Restaurateur Jamie Leeds didn’t think it would be a big deal when she decided to change the sign hanging above Hank’s Oyster Bar, her new Dupont Circle eatery. The hulking sign used to flash “SUBMARINES” and “PIZZA” in large, vertical neon letters, with “Trio” spelled out across its bottom edge. In March Leeds submitted permit applications to change the sign, and, in April, she asked George Mallios, her landlord and the owner of Trio Restaurant, whose takeout-pizza shop Hank’s now occupies, for permission to remove the mention of sandwiches and slices, so as not to confuse people looking for Blue Points on the half shell.
“He said, ‘No problem,’” Leeds recalls. “So I took down the letters and painted the façade. And I got a letter the next morning.”
It arrived on April 11, before Leeds had a chance to add letters of her own to the sign. The correspondence, sent to both her and Mallios, noted that Hank’s would soon be part of the Dupont Circle Historic District, thanks to an expansion of the district’s boundaries. The letter implored that Mallios and Leeds “not take advantage of the delayed date of effectiveness to avoid Historic Preservation review,” essentially asking them not to change the sign because there was a possibility that it could soon become a historically important piece of advertising. (The letter writer refused to comment on the matter to the Washington City Paper, citing the sensitivity of the issue.)
The submarine sign is the latest piece of neighborhood kitsch that has been assigned historical value by neighbors decrying the rapid pace of change. Old signs and architectural structures that were deemed eyesores only years ago have suddenly become interesting, quirky touches that infuse city blocks with character. But historical-preservation regulations can be used to save dubious landmarks, some argue.
“I understand that when something is gone, it’s gone forever, and we all want to err on the side of preservation, but we should remember that there’s a fine line between historical preservation and hysterical preservation,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mike Silverstein. Silverstein points to a recent effort to designate a group of Dupont Circle houses as historic on the basis that in the ’20s, they were inhabited by blacks who worked for the neighborhood’s white elite—even though the homeowners themselves disputed the characterization. But any effort to save the Trio sign, he says, is even more ridiculous.“Most reaction has been incredulous that anyone would pursue this. Obviously, if it’s not Trio’s there, why would anyone want to be forced to have up a Trio’s restaurant sign? Occasionally, common sense does prevail—even in our neighborhood.”
Steve Callcott, a preservation planner with the city’s Historic Preservation Office, says that when structures fall within historic districts, changes to their exteriors must be approved by the Historic Preservation Review Board. When the regulations expanding the Dupont Circle Historic District go into effect later this month, Leeds will be required to go through this process for any future changes. But Callcott says that even if the rules had been in place when Leeds decided to change her sign, she wouldn’t necessarily have faced opposition from the board.
“Applied signs really haven’t come up much as an issue,” says Callcott. “The example I think of with historic signs is where a sign is carved into the face of a building and we have to work with property owners on how they could put up a sign for a new tenant without destroying the building.”
In the case of the Trio sign, Callcott suggests that as long as the structure is maintained, the historical value is preserved. “The owner might think about reusing the [base] and modifying it to include ‘Hank’s’ to advertise the new business,” Callcott suggests. “That’s perfectly acceptable.”
As to the provenance of the sign, Mallios, who owns the complex that houses Trio, Trio’s Fox & Hounds, and now Hank’s, says that it’s been posted for 60 or 70 years. “When I opened the pizza shop, it used to say ‘RESTAURANT,’ vertically, all the way down,” Mallios says. “At the bottom, it used to say, ‘Copley Plaza.’ Along the bottom is a square piece: ‘Mixed Drinks.’”
Although he acknowledges that it is a lovely memento of a bygone era, Mallios doesn’t see anything wrong with changing the sign. In fact, he gave it a makeover himself, some 30 years ago. In the ’70s, Mallios changed the “RESTAURANT” to the alternating “SUBMARINES” and “PIZZA” and had “Trio” put at the bottom. “It’s a great sign,” he says.
And when he made the change, there were no complaints from neighbors. “They were just delighted to have a pizza carryout,” he says.
To Leeds and her supporters, the opposition to her decision to change the sign seems to be just another attack on her as an interloper rather than an attempt to save a cherished neon sign. “I really felt it was harassment,” says Leeds, who has also been engaged in a fight with the neighborhood over her liquor license. Leeds signed a voluntary agreement with the Dupont Circle Citizens Association on April 25 to address her restaurant’s capacity, hours, and noise. A group of six neighbors, who live near the restaurant, continued to protest Leeds’ liquor application after she reached an understanding with the association, but they finally relented and signed an agreement with Leeds on May 4.
When Leeds signed the second agreement, she assumed that all of the issues she had been dealing with for the past few months had finally been put to rest and she could open, in peace, toward the end of this month. But she still hasn’t gotten approval for her sign from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is reviewing her permit to modify the sign.
“I don’t know what’s holding it up,” she says.
Leeds is anxious to have a sign advertising her restaurant and notes an irony of the sign scuttlebutt. She looked into having the neon replaced, in order to maintain the look and integrity of the sign. But after having to pay lawyer fees and other costs to battle the neighborhood residents over her liquor license, her budget for such extras was depleted.
“It will probably be stainless-steel block letters with a spotlight on it, for now,” Leeds says. “I can’t do neon, though I will eventually.”CP