LINCOLN — Following a complete restoration, the iconic sign that once marked the The Tropics restaurant in Lincoln will return to its longtime location along historic Route 66.
“All systems are go,” said Todd Bringuet, one of seven family members employed at the family-owned Ace Sign Company in Springfield, where the sign was sent to be restored. “The restoration portion is complete and we are just about ready to go.”
A grand re-lighting event is scheduled for June 24 near Woodlawn Road and Lincoln Parkway, said Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Tropics Legacy Campaign Committee.
“In addition to preserving an important piece of Lincoln and Logan County’s Route 66 history, the restored Tropics sign will be used to promote and market other Route 66-related attractions in Lincoln,” he said.
The restaurant was opened in 1950 by Vince Schwenoha, after he served in Hawaii during World War II. There, he was inspired to open a restaurant, name it The Tropics, and design a logo which included a neon palm tree. About five years later, Schwenoha sold the restaurant to two employees, Lewis and Beverly Johnson.
The Johnsons remodeled the restaurant, adding a coffee shop, short-order eating area and a dining room with a “South Seas” cocktail lounge in between. The dining room was decorated with tropical scenes and plants. It became a favorite stop for tourists on Route 66 and, after changing ownership, closed for good in 2004.
In 2016, The Tropics was inducted into the Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame. After sitting vacant for 10 years, the property was purchased for the construction of a McDonald's restaurant.
While the building could not be saved, a public/private partnership was put in place among the city of Lincoln, the Logan County Tourism Bureau and the Johnson family to preserve and restore the sign.
“It is kind of a cocoon in a way,” Bringuet said. “It’s a fresh sign, but we were able to keep a lot of the old components and keep it as original as possible. In a project like this, originality and keeping the historical perspective is so important.”
The Bringuet family is familiar with the sign. Todd’s grandfather, Joe, worked on the sign over the years.
“We didn’t create the sign, but we serviced it a lot,” Todd said.
Joe was involved in some of the restoration work as well. He helped with painting the lettering and provided guidance to the younger workers at Ace who were not so familiar with neon tube lighting.
“We are all very proud of this project and it means a lot to us,” Todd Bringuet said.
Fundraising for the $70,000 needed will continue through Friday, added Thomas. Specific donation information is available from the Logan County Tourism Bureau at (217) 732-8687.
“We’re very close to hitting that goal and if we go over, then we will use that for maintenance on the sign,” he said.
Because of an agreement reached several years ago, the Logan County Tourism Bureau will have ownership of the 4,200-pound sign.