Sometimes historical items survive not out of some sense of foresight (hey, we’ll want that someday), but inertia and frugality.
That’s likely the case for the sign greeting visitors to the Mackinaw City Welcome Center just east of I-75, first unveiled in May 1959.
Anyone who takes a moment to examine the irregular quadrilateral mounted on a stylized galvanized letter “M” can see it’s unlike those at other Michigan Welcome Centers, yet it still seems familiar.
Though it survived mostly by accident or good fortune, it has now been carefully restored by Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) staff and is likely one of the oldest of its vintage, if not the oldest, still in service on MDOT’s system. It was reinstalled on Wednesday, June 27.
According to MDOT archives, the State Highway Department designed and made the sign, and other staff designed and built the stone base. Considered to be of a mid-century modern design – the general description for aesthetics of designs in the 1950s and 60s – the sign was one of two on the site of the center, called a “Highway Information Station,” and noting John C. Mackie was Michigan’s State Highway Department Commissioner at the time.
The sign’s twin, which was closer to the freeway, was removed in 1979 following an addition to the building and as part of a parking lot reconfiguration project. Around that same time the remaining sign was refaced, at which time the message on the sign was changed to “Travel Information Center: Michigan Dept of Transportation.”
Since then, the sign aged without much upkeep, and in recent years its surface was faded and its lettering peeling. Dan Townsend, MDOT’s North Region sign shop crew leader, looked at the sign as a piece of history and began planning for its overhaul. It was removed and brought to MDOT’s statewide sign shop in Lansing where there is space to work on a sign that large; it’s more than 10 feet tall and 16 feet wide.
There, Townsend worked alongside sign shop lead worker Kwame Johnson, with support from maintenance supervisor Matthew Niemi, first power-washing the sign then grinding off as much of the old sign sheeting as possible. The cost for the restoration work is about the same as for fabricating a new sign, recycling some expensive materials for a savings but requiring a bit more labor.
In the process, they discovered that the original sign actually featured letters cut from the aluminum sheeting, with protruding yellow plastic letters that were backlit. The plastic letters are gone now, but Townsend and Johnson placed new yellow sign sheeting behind the sign, mimicking the original. It now reads “Highway Information Station” again, along with “Michigan Department of Transportation” and a silhouette of Michigan’s two peninsulas and the Great Lakes.
“We brought it back as best as we could, within reason,” Townsend said. “My goal was to maintain the original sign as much as possible.”
Townsend doesn’t want to launch a college rivalry debate about the return of the original sign colors; they’re not intended to represent the University of Michigan’s maize and blue. He’s a Michigan State University fan himself, so in this endeavor he was obligated to history, not to his team.
“I think people are really going to like it,” Townsend said. “It’s the only one of its kind. How can you not think that’s cool?”
MDOT Historian Sigrid Bergland speculates that the sign was kept for several reasons: that it was not in the way, it was unique, it was of a sturdy design, and that it was cheaper and easier to refurbish than to replace.
“In other words, I doubt it was a decision to keep the sign, rather just a series of events that resulted in it being kept over the years,” Bergland said. “I find things are often preserved not as a choice but rather as a combination of ease and cost savings.”
Bergland said the federal term “rehabilitation” applies to this level of work on the sign, as it is being updated to keep it in use and reflect current terminology while retaining its historic character. As the whole sign is exposed to the elements year-round, the restored sign blends function and design.
“It is very exciting to see this bit of transportation history preserved because it is authentic and real. It is a holdover from a different era when the Mackinac Bridge was shiny and new, and both men and women wore hats to grand opening events,” Bergland said. I always hope that people see historic sites – whether buildings, bridges or barns – and begin to ask questions like, ‘I wonder who built that?’, which leads to more questions and a greater appreciation of history.”