Sign of the times: Chicago's Drake Hotel gets a new look

The new LED sign is energy efficient and built to withstand Chicago’s cold temperatures and wind. But what about that color?

December 26, 2013

Afternoon tea at the Palm Court in the Drake Hotel is a Chicago ritual, especially during the holidays.

This year, visitors may notice one sign of change. The hotel’s historic sign, all bright pink neon and gothic script, has been renovated.

The sign is now LED instead of neon. Its font has changed slightly. But the biggest difference is its color. The new sign is light purple - almost a lavender shade.

Hank Hawerbier is the Director of Property Operations at the Drake. He says the old sign was tough to maintain. Ice, strong winds, even rain could cause a letter to short out. And every time that happened, Hawerbier says nearby residents would let them know.

Hawerbier said they tried their best to match the old sign.

“We took months and months with three different LED sign companies and this was the closest we could get,” said Hawerbier. “It looks crisper, it looks brighter. But the color is off a few shades.”

Despite appearances, Hawerbier says much of the old sign remains, including the frame and background of the letters. It’s an enormous structure. Upper case letters are between 10 and 11 feet tall, while the lower case run around 8 feet.

Hawerbier said reaction to the new sign so far has been mostly positive.

“A couple traditional people didn’t like that we took the iconic sign and changed the format and technology,” said Hawerbier. “But mostly everyone says we did it for the right reasons.”

Chicagoans don’t much like change - many people still call Macy’s, Marshall Field’s, or refer to Sears Tower rather than the Willis Tower.

That’s also been the case at The Drake. Though the hotel has undergone a lot of renovation over the past 13 years, Hawerbier says when it came time to makeover the hotel’s famous Coq D’Or lounge, some people weren’t happy.

“Literally I would walk through with the designers and regulars would go ‘You’re not changing anything, please don’t change anything!’”

Time does have a way of standing still at the Drake. The Coq D’Or has the second liquor license ever issued in Chicago - the first went to the Berghoff. The hotel itself was founded in 1920. But no one at the hotel is sure of the iconic sign's age - Hawerbier guesses it went up in the late 40s or early 50s.

And even he has mixed emotions about the change.

“Every third movie you see, the sign is in it,” said Hawerbier. “Maybe that’s a little exaggeration. But I was a bit apprehensive.”

is the Arts and Culture reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter , Facebook and Instagram.