Empress sign sold to L.A. developer, and staying in Victoria

The Empress hotel sign for nearly half a century, which fetched $2,200 at auction on Tuesday, will stay in Victoria.

Los Angeles real estate developer Brock Harris said Wednesday that he plans to mount the five-foot tall E on the wall of a condo he owns in the Era building on Yates Street.

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He had hoped to put all 10 letters on the wall, but has realized they’re too big.

Harris mobilized to buy the sign after reading a Times Colonist story about it on the day of the auction. He frantically texted his mother in Oak Bay, saying: “I have to have this sign.” He asked his parents to place an advance bid on his behalf at Lunds Auctioneers and to attend the auction that night with instructions to go as high as $4,000.

“They were all for it,” he said. When they took delivery of the letters at their home, even the delivery man said “wow” and was impressed by their significance, said Harris, sounding like a man happy with a bargain.

“It’s one of these iconic things,” he said. “There’s only one of them and it was up there for 46 years.

“This sign is a serious piece of Victoria history and a great artifact to own and display,” he added in an email.

He could hardly believe the estimated sale price range of $100 to $300 before the auction.

Harris said he has already taken steps to have the sign restored and envisions the E being lit up as part of an Empress montage.

“This is like Victoria’s HOLLYWOOD sign,” he said, referring to the huge white letters overlooking Los Angeles since 1923.

Harris, 40, attended Brentwood College School in Mill Bay. He said he loves Victoria, spent a lot of time in the city growing up and feels honoured to own a recognizable piece of its past. He views his role as a caretaker for a piece of local history, one seen by millions of visitors from around the world.

He’s not splitting up the rest of the letters, even for family. “This sign is staying together,” he said.

And he said he is “totally” open to the sign being part of a public installation at some point if that becomes an option.

The Empress plans to replace the sign with an LED version of the 1970 sign by the end of May, as part of major ongoing renovations. The sign was designed by George Nanos, art director for Bayliss Neon Signs of Victoria, who died in 1971. There’s little of his work still around, said his son Lawrence.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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