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Of Penguins And Pistons

Just What Constitutes a Meritorious Sign in Santa Monica?

March 12, 2000|Ed Leibowitz

Since the late '50s, they've held their wild electric festival in the Santa Monica night sky: the stately penguin in tux and tie, and the flashing piston of neon blue. The penguin outlasted the former Penguin's Coffee Shop it once touted; it even survived the troubled tenure of Dr. Beauchamp after it converted into Western Dental Center. The piston, at 26th Street and Pico Boulevard, still signifies the Engler Brothers Auto Parts Store, a second-generation family business that opened shop in Santa Monica the year the 1947 Dodge rolled off the line.

Santa Monica's Meritorious Sign Review Board has passed judgment on these beacons, as it has on all nonconforming signs otherwise slated to come down April 11 as part of a 15-year-old city ordinance. (It considered a total of 560 existing signs using "historically or architecturally significant" criteria; new signs must meet strict size and design restraints.) For the penguin, the Arby's hat on Lincoln, the flaming neon hearth of Paykel's Fireplace and 90 other signs deemed meritorious, all is jubilation. Samuel Gruenbaum, president and CEO of Western Dental, successfully pleaded the penguin's case before the committee in January. He even argued the penguin's viability as a dental mascot. "They're birds, so you wouldn't think that they could have teeth in the beak. But if they did, they could have cavities."

Alas, barring a last-ditch reprieve from Santa Monica's City Council, the Engler piston is doomed, perhaps through an attendance quirk. Chairman Herb Katz's seat was empty during the February meeting, and the commission split two in favor, two against.

For the layman, the Engler Brothers' sign addresses several of the board's official meritorious criteria. Arnold Engler, the retired patriarch who founded the auto parts store with his brother, makes a prima facie case for the neon piston's "inventive representation." "It's a Chevrolet six piston and a Chrysler six-piston rod," he explains. "We put two odd ones together so we wouldn't show any favoritism." "Historical significance"? Piston and rod date from the mid-'50s.

In a car-supply age dominated by Kragen and AutoZone, the Engler piston could arguably "represent an entity or establishment important to Santa Monica's history," as stated in the guidelines--namely, the family-owned auto parts store. Indeed, an AutoZone now sits next to Engler Brothers. "We have our piston on invoices, trucks, baseball caps, letterhead," says Larry Engler, Arnold's son. "We're trying to keep competing with AutoZone and all these national chains that have millions in advertising, and the piston's all we have on Pico."

Such is the Englers' desperation that any eventual demolition of the piston might take out a member of the Engler family as well. "My sister Margaret," says Larry, "wants to chain herself to it."

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