Prominent hilltop sign to say Bayer no more

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The battered sign atop Mount Washington where Bayer Corp.’s name and iconic aspirin logo were displayed in lights for two decades will be turned off, repaired and upgraded while its owner searches for another sponsor.

Bayer, which for years tried to have the deteriorating sign’s conventional neon lights replaced with more energy-efficient technology, confirmed Thursday it has ended its lease agreement effective immediately.

Before a new corporate name beams over the city, however, Lamar Advertising, the sign’s owner, plans to strip out the existing neon, scrape off the rust, paint the 30-foot tall structure, and install a new lighting system that a Lamar official said would improve the sign’s durability and efficiency while maintaining the landmark sign’s nostalgia factor.

“We worked hard and diligently to come up with a plan to mimic the sign that’s up there,” said Jim Vlasach, real estate manager for Lamar.

A number of prospective sponsors have approached Lamar about replacing Bayer as the sign’s featured advertiser, but Mr. Vlasach declined to name them.

“Being that it is the most prominent sign in the city of Pittsburgh, people are always interested in being there,” he said. “We’re confident we will find someone quickly.”

He declined to disclose costs for the upgrade, which he expects to take about one year. He also declined to say how much Bayer paid to lease the sign.

Though Bayer asked Lamar to turn off the sign as soon as possible, Mr. Vlasach said the company is waiting for an electrician to schedule the job and wasn’t sure when Bayer’s name would disappear.

In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Mayor Bill Peduto blamed Lamar for not improving the sign in recent years despite its condition.

“I can see why Bayer doesn’t want to be identified with the Mount Washington sign,” the mayor said. “Lamar has a responsibility to maintain the sign and it hasn’t done anything to it in 20 years. It’s an eyesore for the Mount Washington neighborhood and the whole city.

“The city will work with Lamar to restore the sign, but needed upgrades to the appearance of the structure and its landscaping need to happen as well.”

Lamar’s proposed plan includes landscaping the property that surrounds the sign, Mr. Vlasach said.

Past debate about whether to modernize the structure largely focused on whether Lamar could convert it to an all-digital, electronic billboard and whether repairs would meet city regulations. The proposed upgrade should pass muster, Mr. Vlasach said, because the original look of the sign will be replicated. As it has for years, the sign will feature the sponsor’s name and flash the time and a message the sponsor chooses.

“Bayer was very community-oriented and had public service messages on the board,” Mr. Vlasach said. “The new sign will replicate that ability.”

He described the new lighting technology as energy-efficient “plexi-neon” that contains light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, in encased tubes “that won’t get broken or shattered by the wind, hail or a storm.”

Lamar submitted an application for a permit with the Department of City Planning’s zoning division, he said, and is waiting for written approval to begin renovations.

“It’s moving forward and I anticipate they will get it,” said Theresa Kail-Smith, the city council member whose district includes Mount Washington and who was involved with meetings about how the sign should be repaired.

“I think people will be pleased,” she said. “I think it will maintain the current look of the sign.”

Officials of the planning department did not respond to requests about the status of Lamar’s application.

The lighting product Lamar plans to use is manufactured by iLight Technologies, a Chicago-based company that has supplied lighting for outdoor facilities, including Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Target Field in Minneapolis and a plaza at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.

Explaining Bayer’s rationale for terminating its lease for the sign, spokesman Robert Walker said the company “wants to refocus our investment dollars [on initiatives] more in line with our corporate mission,” such as its interactive exhibit, “Science for a Better Life,” which is on a world tour, and other “science and technology-related opportunities.”

The sign dates to the 1930s and has had several corporate sponsors, including Iron City Beer and Alcoa. Bayer began leasing the sign in 1992 when the company was called Miles.

The German-owned company was previously known as Mobay, so putting its name on the sign when it changed to Miles “was a good opportunity to reinforce who we were,” Mr. Walker said.

“The opportunity the sign represented back then is not the same now,” he said.

Although Bayer’s Robinson campus for decades served as the company’s U.S. headquarters, it now serves primarily as the North American base for its material science business and houses other administrative offices.

Bayer’s top executive in North America has been based in New Jersey since 2012. The company has about 2,200 employees in the region, including those at the Robinson campus and some who work in health-care businesses formerly known as Medrad.

Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580. First Published July 31, 2014 12:00 AM

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