Sign of the South Will Rise Again
Local Artist Working on Robert E. Lee Motel sign
By Debra McCown | Bristol Herald Courier | April 19, 2010*** Published: April 14, 2010 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Va. – You might not be able to stay at the Robert E. Lee Motel any longer, but your sofa can.
The sign that adorned the 1950s-era motel for about 60 years is about to go on display at its new home: a self-storage business just a short distance away on U.S. Highway 11, also known as Lee Highway.
Ron Counts, who's restoring the old sign, said he expects to put it up above the office of RC's Storage by Monday.
"I like old signs," said Counts, whose wife, Tracey, said they spent about $1,900 to have it removed from the building and brought to their property when the county tore down the dilapidated old motel last year.
Ron Counts admits he was trying to be different when he placed antique vehicles amid the storage units for decoration – but their house, which is not visible from the road, also has the look of a remodeled 1950s-era gas station.
With a love for old cars and old signs, he said, he's glad for the opportunity to restore the landmark and display it along the highway, both of which county officials required him to do when they allowed him to take the sign last year.
At the time of that decision, more than one person had approached the Washington County Board of Supervisors asking for the sign. The board members, however, wanted to keep it in the county.
"I would rather have had someone back several years ago to have done some work on it [the hotel] that would have saved it, but obviously they did not do that," said Dulcie Mumpower, chairman of the Washington County Board of Supervisors who led the effort to have the building razed. "Now it's gone, but we still have the sign."
Counts said he's done much of the painting himself on the 35-foot-high sign, now covered by a fresh coat of turquoise and white. Working from a photograph, he was repainting some of the original stripes Tuesday.
"I'm really looking forward to it because I just want to see it standing tall again," he said.
Restoring the iconic image of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the namesake of the hotel and the highway, is D.R. Mullins, an artist known for his murals at the Bristol Public Library and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center.
"He's not my hero, but it's a job," said Mullins, who at one time was the head scenic artist at Barter Theatre in Abingdon.
As a pacifist, Mullins said, he objects philosophically to the number of war heroes who are celebrated in American society while advocates for peace and humanity often go unnoticed. Still, he believes this work is "harmless."
"What I'm doing is I'm restoring a little bit of local iconography," Mullins said. "You attribute this [image] not to war but to an old-time '50s restaurant that everybody loves."
The restaurant that was inside the Robert E. Lee is famous in its own right, for being one of three run by the man who later founded Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Mullins said restoring the painted profile has been a smoother process than he thought. He has been able to work from what's left of the original image.
"It's going to look really close to like it did," he said. "I think it's starting to shape up."