Restored Red Lion neon illuminates Bridge Street history, family

Community

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sitting in 7-feet of concrete held nearly three stories in the air on a 14-foot steel pole and lighted with 200 new LED bulbs and bent neon, the vintage Red Lion sign shines once again.

It has been nearly two decades since the iconic sign hung over Bridge Street NW in Grand Rapids. The moment is both a nod to the future and a connection to the past. It is a reflection of family and community.

“It’s definitely been like a layer of onions. I did not know all the cool history of it,” Jessica Gutowski-Slaydon said. “It’s one of those stories where you just keep hearing more and more good.”

Gutowski-Slaydon is the third-generation president at Swift Printing, which has been in business on Bridge Street since the 1950s. It’s just feet away from what used to be the Red Lion. She remembers her father talking about running into the restaurant with her grandfather, grabbing four Red Lion dogs and getting back to work.

“It’s just such a nostalgic, nostalgic place where everyone hung out,” Gutowski-Slaydon said. “I had to keep calling it the great equalizer. Through food, they could connect with anyone. And I think that’s pretty special.”

Connecting with anyone is what Cassandra Koukios’s grandfather was good at. He helped start the Red Lion back in the early 1930s. He’d immigrated from Greece with degrees in chemistry and biology but chased after the American Dream with his Uncle Jim, who had started the original Red Lion nearly 10 years earlier.

“My grandfather was a very tough man, but in a good way. He had a huge personality and he was known for his bow ties,” Koukios said. “He was a visionary in a lot of ways, but family meant everything to him.”

That’s the common thread between Swift Printing and the Red Lion: family and legacy. Family is why his son and Cassandra Koukios’s dad, Matthew, took over the business until it closed in 2004. Family is why Gutowski-Slaydon believes so strongly in Bridge Street and the history of the community that paved the path.

“My great-grandparents, this is where they hung out, in these two blocks right here, Bridge Street. There was a movie theater down the road. My grandpa’s newsstand was actually right at the corner where the Knickerbocker is,” Gutowski-Slaydon said.

She said Bridge Street means as much to her as it does to her father, Walt Gutowski Jr.:

“He really, really believed in the street, because he remembered that it took care of his grandparents, his parents, and he wanted to continue that legacy.”

“They just thought that it was the greatest thing and, you know, they made us all know that it was,” Koukios said of her grandfather and father’s view of Bridge Street and the Red Lion. “They really, really loved the fact that they could be a part of the community. I think that was really important.”

When the Red Lion closed in 2004, Swift Realty, owned by Walt Gutowski Jr. and his wife, bought the property. Gutowski-Slaydon had the foresight to save the massive vintage sign.

“We kept asking, how do we get this up? How do we get this up? And there was some loopholes that you could try to make it happen. But there really was no direct path that guaranteed it to be able to be erected,” Gutowski-Slaydon said.

They went to the city and after some lengthy talks, roadblocks and hurdles, an amendment to the city’s sign ordinance was approved Sept. 19 allowing vintage signs with no ties to open businesses.

“What that does is it allows something of the size and caliber to be able to be erected in the city and is more as a focal part of art. So it’s not like you could connect it with the business or something. It has to be nostalgic and I think that’s exactly what it’s doing,” Gutowski-Slaydon said of the Red Lion sign.

The newly restored Red Lion Sign is installed on Bridge Street NW in Grand Rapids. (Sept. 15, 2021)

For about the last four years, the sign has been undergoing restoration for its return to the West Side. Valley City Signs took great care to make sure it kept the nostalgic originality but made the sign practical for the future. It cleaned and polished the porcelain exterior and replaced the bulbs with 200 new LEDs. It bent new neon and rewired the entire sign. All the parts on the outside are original.

But more importantly for Valley City, it was a chance to work on a unique project.

“We kind of used it as a filler project. So as people didn’t have something else to do in the shop, we’d get them working on it. And we achieved a couple of things with that; everybody can say they touched the sign at some point and helped with it,” Scott Urbane of Valley City Signs said. “But other thing was a lot of these younger guys, we don’t do neon anymore, so they get a feel for it… It’s been a fun project.

Valley City Sign employees next to Red Lion sign they restored.

Everywhere the sign has been, whether it’s the sign shop, the restaurant, or the Swift Printing Parking lot, it has brought people together.

Now, as an ArtPrize entry and a permanent part of Bridge Street, Gutowski-Slaydon hopes it can do the same for West Michigan that it always has: be a sign of family and illuminate the community.

The newly restored Red Lion Sign on Bridge Street NW in Grand Rapids. (Sept. 15, 2021)

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