New owners Aaron Parker, left, and Wayne Johnson work to install a new neon sign for their Chimera Coffee shop in downtown Bangor. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Downtown Bangor is more brightly colored since an increasing number of neon lights and striking paint colors have begun adorning building facades in the past couple years.

Over the past month, downtown businesses including Red Rabbit Bazaar, on the second floor of 9 Central St., and Chimera Coffee, the new name given by the new owners of West Market Square Artisan Coffeehouse, have installed eye-catching custom neon signs in their windows.

The “Hopeful” sign, a piece of public art made out of neon light that hangs on the side of 152 Main St. advertising a state of mind rather than a business, was installed in December 2021.

In this Dec. 16, 2021, file photo, a sign reminds visitors and residents of Bangor to be hopeful.

And a number of businesses have over the past year or two painted their storefronts in attractive new colors, like the blue and gold on the restaurant and bar the Lazy Hound, and the striking black and red facade of Three Graces Tattoo & Art Gallery.

Neon signs, hanging signs and colorful facades are relatively recent additions to the downtown, after a few city policy changes began allowing more creativity in how businesses may customize their buildings.

In 2019, Bangor Historic Preservation Commission updated its code to allow more flexibility in how building owners and tenants may paint or otherwise alter their buildings, including not requiring commission approval for things like paint color and signage.

Almost all of the downtown area is within either the Great Fire district, the West Market district or the Main Street district, all historic districts with specific rules about changes to buildings.

With those changes, and with the adoption of new rules allowing businesses to put up additional signage in their windows, there are facades painted in an array of colors, fun new signs both affixed to walls and hanging, and the latest — neon signs.

At left: The glow from the Red Rabbit Bazzar neon sign reflects with the traffic lights over downtown Bangor; at right: The neon sign at Herbal Tea and Tobacco/420 Shop is among the oldest in downtown Bangor. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

“I think these new regulations, coupled with the fact that there’s just more business downtown in general, does give the impression that there’s just more of everything now,” said Brenda Bilotta, Bangor’s licensing coordinator in the code enforcement office, who is in charge of approving signage in Bangor.

It’s relatively cheap, easy and fast to have a custom neon sign made. While there are local sign makers that can do work in neon, there are also a number of online purveyors that can create a custom sign for as low as $200, though the price can rise with larger sizes and with the addition of color-changing LED neon.

Prior to the 1980s, downtown Bangor was packed with a visual cacophony of signage, from signs on facades to massive rooftop billboards advertising not just local businesses, but also national brands like Coca-Cola and Ballantine beer.

Gangster Al Brady (foreground) and Clarence Lee Shaffer Jr. (right) were killed by government agents on Central Street in Bangor on Oct. 12, 1937. Credit: BDN File Photo

 By the mid-1970s, as Bangor sought to create the neat and orderly downtown envisioned by urban renewal advocates, many old or historic structures were torn down.

In order to preserve the historic buildings that remained, in the mid-1980s the city adopted strict rules around how such buildings could be altered and what signage was allowed.

A billboard on Main Street in Bangor was torn down by Maine Department of Transportation workers in 1984. Credit: Jack Loftus / BDN

By the 1990s, those rules began to run up against advances in both federal law and in technology, with the installation of things like wheelchair ramps, heat pumps and internet equipment not being allowed in many cases. It wasn’t until 2019, more than 30 years after those regulations were adopted, that the rules were finally relaxed.

Now, it seems a happy medium has been reached that maintains the historic nature of many of the downtown buildings, while still moving the area into the modern world.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.