The lights in the iconic Choo Choo sign that towers over the hotel as the southern flank of the downtown skyline have been off for months as hotel officials weigh the future of a 44-year-old neon landmark.
Choo Choo President Adam Kinsey said he considers a decision about the sign's future to be part of an ongoing renovation process that has brought restaurants, businesses and the Passenger Flats apartments to the complex.
"We do know how significant it is to the skyline of Chattanooga," Kinsey said. "But right now, rather than having it on and having some of the lights work and some not work, it's better to just leave it off while we tackle the best way to move forward with it."
The move has led curious Southside residents like Dave Hurd to wonder: Where did the lights go?
"Anybody you talk to has the same view," said Hurd, who can see the sign from his Southside Flats apartment. "I'm not a longtime Southside resident, but I've been coming to Chattanooga my whole life and the sign has always been there. I feel like I've been watching it die over the last few months. It's not the same when it's not on at night."
The sign features roughly 50 transformers and requires a harrowing ladder climb, especially for workers hauling gear for a repair.
"The transformers, a lot of them are very old and difficult to get to," Kinsey said. "They're hard to work on."
Lighting technology has progressed since the sign's grand unveiling in 1972 as the once-bustling train terminal was transformed into a hotel, and those with the necessary expertise to repair aging neon signs have become harder to find.
Ortwein Signs co-owner Jim Teal would like for his company to get a chance to rebuild the sign in a way that makes it easier to service in the future. The company, which still specializes in neon, built the sign all those years ago and has performed maintenance on it since. Ortwein also built the Songbirds sign that graces the Choo Choo, as well as signs for many other Southside businesses, including Mean Mug, Clyde's on Main and Stir.
"I think they have a rebuild on their horizon, but obviously that's a pretty significant expense to undertake," said Teal. "I don't know where that is on their horizon, but we've certainly discussed it."
If the Choo Choo were adding the sign to the building today, Kinsey said, it would be done much differently than 40 years ago.
The neon elements of the Songbirds sign are enclosed in a metal box with a clear plastic face to protect the glass, where the Choo Choo sign's neon is exposed, making it subject to the weather, Teal explained.
An LED sign is an option and would be easier to maintain, but it might not feature the same vintage appeal of the original sign.
"That's a huge piece of it," Kinsey said. "A lot of people say, 'Hey, why don't you just go do an LED sign?' Well, there are a lot of pros to neon versus LED. And there are a lot of pros the other way, as well. But you absolutely look at the historical significance of the sign and keep that in mind."
Email David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.