For the next several months, a portion of Mesa’s iconic neon Diving Lady sign is going to make a splash with the shopping crowd.
The middle of three sections of the neon sign that once fronted the Starlite Motel in Mesa was moved to Fiesta Mall on Wednesday, where it will be displayed in an empty store space near Sears in hopes of gaining more exposure and donations to help cover its restoration costs.
The Diving Lady, a 78-foot-tall neon sign that features three stages of a lady in a springboard dive that was in front of the Starlite Motel for 50 years, came crashing down during a heavy thunderstorm in October. It initially was believed that the Diving Lady — which was heavily damaged in the fall after a previous welding repair on the metal pole supporting it snapped — was destroyed and no longer would serve as a landmark for those living nearby or motorists who could see it from a mile away.
But the Starlite’s owners, the Mesa Preservation Foundation and Graham’s Neon and Electric Sign Specialists in Mesa are moving forward with the restoration of the sign, which served as a beacon during an era of roadside lodging when families traveled long distances by car. The goal is to have the sign completely restored and re-dedicated in front of the motel by October and eventually have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Diving Lady is nationally known and has appeared in numerous magazine articles about neon signs and in various photography exhibits.
Second-grade students in Ursula Galhouse’s class at Kyrene del Cielo Elementary School, including Levi Graham, the son of Graham’s Neon owner, Larry Graham, also have become fans of the sign after learning it about from their teacher. Galhouse mentions the Diving Lady every time it appears in the news.
Graham, owner of Graham’s Neon and workers Brian Barela and Todd Glass, loaded up a portion of the Diving Lady adorned in new paint and outlined with new neon and drove her to Fiesta Mall on Wednesday.
“We’re gonna miss her, but we still have her sisters here hanging out,” said Ken Brands, a sales representative at Graham’s.
Graham, who said he received the heavily damaged sign in mid-December and is donating $6,000 in labor costs for the sign, estimates the total restoration costs will be about $65,000. So far, about half of the restoration cost has been covered.
The restoration work began in early February after Bob Patel and his son, Minal, the owners of the Starlite, received a $10,000 insurance check to help cover the costs of the sign. The Patels turned over the check to the Mesa Preservation Foundation.
In addition to the $10,000 insurance check, the Scottsdale office of Hunt Construction is donating the pole for the sign, an estimated $12,000 value. The Rio Salado Architect Foundation also awarded the preservation foundation a $2,500 Rich Goewey Community Services grant to help with the project because of the sign’s historical significance. Mesa has a rich history in the region’s neon sign industry, and many of the 1950s and ‘60s-era signs still dot motels and businesses along Main Street.
“We didn’t re-create it, we repaired it,” Graham said of the project. “We bent the sheet metal back out. It would’ve been quicker to make a new sign, but we’ve been able to save all but about 10 percent to keep her a historical piece.”
The portion of the sign that will be at Fiesta Mall has a new steel frame with new aluminum internal pieces.
“The sign will get more exposure at the mall,” Graham added. “Possibly, we’ll place the other sections of the sign at the other malls in Mesa. We’ll see how it goes.”
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