A Great Sign For A Great City? (Updated)

August 28, 2012 | by Nathaniel Popkin


Image from Quicktime movie showing various prospective signs

Update: The architectural committee of the Historical Commission voted 3-2 today to reject the sign proposal for the Lit Brothers Building. That vote is merely advisory, however. The sign proposal is expected to be affirmed by the full Historical Commission at a meeting September 14.

John Connors, the owner of the historic Lit Brothers Department Store–now Mellon Independence Center–at Eighth and Market Streets, has applied for approval for animated digital signage above the building’s roof. The case will go before the architectural committee of the Historical Commission today. Historical Commission staff have given the committee an opinion of “no recommendation” on the case, meaning they’re leaving it to the committee to decide the case–essentially on aesthetic grounds. Connors’ proposal is careful to follow the city’s sign ordinance, which generally excludes commercial signs on historic buildings except for those that historically had signs.

From the 1890s until Connors renovated the department store in the 1980s, the Lit Brothers building sported very large commercial signage. “A Great Store For A Great City” was the most iconic of those signs.

Lit Brothers, 1936 | Image: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

At issue is the design standards for the digital sign: from color choices to frequency of the use of the traditional “Great Store For A Great City” sign. The Greater Philadelphia Preservation Alliance hopes to get Connors to agree to a set of standards.

Some images from the Quicktime animation supplied by the building owner:


About the Author

Nathaniel Popkin Hidden City Daily co-founder Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis.


  1. David says:

    Look at that gorgeous people-density in the 1936 shot!

  2. Eli says:

    I would expect the Quicktime images to actually try to entice a historic commission. Those look like they’d run on a stadium jumbo-tron. And they are hideous. Add a kiss-cam and I might be interested.

  3. Meena Vathyam says:

    Loved the 1936 shot. The quicktime view ruined it for me.

  4. Peter Hanley says:

    I wouldn’t have a problem with the digital signage following the original use (advertising the businesses in the building), but if it could be used as a generic billboard I hope the commission shoots it down – the last thing we need is more liquor and casino ads downtown.

  5. Joseph says:

    I like the artsy bottom two. I hate beyond hatred the Eagles and Coke ones. But, I’d take it if they’ll occasionally do something interesting. We are trying to improve Market Street’s interestingness, right?

  6. I wont grow up says:

    Do we have to lose everything in Philly to the crass and commercial? This is a terrible idea, this is one of the greatest architectural wonders of the 19th century. Do we have to muck it up with more crap?
    Have you walked thru center city lately? NO ONE and I mean NO ONE looks up. They are too busy looking down as to not trip over trash, a vagrant or worse things laying on the sidewalk. Lets get real, do not allow this building by yet another tasteless assault on our senses. Next thing you know, the sign will be blasting music and other advertisements.

    1. Veillantif says:

      What do you care about the sign, if you’re never looking up?

    2. thesestreets says:

      Love the building, but one of the greatest architectural wonders of the 19th century is a bit of a stretch. This is on par with the Eiffel Tower?

      I say go for it. Market East needs some livening up.

  7. Steve Ives says:

    Not down at all with signage on The Lit Building. I have a hard time picturing any appropriate facade east of 8th Street for that – not even the “McDonald’s” mural wall on 8th. 12th to 8th is where it really ought to be located.

    As for The Lit, accent lighting for that facade is what would really make it stand out.

  8. coz says:

    WOW, Lit Brothers.

    I remember the enchanted village and the great food at the “jefferson room”

    do I feel old lol

  9. Steve Stofka says:

    The Lit Bros. sign homage works.

    None of the other ones do.

  10. John Andrew Gallery says:

    Why does the article say the Historical Commission is expected to approve this? Are you implying that this is a foregone conclusion? Why not encourage your readers to express their views directly to the Commission and see if what impact that might have.

    1. The Historical Commission can be contacted by: 215.686.7660.

  11. Mary Tracy says:

    I didn’t realize just how tacky blazing digital advertising signage will be on the rooftop of this beautiful historic building until I saw these renderings. Kudos to the Historic Commission’s Architectural Committee for not recommending digital advertising signs be erected there. I hope that a majority of the Historic Commission will honor their responsibilities to the public to safeguard the integrity of Philadelphia’s historic buildings. The Commission should soundly reject this proposal to brand Philadelphia’s public space and iconic, landmark, historic architecture with eye-popping corporate messages.

  12. Arman Chowdhury says:

    This article has failed to mention that the commission had indeed approved the façade lighting scheme, a lesser version of what you see in the last two images, where you do not have the lighting of the crowning top floor and the accentuation of the pilasters. However the light grazing of the façade from 2nd floor upwards and bay window accentuation does stay. It is with bemusement that I read the negative comments for this article, it seems they are the collective voice of ‘Ellisworth Toohey’ in the book ‘ Fountain Head’_ voices that hinder progress, the critiques who cannot practice. Those who have expressed support they are the progressive ones, and here is a quick break down of why I say so. Pay attention, for this kind of verdict has immense significance to the neighborhood conditions of north and south Philly.
    The historic ‘LIT Brothers’ has been a commercial building ever since its inception. Purpose of commercial buildings are to have signage, that is the purpose of their existence. Otherwise they are not commercial buildings. The proposal for the current signage was made after thorough and meticulous research work. For 90% of life of this building, it had the signage Lit Brothers a great store in a great city on a story high Chain Link based above the cornice of the building. The lettering was done in Gold color. Now Why Chain Link ? Why Gold Coloring? Because these people who were doing this knew what they were doing. They were not half mules. You see the chain link would almost disappear when perceived from the street level. And the gold lettering is the best contrast you get against the blue of the sky!
    Now this is what was being brought back in the proposal. Instead of the regular chain link it would be the media mesh , same density if not less intrusive but with LED’s that would bring the letterings back to life. And when turned off it disappears! And you can change the content to whatever you deem appropriate and how often you deem appropriate. This would be done in between showing of the lettering ‘ Great Stores in a great city’. Remember a commercial building has to advertise, otherwise they wouldn’t exist and it was proposed that we have a 2012 technology infusion, because this is not only a historic building , this building also ‘Lives today’, amongst us within our time. People have commented of Crassness of the content or that it would look like a jumbo tron. Nothing can be further than the truth. With the media mesh you can never go wrong , because you can change the content to your liking. Imagine time on the mesh is dedicated to civic messaging, commemorating historic events throughout the year, dedicated messaging for the Independence Mall. Imagine clips of the statues of the fore fathers at the top of the cornice, all of a sudden they start to move and Ben franklin walks over from his statue niche to that of George Washington’s , to discuss some serious matter. It does not have to be signage of Coca cola or that of a casino, you don’t like it you can turn it off and you will a have screen that disappears against the backdrop of the sky, unlike the Jumbo tron.
    In the beginning of the meeting, the commission stated they will not or have the jurisdiction to rule on the content of the media mesh, although it was exactly that, based upon which they denied the motion (close call 2 against 3). What contradiction! Most did not have any problem bringing the media mesh as it was so Historically. It was also proposed to the panel a mockup of 12’ x 12’ would be put up at the top of the building and they would be invited to perceive and cast away any doubt of the transparency and density of the mesh, to which the panel had no decisive response (why not?)

    Now why am I writing so much on this? This is not a simple case of validity of Media mesh being used on a historic building or not, it is much more than that. You see, a building , a city is just like any living organism. It has to be allowed to evolve. Otherwise it will become stagnant and stifle the life out of it. There are two kind of Historic preservationist, the ones who fail to see the ever-changing need of ‘context’, these are the people who are void of creativity and fail to grasp how to tackle the issue at hand, because the issues are most difficult. Thus they have one solution: rope off or cordon off architecture. And there the people who are ahead of the curve , people with vision & creativity who will see preservation as revitalization. Look at London or Milan. Fashion capitals of the world! These cities are far more historically entrenched and have heritages far deeper than that of Philadelphia, yet you will see modern intervention done taste fully to their old buildings, because they are not afraid to tackle the context and are creative enough to do so.
    ‘Cordon off/ rope off’ preservationist are responsible for a lot of woes to the buildings in this city. How many buildings and towers in north Philly have been abandoned by their owners and their business because they were not allowed to upgrade the window pane/frame, make alterations for new HVAC systems or changes to the elevator core/car? How many of these buildings in north Philly has been boarded up because they were not allowed their due alterations? And then the neighborhood goes south literally and then it is the same preservationist who shed crocodile tears and asks why such has happened. Well guess what, you are responsible for the demise of the neighborhood !!
    The Lit Brothers building will loose tenancy in the future if it is not allowed to upgrade. Who will then take responsibility for its up keep? The commission ? the tax payer? In this economic climate?
    Thank you for reading and for those who have understood what I have said here, then thank you for listening.

  13. Ben Leech says:

    For anyone with two cents to spare, the Preservation Alliance has posted a video rendering of the proposal and are soliciting comments in advance of the Historical Commission vote on September 14th:

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