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Bright Lights Nostalgia

A few months ago I went on a hunt in Toronto for “ghost signs” – those painted advertisements on the sides of buildings from the first half of the 1900’s – and  also for old, interesting storefront signage. I managed to find some interesting subjects for future paintings, and then the next day, I remembered our city, Oakville, has a vintage sign downtown.

#163 – Vintage Sign, Oakville

No longer in use, this neon hotel sign sits atop a building at Lakeshore and Thomas Street. The hotel it advertised is no longer there, but the sign remains, paint peeling, rust taking over, and neon bulbs missing – check out the dangerous dangle on the “D” bulb in “FOOD”! I have no connection to the prior hotel or ever seeing the sign lit up as I’m newer to the city, but I have a very strong nostalgic connection to signs exactly like this one. It’s these childhood memories that inspired me to paint this Oakville landmark.

I grew up in a city that was full of these eclectic 1950’s neon motel signs – Cornwall, Ontario. Every day on my way to elementary school, I would walk past 2 of them. I would see various cars with strange license plates in their parking lots and wonder about the people visiting our city. I wished that I could see inside the rooms – as a kid, it seemed like such an exotic thing, to stay in a motel. I only got to see these signs brightly lit up when we went to a nighttime school concert, and I thought they added such dazzle and sophistication to our neighbourhood.

Motels On The Way To School (photos courtesy of

But most of the city’s dazzle was on “Motel Row”, with motel after motel and their elaborate neon signs.  I often saw them at night, because the A&W Drive-In restaurant was on this street (yes, the ones with the carhops and window trays; yes, I’m kinda old) and it was our special supper treat place. After a burger and root beer, we’d leisurely drive up and down the street looking at the lights, take a turn at the Hydro Dam and come home. I loved these signs, and I’d especially be on the lookout for the one named after my Mom (can you find it below?).  This was our own little Vegas strip!

Motels on the Way to A&W (photos courtesy of

Today all of these vintage neon signs are gone, and if the motel is still there, today’s sign is practical and boring. Aren’t these vintage signs far more interesting? Wouldn’t they make you smile?

And so with my latest miniature painting, I honour the bygone days of those Beacons of Neon flashing through the darkness, beckoning weary travellers to eat “Delicious Food” and rest their weary heads for the night!

2.5″ x 3.5″ ink and watercolour

(Available August 5th at Oakville Art In The Park or online at my Shop page)

2 replies »

    • I always marvelled at how the A&W servers carried trays with those heavy root beer glass mugs! You must have had great arm muscles, Darlene! As a kid, I could barely hold that mug. I kept worrying I was going to drop it and make a backseat mess!

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