RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
The old McCully Chop Sui neon sign at the corner of South King and McCully streets was relit last night.
McCully Chop Sui sign shines again
Sign of old Hawaii times is rekindled
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As the sun began to sink below the horizon, the McCully Chop Sui sign lit up again at the corner of McCully and South King streets.
Carolyn and Mark Blackburn -- owners of Mauna Kea Galleries, which moved into the former McCully Chop Sui space early last year -- had been rallying to keep the sign in its original shape and form.
Yesterday evening marked their victory following a yearlong effort to obtain a variance that allowed the sign to stay up despite being in violation of current city codes.
Carolyn Blackburn said community support, even from the Outdoor Circle, best known for ridding the state of billboards, helped make it happen.
She is also hoping to start a movement in which other parts of the community can help keep historic signs in place -- especially as more and more local landmarks become history.
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The McCully Chop Sui sign came to light again yesterday evening, marking the end of a yearlong battle to preserve the longtime community landmark.
Mauna Kea Galleries owners Carolyn and Mark Blackburn, who took over the space formerly occupied by McCully Chop Sui at 2005 S. King St. early last year, had rallied to keep it.
The history of the place was one of the reasons they chose the spot when moving their vintage art and memorabilia gallery from the Big Island to Honolulu.
"That was part of the charm," said Blackburn. "We advertise 'Mauna Kea Galleries at the historic Chop Sui.' Everyone knows where it is, and that's why we took the location."
"McCully Chop Sui, a family business dating back to the 1940s, closed its doors at the end of 2006.
To the Blackburns' dismay, the city informed them that the outdoor sign, legal when the restaurant opened more than 57 years ago, was in violation of current city rules.
Also, because the sign did not match their business name, they were in violation of city codes.
Now they have obtained the right to not only keep the sign, but to light it up again -- which called for a celebration yesterday evening.
"It is, indeed, historic," Blackburn told the Star-Bulletin. "It has value to the people in the state of Hawaii."
"An upwelling of community support helped make it possible. Stories about McCully Chop Sui poured in from all over the world, she said, with people saying they wanted the sign to stay.
"We just think it's important to keep historical landmarks," said Blackburn, "especially now, too, with Aloha Airlines disappearing."
"The city has rules that outdoor signs are not supposed to project more than 15 inches from the building or exceed a height of 20 feet -- and it also said the sign was not considered historic unless it was on the national or state registry of historic places.
In order to keep the sign, the Blackburns had to apply for a variance, which required a public hearing.
The application process also required reams of documentation, including aerial shots of the building as well as research on similar hardship cases.
Community support came from the local neighborhood board, the Old Town Moiliili Business Association and the Outdoor Circle, a nonprofit best known for ridding the state of billboards.
"We really thought the sign represented more than just being a sign," said Mary Steiner, CEO of the Outdoor Circle. "It brings people back to the neighborhood and brings them back to remembering earlier days."
"Steiner said she did not consider the sign as advertising, but one that brings a sense of place to the community.
The McCully/Moiliili Neighborhood Board also voted last May to support keeping the sign intact, according to Chairman Ron Lockwood.
"We supported it because we're trying to bring more life and vibrancy to the neighborhood," said Lockwood. "It's a neat old sign -- that's the bottom line."
"Lockwood said as more and more longtime local businesses disappear, some group needs to be formed to track historic signs in town, which is not really undertaken by the Historic Hawai'i Foundation.
"What are our historical signs, and how do we preserve them at a faster pace than this one-year pace?" he said. "We preserve old buildings. What about old signs?"
"Blackburn said she is hoping to help others navigate the process in which one can keep a historic sign.
The Varsity, a restaurant and bar that replaced Magoo's Pizza on University Avenue, for instance, requested the old "Varsity Theatre" sign after its structure was recently demolished across the street, and is interested in putting it up again.
Restoring the McCully Chop Sui sign, was, nevertheless, a costly undertaking.
Blackburn estimates she spend at least $10,000 for architectural renderings, fees, electricians and a sign restoration specialist to light up the McCully Chop Sui sign again.