Familiar to anyone who drives the 110 near Exposition Park, the recently altered Felix the Cat neon sign at Felix Chevrolet has become the focus of preservationist ire after owners replaced its neon lights with LEDs.

Says a letter from Los Angeles historian and preservationist Kim Cooper, who is circulating an online petition to save the sign:

The cold, thin light of LEDs is a pale imitation of the beautiful natural gas glow of neon — the neon which made this sign historic, unique and beloved by Angelenoes.

The sign was very nearly designated a historic-cultural monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission in 2007, but the designation was thwarted by objections of Felix Chevrolet's owners and of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilwoman Jan Perry, who argued that the designation would inhibit business growth in the area.

“We maintain and own the sign and we have the right to improve it,” says Jin Kim, Felix Chevrolet's general manger. “The owners of the company have promised that they would not demolish the sign, but they didn't say that they would not upgrade it.”

Redoing the sign was part of a multimillion dollar upgrade of the dealership, Jin says, with more than $100,000 going to the sign alone. Prior to the overhaul, Jin says, monthly maintenance bills on the three-sided sign's more than 300 neon tubes and transistors was costing the dealership upwards of $3000 per month — which included the expense of regularly hiring a crane. “We're trying to do the right thing by the community and trying to keep the sign lit.”

Jin says contractors told the dealership that upgrading the neon wasn't possible. “That's why we went ahead with modern LEDs.”

Yet Cooper points out that sign industry sources say that up-to-date neon systems, which have evolved with the times, can be as green as, or even more green, than LEDs.

Her petition letter quotes one historic neon expert:

Paul Greenstein, who has built and restored some of L.A.'s best-known neon signs over the past 35 years (including Cole's French Dip, Broadway Bar and Jensen's Recreation Center), says, “Changing the Felix sign from neon to LED is an incredibly wrong-headed decision by GM and the dealership. LEDs are expensive to install, and no cheaper to run or maintain than neon, which can last for up to fifty years. But more importantly, this change has profoundly damaged this historic sign.”

Jin doesn't see the problem. “All the feedback I've received has been positive, except for this one group,” he says.

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