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Historic Red Lion neon sign returns to Grand Rapids' west side in time for ArtPrize

Posted at 6:33 AM, Sep 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-21 06:41:44-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The iconic Grand Rapids restaurant Red Lion is remembered as more than a place to dine, but a gathering place for all on the city's west side.

While the red lion hasn't made a comeback, its iconic vintage neon sign has.

The vintage sign, posted near Swift Printing on Bridge Street, shines like it's new but really this is a homecoming, nearly two decades in the making.

The Red Lion was a West Side staple owned by the Koukios family but closed in 2004.

Over the years, the Red Lion building sold and was eventually torn down.

Today, the significance behind the neon-lit letters is a reflection (or in this case a sign) of what the West Side is all about - community and family.

"I really think what the sign is doing is connecting all generations together," said Jessica Gutowski Slaydon, president of Swift Printing and organizer behind the Red Lion neon sign comeback. "Not only allowing us to reflect on our history, but also to move forward and glancing back and remembering where we all came from."

West sider, Jessica Gutowski Slaydon says as a kid she remembers eating at the Red Lion a few times, but mostly remembers her dad and grandpa grabbing four "Red Lion dogs" and bringing them back to their family business Swift Printing.

Her father, Walt Gutowski, former Grand Rapids city commissioner and developer, bought the Red Lion building and has held onto the sign ever since.

"The greatest thing about, really the restaurant and what it symbolizes is - community, welcoming, and hospitality," said Walt Gutowski, former Grand Rapids city commissioner and developer. "You could sit in that restaurant, and a multimillionaire can sit right next to a guy on hard times, and everybody celebrate each other. I think that is the real fabric of the west side and it continues today."

It's those memories that make up their family's West Side pride and fueled the Red Lion neon sign comeback.

"My parents bought the building where the sign was probably 20 years ago," said Gutowski Slaydon. "When they sold the property to a new developer, there was one non-negotiable and it was like we need to keep the sign. But we knew once we took it down, we couldn't get it back up. So the plan was alright, let's take it down. And we'll figure a way to get it back up."

It took about ten years of working with the city to create and pass a "vintage sign ordinance" to allow the signs display.

During that time restoration work was underway, where little by little Valley City Signs worked to modernize the vintage sign for a new generation.

"Looking at this from the community standpoint, and what Bridge Street has done for my family and for the community at large, we're just so excited to be able to see the sign back up in action for everyone to be able to enjoy it," said Gutowski Slaydon.

The Red Lion vintage sign is displayed on Bridge Street in the parking lot near Swift Printing.

The Red Lion vintage neon sign is also a submission in this year's ArtPrize contest.

Neon signs are a dying art and are increasingly becoming rarer.

Those behind the Red Lion revival are hoping this sign will be the first of many neon signs to be revived in the city, under the new vintage sign ordinance, which was passed earlier in September.

To learn more about the sign's submission in ArtPrize, click here.