CRAIG T. KOJIMA / STAR-BULLETIN
The owners of Mauna Kea Galleries want to keep the neon McCully Chop Sui sign, but the city says it is violating rules. CLICK FOR LARGE
New owners fight to keep old McCully Chop Sui sign intact
The city says the new owners might have to take it down
For some, it's a community landmark, while for others it's just an old sign that needs to go.
The city says that the McCully Chop Sui sign at 2005 S. King St. must come down because the space is now occupied by a different kind of business, Mauna Kea Galleries. Also, the sign does not have appropriate permits.
But gallery owners Carolyn and Mark Blackburn are fighting to restore the 57-year-old sign and keep it exactly where it is.
Carolyn Blackburn said she wants to restore it to its former red and green neon glory, and light it up at night. She says the sign, which was put up before the city rules were even in place, should be grandfathered in -- especially because of its connection to the storied restaurant.
But she is facing an uphill battle.
It's been four months since Mauna Kea Galleries has taken over the space of the former McCully Chop Sui on South King Street.
And while the vintage art gallery gives the space new life, it also wants to retain the site's last remaining link to old Hawaii -- the 57-year-old neon "McCully Chop Sui" sign. Yet it is facing an uphill battle.
Owners Carolyn and Mark Blackburn want to restore and keep the sign. They're prepared to shell out more than $5,000 for a neon specialist to refurbish it.
But city rules on outdoor business signs have put some obstacles in their way.
The first: Getting permission to keep up a sign that says McCully Chop Sui when they run a business called Mauna Kea Galleries.
The second: Getting a city permit for the sign, which predates many of the rules and regulations in place today.
Carolyn Blackburn said that an inspector from the city Department of Planning and Permitting told her two months ago the sign violates city regulations, and that she would have to take it down or be fined.
Art Challacombe, chief of customer service for the department, said the agency hasn't issued a formal notice of violation yet.
But he added that the sign of a former business cannot remain if the use of the space has changed, as in the case of Mauna Kea Galleries.
"It's no longer McCully Chop Sui," said Challacombe.
McCully Chop Sui, a longtime family business, closed its doors at the end of the last year after its lease expired.
Even if the sign is considered a local point of reference by the community, it's not considered historic by the city unless it is listed on either the national or state registry of historic places.
"Just because it's old doesn't mean it's historic," said Challacombe.
Signs are also not supposed to project more than 15 inches from the building wall, nor exceed a height of 20 feet or the building's third floor. The McCully sign is not up to code.
Challacombe said that Mauna Kea Galleries could seek a variance in order to keep the McCully sign up, but granting it would not be automatic.
Blackburn said she's pursuing every avenue she can.
"I think we owe it to the people of Hawaii and to all the people that had memories of the place to keep it," she said. "It's not just me, it's everyone that you talk to."
Mauna Kea Galleries, a 13-year-old vintage art store, is relocating to McCully from Kamuela on the Big Island. It plans to hold a grand opening on May 5.
The gallery sells everything from art pieces to vintage aloha shirts, koa furniture pieces, surfboards and items belonging to Duke Kahanamoku -- as well as a wooden sign collection from some of Hawaii's longtime businesses.
That is part of the reason preserving the McCully Chop Sui sign is so important to her, she said.
Driving around Honolulu, many of Hawaii's old landmarks are still in place -- take the Pan Am building, for instance, the Waikiki 3 Theatre, and Wo Fat building in Chinatown.
The 1936 Waikiki 3 Theatre is now a retail center, and home to the Foot Locker and California Pizza Kitchen. The Robertson Properties Group, how- ever, refurbished the theater sign and reinstalled it.
Waikiki, which is a special district, and Chinatown, a historic district, all have their own set of rules. McCully, however, is subject to regular city and county rules. And the Pan Am building remains in use as office space, albeit not by its namesake airline.
Blackburn is not giving up. She's rallying support from the neighborhood board as well as community groups.
So far, she has at least one group on her side.
Mary Steiner, Outdoor Circle's chief executive, said it supports keeping the sign in place.
"The Outdoor Circle believes that the law exists for a good reason," she said, "but we also believe there should be allowances for community landmarks such as that sign."