Early 20th century sign restored in Savannah
by Gale Baldwin
Savannah Morning News
December 16, 2012 12:57 AM | 998 views | 1 1 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SAVANNAH — The old sign had been hanging at the corner of Gwinett and Habersham at least since the 1920s, first leading passersby to “Leopold’s Purest Ice Cream,” then painted over later to advertise the “Wash House” laundromat on the building’s first floor.

It lasted until the middle of this century’s first decade when a windstorm took the sign down. Mary Leopold, who was in Savannah at the time, got a call about the sign and made arrangements for it to be taken to the dump.

Before it got that far, though, she called her husband, movie producer Stratton Leopold, who was in California to let him know the sign had fallen, and he asked her to have the truck turn around and deliver the sign to their house where it was stored in their garage.

And there it sat — until a few months ago.

Stratton Leopold was meeting with Savannah Technical College President Kathy Love and other college staff members to plan the Opportunity Award Gala sponsored by the Savannah Technical College Foundation, which planned to recognize Leopold as its 2012 Opportunity Award recipient on Dec. 7.

The event honors deserving civic leaders for a lifetime of service in creating and enhancing opportunities for others to succeed and serves as a fundraiser for the foundation.

During the planning session, Leopold told the story of the original Leopold’s sign and mentioned he would like to find a way to use it again.

Love asked whether Leopold would like to have the sign restored by the school’s historic preservation department.

He said yes, visited the historic preservation lab at the Savannah campus, began making plans to have the sign delivered and was involved each step of the way to approve paint colors and sign design in the course of the restoration.

The ice cream shop at Gwinett and Habersham opened in 1919 and closed in 1969 shortly after its founders, Peter and George Leopold, died. Stratton Leopold then rented the bottom floor to a laundromat called the “Wash House,” whose operators painted over the ice cream sign.

The sign had been damaged several times, Leopold said, and he has a photo from the 1930s that shows damage to the sign, as well as trees down on Gwinnett Street.

“I can recall damage during a hurricane when I was little,” he said. “After Wash House moved out, the sign actually fell off of the building because, I suppose, of the rotted wood on the second story. We thank goodness no one was harmed.”

In the first step of the renovation process, students removed layers of paint using tools such as tweezers.

Then, the damaged sign’s bent arm and rust holes were repaired with help from Savannah Tech welding students.

While damage was being repaired, historic preservation students created a template of the original sign with help from architect Steven Stowers, who “exploded” letters to create the template. Historic preservation students then used phosphoric acid for an acid wash after repairs were complete.

The phosphoric acid also acts as a first coat rust inhibitor, said Stephen Hartley, head of the Historic Preservation Department.

“Once we put the acid wash on, all of the original Leopold’s letter appeared, but disappeared again when the acid dried,” Hartley said.

The letters were visible just long enough for students to get a tracing and confirm there was an apostrophe on “Leopold’s.”

Students then painted primer on the sign before the template was traced, cut, transferred onto the sign and painted. Finally, Doug Bean Signs installed neon lighting.

Normally, Savannah Tech’s Historic Preservation Department only works for certified nonprofits to avoid competing with local companies.

“Given Stratton’s commitment to the college and his overall excitement that we could potentially bring his old sign back to life, we couldn’t turn this down,” Hartley said.

The restored sign’s coming out party took place Friday night at Savannah Tech when it was presented to Leopold during the Opportunity Gala that drew more than 300 people, including Leopold’s friend, actor James Cromwell, who’s known for his appearances in “Babe” and “The Green Mile,” among other movies.

So what will happen to the sign?

“Thanks to Historic Savannah and the staff at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, the sign will be returned to its place on Gwinnett and Habersham,” he said. “We plan to add two bands of neon around the sides of the building, also from the 1930s.”

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tamika hilson
January 03, 2013
I remember seeing that sign when I used to visit savannah back in 1998. I was 15 and for some reason that sign always stood out to me. That sign is a landmark of Savannah's history and its great that the students at Tech was able to give back.
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