A short history of the welcome arch sign in Golden, Colo.

Mention Golden, Colo., and most people will think of the Coors brewery. But Golden is also home to a few other, if less famous, colorful items of renown.

Situated 15 miles west of Denver at the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon, Golden lies in a valley at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. In its modern 150-year history, it has witnessed first-hand the settling of the west. In the early days, Golden was the site of the capital of the Colorado Territory.

Today it is home to the world-renown Colorado School of Mines, which is home to the National Earthquake Information Center. Nearby is the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

To these, the city can add at least one more claim to fame: it is home to one of the few surviving small town welcome arch signs.

According to Bernard C. Winn’s 1993 tome, Arch Rivals, in which Golden’s welcome arch is included, arch signs were the most popular along railroad right-of-way towns out west between 1915 and 1940. Winn pointed out that a welcome sign in those days, with a slogan or other saying about the town, would be a way for small towns along the railroad line to look different from the next or last town and would attract railroad passengers, which would be good for business.

In 1948, local Golden businessman Lu Holland took note of an arch sign near Denver’s Union Station and as Richard Gardner, a local Golden historian tells, sought to convince Golden’s Chamber of Commerce that such an arch sign would be good for business.

Holland put up $1,000 to start the project. Paul Reeves, a resident of Golden and a practiced metal fabrication artist, designed the arch in a contemporary steel framework style. Electric Products, Consolidated of Denver was contracted to build the arch--a 58-foot span across Washington Street with a minimum 20-foot overhead clearance. It's unclear whether others helped with the full cost of building the sign–about $7,500–but on March 24, 1949, it was dedicated with a parade and much fanfare. (Garder has more details about this history, as well as other links on his Web site (www.gardnerhistory.com).

Sixty years later, after many other welcome arches in small towns have succumbed to age or changing times, the Golden Arch has only risen in stature, to become a treasured piece of local history. In fact, when the sign was being dismantled back in October, the city was inundated with calls and e-mails protesting its removal.

Advantage Sign Company, the Englewood, Colo.-based company contracted to refurbish it, quickly produced and attached two temporary banners to the framework informing townspeople that the sign was only being renovated and that they would be back, reinstalling it before Thanksgiving, weather permitting.

The arch sign had been renovated in 1975, 1979 and 1997 before the complete makeover in 2008. The most radical change was when the double neon tubes were removed in 1975 and a pictorial of a prospector was placed prominently in the middle of the span.

A later update returned it to its original layout but changed the last word in the tagline from “Where the West Remains” to “Where the West Lives”. This reportedly was because the word “remains” was thought to suggest something that was dead. Another upgrade added cutout standoff letters where the original neon letters had been.

But 60 years of exposure to wind, rain, snow and sun exacts a toll.

Ron Reavis is the city’s Public Works Street Superintendent and served as the project manager for the sign refurbishment.

“The structure was deteriorating rapidly,” Reavis says. “The sign faces were attached to 2x4s that had weathered, the metal was rusting and the structure was close to being unsafe.”

In short, if the arch was to “remain”, it was time for a major renovation, not just a new paint job. So the sign came down.

With the panels removed completely and the structure stripped down to its skeleton, this may have been the time to restore the sign accurately to the original–including neon.

But part of the problem with the original was that the neon was expensive to maintain, with sections often unlit because of breakage due to high winds, extreme temperature swings and other weather-related events.

LED lighting was considered, but ultimately, community consensus was to maintain the intent of Reeves’ original design, being mindful that it also might be an example of the city’s commitment to sustainability. Long-term durability, energy use, light trespass and material and maintenance costs were high on the list of considerations about how the sign was to be rebuilt.

In October, crews from Advantage Sign Company removed the panels and brought them to their shop where they were used as reference for building new panels. Advantage’s president, Galen Achten, says the fabrication process was smooth.

Before removing the big letters, which were to be reused, the outlines were traced with black markers to establish placement on the new panels and to reference the mounting holes. Careful measurements were taken and entered into a computer file, from which each new aluminum panel was cut on the company’s MultiCam CNC router.

The old panels were made of galvanized sheet metal steel. The new ones are made of aluminum sheet and instead of a wood frame, the new panels are welded to 2" aluminum square tube and angle supports.

After fabrication, the main panels were sent to Blue Flame Powder Coating in Denver, where they were given a brown powder coat finish. The woodgrained background of the bottom panel was provided by Tampa-based McNichols Company, a company that specializes in custom powder coated effects. This is from McNichols’ line of Designer Metal Finishes.

Another important part of the renovation process was to control rust on the steel framework spanning across the street. After removing the loose rust, crews applied two coats of Corotech DTM Semi-Gloss, a high performance, one component, rust-inhibiting acrylic finish manufactured by Insl-x of Stony Point, N.Y.

The final piece of the puzzle was to provide some nighttime illumination for the letters–without requiring electricity. The solution was to capitalize on surrounding ambient light by applying 3M’s high intensity Diamond Grade reflective vinyl to the letters.

With the panels re-fabricated, crews returned to the arch and re-installed them on schedule, right before Thanksgiving. Golden celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. For 60 of those years, the Golden Arch has officially welcomed countless visitors. Because of this renovation, this unique bit of western signage nostalgia will be around to welcome countless more in the years to come.