For 25 years the Sontag's neon sign, rising on Glendale Boulevard near the east bank of the Los Angeles River, stood as the unofficial gateway to Atwater.
Atop a pole, high enough to be seen by commuters on the Golden State Freeway, it was a signature for the blue-collar status of a community that had the Franciscan ceramics factory on one side and the Southern Pacific train yards not far away on the other.
Outlined in red neon, it showed a funny looking barefooted plumber applying a pipe wrench to the "S" in the bluntly understated words, "Sontag's 24-Hour Plumbing."
It was the logo of the Sontags, whose German-born patriarch, Herman, had been helping to plumb Los Angeles since 1919. Herman's grandson, Dick, designed it when the family moved the business from Hollywood to a square brick building in Atwater in 1964.
The Sontags have long ago moved on. Dick Sontag sold the business early in the 1980s and moved to Colorado, where he owns three Best Westerns and a Holiday Inn.
A former employee kept the Sontag sign turned on for a few more years, then lost the lease.
Sontag finally sold the building a couple of years ago.
On its face, the transaction would seem merely a footnote to larger events that were sweeping old Atwater to oblivion.
First, Franciscan sold out to Wedgwood, which soon suspended its operation, leaving behind a vacant hulk of a factory that has yet to be redeveloped.
Later, Southern Pacific moved its yard east and pulled up most of the track near Atwater. The vacant land is for sale.
And Beach's Market, the old family-owned grocery store on Glendale Boulevard, closed its doors. Not long ago, its brick building was demolished.
Though small by comparison, the sale of Sontag's may give a clue as to how a new Atwater can emerge from the remnants of the old.
The buyer was an energetic young woman from the San Joaquin Valley town of Visalia.
Chris Hershey came to Los Angeles to study design as well as to immerse herself in the life of the city. After graduating from Art Center College of Design, then downtown, she set up her first studio on 3rd Street.
Not long after Sontag headed for Colorado, Hershey found an interesting building for sale on a corner of Glendale Boulevard. It had two walls of arched windows under an elegantly simple masonry ledge roof line. Most of the windows were broken and covered over with metal, she said. The building had been put to use as a sewing sweatshop. At $135,000, she thought it a steal.
Hershey put in fashion blinds, dressed the building in a Monterey gray and installed her growing design firm there.
She also got hopelessly involved with Atwater. She formed the Boulevard Business Assn., went door-to-door promoting her vision of Atwater as a nouveau chic shopping lane, a kind of Larchmont Village of the Northeast side. She campaigned successfully to change the community's name to Atwater Village.
"When I moved in and said this is going to happen in a few years, old-timers said, 'Maybe in 50 years,' " Hershey said.
She wasn't in the mood for waiting.
When Sontag put his building up for sale, she bought it. She had it painted pale gray with lilac and aqua trim. She saved the squeaky hardwood floor under a coat of white paint and put in soft-tone offices, leather chairs and high-tech drafting tables under the open industrial-style rafters and air-conditioning ducts.
A receptionist in a crisp business suit greets the stray plumbing contractors who, Hershey says, walk in about once a week and say, mouth agape, "This don't look like no plumbing warehouse."
It's the Sontag sign that draws them in. It still stands atop the pole, now only an odd remembrance of Atwater past. The neon no longer lights up. The black and burnt orange paint is peeling off.
Hershey plans to replace it as soon as possible with her own logo, a neon rainbow fusing with an H. But she can't tear the barefoot plumber down just yet.
What holds her back is that Dick Sontag's handiwork has become a kind of art.
"It's not fine art," said Mary Carter, curator of the Museum of Neon Art in downtown Los Angeles. "But it is an example of really innovative commercial art."
A few months ago, Carter came out to see the Sontag sign and decided that it was good enough to be in the museum's collection of about 50 commercial neon signs. But right now, Carter has no place to put it in her already cramped quarters. She asked Hershey to keep the sign until the museum can expand.
"We're trying to get new space desperately." Carter said.
So Hershey's rainbow H remains on hold.
In its place, Hershey has applied herself to the creation of another sign. This one is aqua gold with rubine red lettering. It says "Atwater Village." She's raising money to have a couple of hundred silk-screened on a space-age fabric. Soon they'll hang from every telephone pole in Atwater Village, giving a message about the future.