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Replicating Historic Marquee Proves Paramount Task

Find out how designers incorporated new technologies in a historic sign.

By Jennifer LeClaire

The Paramount Theater opened in 1927 with a marquee that was typical of other Midtown Manhattan signage of its day. The sign was made from steel and covered with bronze ornamentation. The message on the marquee was spelled out with letters that were changed by hand.

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  • Photos courtesy of Architectural Molded Composites, Inc. and by Tobin+Parnes Design Enterprises

    The historical signage alerted people in Times Square to new Broadway shows, symphony orchestras and community theater productions until the theater closed in the 1960s. The theatre and the marquee were demolished in 1967, and the theatre space was then filled with offices.

    Today, the site is becoming an entertainment venue again. Paramount Leasehold owns the building. The current tenants ­ WWF New York, Inc. a division of WWF Entertainment ­ funded the historical sign’s replication as part of the owner’s restoration of the landmark building’s historical elements.

    From research and modeling to lighting and technology, project architects and engineers said replicating the original sign was one challenge after another. Designers started from scratch using limited historical photographs and drawings.

    Tobin Parnes Design Enterprises, a full-service architecture and interior design firm in New York City, managed both the replication of the sign and the restoration of the building. The entire building restoration took more than 10 years to complete. The new marquee itself took about 18 months to plan and construct. The marquee will light up in October.

    The First Step
    The first step was conducting research on the original marquee’s specs. The three-sided marquee is 39 feet long, 18 feet deep and 16 feet high at its highest point. The front curved LED sign is about 30 feet long and the side rectangular LED signs are 12 feet long. Each sign is only 4’6” high, a landmark restriction to match the historical marquee signage specifications.

    Since the original marquee was demolished, designers had to blow up old photographs to determine the details of the marquee’s historic elements. New York-based Architectural Molded Composites, Inc., had artists trace over the historical photographs to ensure the finer details were not lost in the replication. Then, they made full-sized clay sculptures and plaster molds of the marquee for designers to examine before molds were made.

    The Red Tape
    Working with the New York City Landmark Commission was a prolonged challenge in replicating the historic sign. Purists on the Landmark Commissions often push for exact replications ­ right down to the materials involved. But Tobin & Parnes had ideas for bringing the epic sign into the 21st century using new materials and technologies.

    The commission initially rejected the idea to use LED technology in 1996, but later approved the concept as more signs in the surrounding area started incorporating LEDs.

    “A hand placed sign would have been out of place,” said Robert Parnes, an architect and principal of the firm, “and too cumbersome for the tenant to make updates several times a day.”

    The Materials
    The marquee was constructed with fiberglass-reinforced plastic, or FRP, that has bronze metal bonded into it. Andrea Dibner, a Senior Associate and Senior Project Manager with Tobin and Parnes, says the FRP was sealed so that it would not age. They chose the material for its flexibility, durability and long-life span.

    From a maintenance perspective, the sign is completely waterproof ­ it can be cleaned with a pressure washer. And the marquee itself houses all the equipment necessary to run the sign, facilitating the diagnosis and repair of any elements of the sign.

    Continued Below

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    The Historical Details
    The next challenge was blending history with technology. The three faces of the marquee use the most up-to-date LED technology available. Currently, it is the only sign of its kind in the world.

    Multimedia Signage Inc. in California manufactured the signage that boasts the highest resolution ever achieved. The LED pixels and cells have a .45 pitch. The highest resolution before this sign was created was .75 pitch.

    “In order to get TV quality resolution on these screens we needed to go with that .45 pitch, otherwise the resolution would only give you a clear image of someone from their shoulders to the top of their head,” said Ms. Dibner. “Using the .45 pitch we can get almost the whole person in there.”

    But how do you use technology without distracting from the historical detail of the sign? It was something that many were not sure could be achieved using LED technology because the sign curved up and down. But the Landmark Commission demanded that the sign’s original curvature be replicated.

    The solution: using very small diodes and arranging them to match the curve. The result: any image on the sign curves with the curvature of the marquee with no distortion, another requirement of the Landmark Commission.

    The LED Systems
    This took some doing on the part of the LED designers. LED systems are typically made in square modules. Multimedia Signage had to create special modules ­ which were approximately 1-1/2 to 2 inches in width and six to eight inches in height ­ in order to produce the historic curve.

    “The module had to be much thinner in order to allow the curve to look very smooth and to follow the curve that was defined by the decorative elements of the marquee,” said Dibner.

    All the LED systems are self-contained. Maintenance workers could pull out those signs without affecting the decorative elements, also called the surround. Further, the surround is independent of the signage so if technology improves the sign can be upgraded without damaging the marquee.

    All the fiber optic light drivers and LED boards are hooked up to separate DMX systems. That allows operators to preprogram how the lights will work. Each box is about 2-2 1/2 feet wide. The LED modules are on the face of the door. The doors swing open to a box with all the electronics that run each section. There is even an integrated HVAC system that feeds and cools the signs.

    The Fiber Optics
    Another challenge was the lighting itself. The marquee originally used incandescent “G” lamps. Tobin and Parnes and Image Lighting, Inc., the project lighting consultant, were tasked with finding a way to disperse the light so that it resembles a “G” lamp when people are standing underneath it. Fibre Light US, a Genlyte Thomas Company, in Union, New Jersey, manufactured the fiber optic lighting.

    “We used a custom designed fiber optics system,” said Dibner. “The system uses acrylic bulbs made from two elements. These are solid acrylic frosted bulbs with a special insert piece. When the fiber optics hits that insert piece it disperses the light similar to that of the original “G” lamps. The fiber optic light drivers have the ability to dispense four different colors of light.

    “We went with five fibers per bulb to get the right amount of light and to give the right amount of flexibility for the DMX system to control the lights,” she said. “To chase the lights, to flash the lights, to change colors rapidly, all hinged on many very technical aspects of the fiber optics systems.”

    There are more than 2,000 bulbs on the marquee and approximately 50 light drivers. Each driver feeds about 40 bulbs, so if a driver goes out it only takes 40 lights with it.

    “If we went with the historic incandescent lighting, the actual energy loads would have been immense,” said Dibner. “The maintenance issues would have been a large concern because the bulbs will run 24-7.”

    The Paramount Theater marquee is a strong example of historical design with modern technology. The lighted sign is reminiscent of days gone by, an era when Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey performed at the Paramount. But the technological enhancements have brought new life to a Times Square landmark.

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