The Thriftown rooftop in 2010

This first ran on May 29, 2010 and it’s some history worth repeating.  

Long time Mission residents know the sign — 17 Reasons Why! —  that sat atop Thrift Town on  Mission and 17th streets as a much loved memory. Stephen Parr knows it as an icon that he now cares for in the Capp Street warehouse where he runs the San Francisco Media Archive. There, all 600 pounds of the word “Reasons” hangs on one wall.  The 17 rests between rows of film reels.

“Any sign is a guide that points people in a direction,” says Parr.

Long after the furniture store that put up the advertisement in 1935 closed in 1975, the towering sign was as familiar a navigational tool as Twin Peaks or Bernal Hill.

“It was so beautiful in the early morning light,” says filmmaker and historian Jenni Olsen, whose film, “Blue Diary” gave a supporting role to the sign. “It was one of the most treasured landmarks of San Francisco’s Mission District.”

The writing on the wall. Long after the furniture store it had advertised from 1935 until it closed in 1975, the towering sign was as familiar a navigational tool as Twin Peaks or Bernal Hill. The sign had presence. It starred in Nathaniel Dorsky’s underground film 17 Reasons in 1987, and the play 17 Reasons (Why) produced by Intersection for the Arts in 2002.

The sign had presence. It starred in Nathaniel Dorsky’s underground film 17 Reasons in 1987, and the play 17 Reasons (Why) produced by Intersection for the Arts in 2002.

In May of 2002 — eight years ago this month — the Foster Media advertising agency took down the sign, piece-by-piece.  Parr rescued the pieces in three trips from a Benicia scrap yard and cleaned a century of dirt and dead birds from the tangle of rusted steel.

The “17” in hiding at the SF Media Archive.

In its place appeared a billboard advertising Miller Genuine Draft. “Filtrada en Frio” it read in Spanish, “cold-filtered.” Like a good portion of the city’s 1,600 billboards, the rooftop space is now owned by CBS. Currently, the space touts the virtues of Verizon Wireless.

“It went from a landmark to an eyesore,” Parr says.

Even after it came down, the neighborhood fought against its removal. The sign was 67-years-old in 2002, they argued, well over the 50 year-standard for triggering an historic review by the planning department — one that had not happened. Letters from groups like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Heritage, and SF Beautiful pressed the city to deny Foster Media the right to put up a billboard.

Proposition G, a city ordinance that banned all new general advertising signs, had recently passed. Although the permit to alter the sign had been issued prior to its passage, it was to retrofit, not remove, the sign. City Planning Director Gerald Green issued a stop-work order on a new billboard a month after 17 Reasons came down. He also called for an investigation into why the Planning Department had not reviewed the permit.

But in the end, Green settled with Foster Media. Case closed. The billboard went up.

Experts had tried to remind the city that the icon had historical and sentimental value. The “sign was a spectacular example of electrified signage from the Depression Era in both its graphic design and means of illumination,” wrote Gerry Takano, president of Friends of 1800 Market, an organization that promotes historic preservation. “It is not something that can be reproduced or duplicated in our time.”

The 17 Reasons sign featured individually cut out steel letters, and tubes of neon, a gas that burns naturally red. It was erected before welding became commonplace in sign-making, so the pieces of sheet metal were bolted together.

“In the 1930s, there was incredible production, work ethic and methodology that puts to shame what we do nowadays,” says John Law, a sign hanger and sign restorer who also collects historic icons including the Doggie Diner dog heads. Like the cars of that era, he adds, signs lasted forever.

The 17 Reasons sign lasted for so long that many who admired it no longer remembered or knew that the owners of Redlick’s Furniture, opened after the 1906 earthquake, first put the sign up in 1935. What were the 17 Reasons to buy furniture at Redlick’s? There were none, said Charles Redlick. The objective was to attract customers to the store on 17th and Mission. It worked until shopping malls and construction on the BART line on Mission Street drove business away. The family closed the store in 1975.

Old photo of Redlicks Furniture store.

The sign stayed and the ambiguity of its logo –“a query and a statement at the same time” as Parr describes it – continued to grip the imaginations of locals and tourists.

“When I came to San Francisco, I saw that fantastic sign…with no explanation but it was enough for me,” wrote Glen Mehn in a 2002 letter to the city protesting the removal of the icon. “I knew where I wanted to live…in the Mission, close to that sign.”

Sam Mogannam, owner of Bi-Rite Market, named his nonprofit space 18 Reasons.“It was one of the signs I’d seen as a kid growing up,” he says. “It was an iconic marker for the Mission.

The “Why,” up in a Shotwell Street backyard.

Recently a local business has expressed interest in re-hanging the sign. Parr wants to see it returned to public view, where it can continue to inspire people. But the cost, he warns, could be prohibitive. “It probably won’t happen anytime soon,” he says. “But anything’s possible.”

Meanwhile, most of the sign still exists, in fragments, within eyesight of the rooftop where it stood for 67 years. The “Why,” taken down several years before 2002, hangs in architect David Baker’s backyard on Shotwell Street.

The exclamation point? That’s a mystery for another day. Its whereabouts remain unknown.

Join the Conversation

11 Comments

  1. I think your photo of Redlicks might be from a previous location: Mission at Army (Chavez). And, yes, we need the sign back somewhere.

    1. That’s close. The main address of the building in the above photo is 3009 Mission, on the corner of 26th Street. It’s now an interesting mixed-use apartment building, with cameos on the top corners of the facade.

  2. Fantastic reportage. A dynamic read about a deconstructed and disseminated legend (not so) lost and a beautiful narrative of community, longevity, and the grassroots keepers of history.

    I loved reading this article! Yet again, exceptional work by Ms. De Brito.

  3. One thing that I always noticed about the “17 Reasons” sign was its similarity to the 7up signs of the era – yet I’ve never seen this mentioned. Looking at the sign, the “7” is the major element, with the “1” looks squeezed into the corner in front of it. Likewise, notice the similarity between the rounded text of the “w” and “y” in “why” and the “up” of the 7up logo. (Finally, why is “REASONS” in caps and “why” in a different face?)

    My theory is that the furniture owner came upon an existing 7up sign in the middle of the depression and made some modifications resulting in the famous sign with the curious slogan.

  4. Thanks so much for a great story and video. There’s a hole in the Mission where that sign used to be. Kudos to Stephen Parr for saving the sign and holding on to it all these years. We’ve got to find a new public home for the sign while there’s still a community of folks who remember it.

  5. Parrsdale: I like the sentiment of this piece, you “cultural archiologist”. Hope all is well with you. By the way: where’s my %^&*&% money?

    Ever Faithfully, Jeff Weiss

  6. Great article. It’s seems to be an ongoing struggle to keep San Francisco Historical Archives alive and kicking these days. Im not sure I would compare Bi-Rites 18reasons which is more to promote Bi-Rite, the business. Kudos

  7. My family owned the Redlick’s furniture store. My grandfather and his 3 brothers ran the business and later my Dad.
    Redlick’s had other stores in Bakersfield, Red Bluff, Oakland, Jackson, CA .

    There was a sign placed on the roof that read “Redlick-Newman” going back to when my grandfather (A.L. Redlick) and Frank Newman were partners. The partnership dissolved, one of our vendors (Occidental Stove Company) paid to get their name on the sign. In the 1930’s (I’m not sure of the exact year. Comment above says 1935, and that might be correct) . My grandfather changed it to 17 Reasons Why!

    He had a contest with the stores employees to come up with 17 reasons why customers should shop at our store.

    Things like we sold everything for the home. Case goods (furniture made of wood), white goods (appliances), Soft Goods (upholstered furniture), carpets, draperies, we deliver your furniture blanket wrapped by our own trucks, etc. etc.

    The list was lost during WW II.

    As a kid , working at the store during vacations from school, I used to take my bag lunch and eat up on the roof, under the sign. I’d watch the people on Mission Street. Also up on the roof was an outdoor shower. I never got the backstory on why that shower was on the roof.
    The night watchman used to let me flip the switch that turned on the neon lights when I was a kid.

    My Dad (Charles) got so tired of people asking him “what are the 17 Reasons?” that he said ” there weren’t any”.

    The explanation mark (!) was an advertising gimmick . Like Yellow Freight and the trucks were orange. And it worked !

    The store was build in around 1912, after the 1906 Earthquake. It was originally much smaller and located near 22nd & Mission. We closed it in the 1970’s . There were several reasons… Levitz had opened up in SSF at Oyster Point. They advertised the take the furniture in the box in your car or truck , and it cost less than our full service delivery.

    Then BART construction under Mission Street, making it difficult for customer foot traffic due to the streets being torn up by Pacific Telephone and then PG&E.

    Mission Street used to be a family neighborhood. The Mission and the Haight had the best weather.
    Families would stroll up and down, patronizing the local businesses.
    There were other furniture stores (i.e. Lachman’s & San Francisco Furniture).

    The construction and Levitz were the one-two punch. My Dad decided to close the business. We had opened a new store in Hillsdale (San Mateo County) in the mid1950’s. That was sold. I think its a Bank of America in 2019.

    I have been to Stephen Parr’s business and he showed me the parts of the sign he has. If my memory serves me, Stephen has the ’17’ and ‘reasons’ .
    The ‘why !’ is on Capp Street at a local artist’s, who I “think” mounted it on the outside wall of her business. There’s a photo of it.
    It would be wonderful if the sign could get put back up.

  8. I remember the sign well! When I drove though the Mission, it would say to me ‘You have arrived”. A friend who grew up here told me he remembered a sign when you entered the store which listed the 17 Reasons.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *