Institution Ale's Ryan Smith and son Shaun Smith won the fight to keep their neon sign. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Some say it brings new life to Santa Barbara’s slowly dying downtown district, but others say it serves as an open invitation to ignore city laws. One person even claims it could contribute to future pedestrian deaths on State Street. 

The neon sign at the downtown brewery Institution Ale has been at the center of a few controversies in recent months, but the owners celebrated a final victory Wednesday after the Historic Landmarks Commission approved the sign 5-2 — despite its conflict with a city ordinance requiring neon signs to be placed a minimum of 10 feet back from storefront windows. 

Co-owner Shaun Smith and architect Joe Andrulaitis told the commission that the Streamline Moderne–style sign, contrary to the Spanish-style architecture that the other buildings on the 500 block of State Street embody, is actually historically appropriate for the building that was originally a car dealership in 1946.

“Neon was very much part of that architectural style,” Smith said. “We think it enhances the historical aspect of the building we’re in.” 

City staff presented old photos of the building, which showed the car dealership lit up with neon signs. The sign inside Institution Ale is actually perpendicular to the street, not front-facing like the old car dealership’s, but it’s still visible to passersby because of all the clear glass in the storefront and to the side. The sweeping windows keep with the building’s history because the dealership, as well as many others around the country in the ’40s and ’50s, used the style to showcase the cars inside.

The vote came after the brewery was denied an exemption at a July 2 Sign Committee hearing. Refusing to take no for an answer, Smith and the other two co-owners, brother Ryan Smith and father Roger Smith, took the issue to the Historic Landmarks Commission for another shot. The two naysayers in this Wednesday’s vote, commissioners Ed Lenvik and Bill Mahan, voted “no” in fear that Institution might inspire other businesses to swerve around city ordinances, too.

“The main problem I have here is setting a precedent,” Mahan said. “We should be objective with ordinances, not subjective.” Mahan continued to say that although the sign isn’t distasteful, a rule is a rule, and commissioners shouldn’t get to pick who has to follow them. 

About three of the 10 or so public commenters agreed with Mahan and Lenvik’s sentiments. One of them, well-known city watchdog Anna Marie Gott, brought up a less-obvious reason for rejecting the sign, calling it a “safety hazard.”

“At night, you cannot see ‘Institution Ale,’ but you actually see part of a word,” Gott said, describing a driver’s view from inside a vehicle driving past the business. “Someone that is driving at night, down a street where there is a stoplight in the mid-block, which is very unexpected, and where someone was killed last year because of a distracted driver … will struggle as they drive down State Street to try and figure out what that says. … There will be distracted drivers.”

Overall, public commenters and the other five voting commissioners said they appreciated the increased foot traffic the brewery has brought to the block during a time when business vacancies on State Street are at an all-time high. 

“Roger and Shaun have brought new life to the 500 block of State Street,” said Gene Deering, public commenter and Santa Barbara real estate broker. “They are bringing millennials, like myself, back to State Street. … I would hate for this sign [issue] to dissuade another great retailer from taking a risk and coming to State Street.”


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