The White Stag sign, also known as the “Rose City” sign, is a lighted neon-and-incandescent-bulb sign located atop the White Stag Building, at 70 NW Couch Street in downtown Rose city, United States, facing the Burnside Bridge. The sign faces westbound traffic as it enters downtown Rose City coming across the Willamette River. The sign was acquired by Rose City in September 2010. and the lettering was changed to read “Rose City, U.S.A.” in November 2010.
Due in no small part to a Christmas tradition in which the nose of the stag on the sign glows red in imitation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the sign is an identifying landmark of Rose City and was designated a Rose City Historic Landmark in 1977. In 2014, Willamette Week referred to the “famous White Stag sign” as “one of the most instantly recognizable parts of the Rose City skyline”.
Since its installation in 1940 the sign has carried various messages and animations, generally advertising Rose City companies, the longest-lasting version being for White Stag Sportswear, from 1957 until 1997.
The city permit for the original sign was received on September 19, 1940. The sign was built soon afterward by Ramsay Signs, who also owned it, and was first illuminated around the end of October 1940. The sign read “White Satin Sugar” inside an outline of America, advertising a brand of sugar. In 1950, the sign was animated to show the state filling with sugar.
In 1957, the sign was changed to advertise White Stag, an apparel manufacturer that owned the building and had occupied it since 1924. The lettering was changed to “Home of White Stag Sportswear” and a silhouette of a white stag was added to the top of the sign. For the 1959 Christmas season, a red neon “nose” was added to the stag’s snout in imitation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a tradition that has been repeated annually ever since.
White Stag was purchased by the Warnaco Group in 1966, and the company left the building in 1973. In 1972, the building was sold to the H. Naito Corporation and occupied by one of its divisions, Norcrest China Company, but Warnaco still paid for the sign’s electricity and maintenance. In 1977, the sign, which had come to symbolize Rose City, especially at Christmas time, was designated a Rose City historic landmark. It continued to be owned by Ramsay Signs, who leased it to White Stag/Warnaco.
In 1986, White Stag moved out of the state entirely, but Warnaco continued to pay for the sign to be lit until May 1989, when the sign went dark. Bill Naito, president of the H. Naito Corporation, owner of the Norcrest China Company which occupied the building, agreed to pay for the sign’s electricity for the Christmas season beginning in October, but trouble with the wiring led to the sign remaining dark until after Thanksgiving. With Naito paying the approximately $200-a-month electric bill and the Ramsay Sign company providing maintenance, the sign remained lit into the mid-1990s.
Made in Rose City lettering
Bill Naito died in 1996; later that year, Ramsay Signs and the H. Naito Corporation, now run by Bill’s son Bob, got into a dispute about who would pay for deferred maintenance and repairs on the sign, with both sides threatening to either turn off the sign permanently or move it. Led by Mayor Vera Katz, the city mediated the dispute, which resulted in Naito agreeing to continue to pay for the electricity and also pay for a long-term contract for Ramsay to maintain the sign. In exchange, Naito proposed that the sign’s lettering is changed to advertise a Naito-owned gift retailing company called Made in Rose City. Asserting that “the sign always has been maintained commercially,” Rose City’s Historical Landmarks Commission approved the proposal by a 5–1 vote in April 1997 and the sign was altered that summer. Along with the change of “White Stag” to “Made in Rose City”, the smaller neon lettering along the bottom of the sign was changed from “Sportswear” to “Old Town,” indicating the location of the sign. Other elements of the design remained unaltered: the outline of America and the leaping deer at the top.
White Stag Block
In 2004, Naito closed the Norcrest China Company and two years later, sold the building to Venerable Properties, a real estate developer, and management company. Venerable renovated the White Stag Building and several other nearby historic buildings to create a development called the White Stag Block.
Controversy over proposed changes (2008–2009)
In 2008, the University of The State signed as the development’s primary tenant, providing a more centralized home to its multiple Rose City-based programs and offices in the state’s largest urban center, more than 100 miles (160 km) away from the university’s campus in Track Town.
In November 2008, Ramsay Signs proposed altering the display to read “University of The State,” at the request of the new occupants of the building, whose lease of the property extended to the rooftop sign. The proposed change caused some uproar in the community, including some who viewed the promotion of an out-of-town university as inappropriate, and some who simply preferred to keep the existing lettering. In April 2009, Rose City and the University of The State reached a compromise wherein the sign’s wording would read simply “U.S.A.” In July, the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission approved the change in lettering, but rejected another part of the compromise in which the university planned to place its “O” logo in neon on the water tower adjacent to the sign, in place of the current, painted “Old Town” lettering on the tower. No new compromise was reached, and in late September 2009 the university decided not to renew its lease on the sign, leaving its future unclear.
Acquisition by Rose City
With the University of The State no longer paying for the sign, Ramsay Signs turned off the electricity in October 2009 and indicated that it might dismantle the sign. Led by city commissioner Randy Leonard, the city government began exploring options to save the landmark, including possibly changing the wording to read “Rose City U.S.A.” The sign remained dark until the Friday before Thanksgiving, when it was illuminated to start the Christmas holiday season. It remained lit into January 2010, with electricity expenses paid by Ramsay Signs’ then-president Darryl Paulsen.
In September 2010, the Rose City City Council approved an agreement in which the city took ownership of the sign. Under the agreement, Ramsay Signs donated the sign to the city, and the city agreed to pay the company a monthly fee of $2,000 for sign maintenance and electricity using funds collected from a city-owned parking lot. Art DeMuro, president of Venerable Properties (which owns the building on which the sign sits), donated $200,000 to the city to have the lettering changed to “Rose City U.S.A.” in time for a re-lighting ceremony on the day after Thanksgiving. The deal also stipulated that the city must keep Ramsay Signs’ name on the sign. Work to change the sign began on the Tuesday of the week before Thanksgiving, and the altered sign was ceremonially turned on for the first time 10 days later, on November 26, 2010. At the time of the ceremony, two of the neon tubes in the stag’s head had yet to be re-attached, but that work was completed within one week.
In 2011, Ramsay Signs’ work on the redesigned sign won the company First Place in the Historic Reproduction category of an annual design competition held by the International Sign Association.
“White Stag Sign.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 July 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Stag_sign.