Claes Oldenburg think of the phrase “cultural desert.”)

At least one gem vanished, but that might have been a power-struggle issue. Years ago, a retro contraption hung on the corner of the Register and Tribune Building, flashing the time and temperature. As former Register publisher David Kruidenier recalls it, the city changed its sign ordinance and the mighty paper had to bow to its wishes. It’s not known whether the City Council voted to cackle with glee.

Maybe visitors will focus on Des Moines’ more funky details – blue arches over the freeway, an office building that makes us thirsty for vodka — and forgive us for the supermarket effect. It’s not as if we could have prevented it, anyway. According to Joe Bohlke, a city zoning enforcement officer, the Iowa Events Center falls into the unregulated signage category. (Jeez, where’s the heavy-handed government oversight when you need it?)

So we have no choice but to slink into the grocery retailing phase of our inferiority complex. Airplane passengers approaching New York are filled with awe. On their way into Las Vegas, they’re amazed and amused. From now on, people flying into Des Moines will look out the window and think, “Cereal. I bet we’re out of cereal.”

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