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How is it that Bayer has an enormous neon sign on Mount Washington, perhaps the most coveted of Pittsburgh advertising settings? Are others barred from erecting advertising there?

Question submitted by: Mark Skuta

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We Pittsburghers carry around little maps inside us, maps that don't describe a place so much as a time. They chart the things used to be here, the signs that used to guide us.

Your sign is a case in point. The massive (30 feet tall, 226 feet wide) neon billboard predates Bayer, and even the laws that govern where signs can go.

For those who grew up here in the 1970s and '80s, it will always be the "Alcoa sign," no matter whose logo it carries today. (The upside for Bayer, of course, is that its sign will have a similar effect on Pittsburghers today.) It's one of a slew of neon signs that once gilt the city's night skyline. The North Side had the Clark candy bar and the Westinghouse "W"s; the South Side boasted the old Stroh's clock and the electric-blue logo of J&L. But the Bayer sign outlasted them all.

The sign's early history is a bit sketchy. News accounts I've dug up date it back to the 1950s, but Ken Freeman of Lamar Advertising, which owns the sign, says it dates to the 1920s. There were, however, "periods in the early days when it lay dormant," Freeman says, which may explain the discrepancy.

What is certain is that the sign had sponsors long before Alcoa. (Which surprised me, a bit: It's unsettling to realize that your internal map of Pittsburgh is laid on top of someone else's too.) During the 1950s Iron City used the billboard, and Channel 4 used it after that.

From between 1967 and 1992, the sign was the preserve of Alcoa. The aluminum giant turned the sign's background into a gray-and-white pattern that, when looked at closely, spelled the name "Pittsburgh" in a blocky mosaic. Due to weathering, the effect is less visible today ... although like many other things in Pittsburgh, it's there if you know to look for it.

Bayer has sponsored the site since 1993, and with good reason. What makes the spot so desirable is not just its visibility but its exclusivity. The city's zoning code, which strives to "preserve and perpetuate uncluttered and natural views for the enjoyment and environmental enrichment of the citizens," bars any more such signs from being built on Mount Washington. (The Bayer sign was grandfathered in, says city Planning Director Pat Ford.)

You can certainly see the reason for limiting such signage: Imagine the crest of Mount Washington lined with billboards. And we've long had a love/hate affair with neon signs. As a March 1980 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article put it, "These days ... neon signs are as popular among conservationists as Cadillacs. ... A couple of years ago, in the flush of our new-found energy awareness, the signs were turned off for month during a power shortage."

But this particular sign has been around for so long that it's a landmark itself. "It's a part of Pittsburgh now," Freeman says. "When I was a child, we'd come to Pittsburgh and visit family in the East End. It was one of the signs you looked for coming back down Bigelow Boulevard."

Another reason to be charitable toward Bayer's sign is that it charitably advertises something other than itself. As in the Alcoa era, Bayer's ads alternate with plugs for local nonprofit groups. (If only everyone were so magnanimous, we might not need zoning laws. As an Aloca staffer told the Post-Gazette in 1980, "Every once in a while I'll get a call from a saloon, maybe in Braddock, with a suggestion for what to put on the sign -- usually including some four-letter words.")

But there's a final reason why this sign has survived when so many others haven't, in a place where no other sign is allowed. Unlike many other ads, the Bayer sign is not an intrusion on the present, but a reminder of our past. If you're like me, you find modern-day billboards somewhat obnoxious ... while billboards in old photos always look quaintly ingenuous or naïve. Somehow, the decades-old Bayer sign still retains that nostalgic patina, even though I see it every day.

This sign, in other words, points in two directions at once ... one of those rare places where the world matches the maps we carry inside.

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