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HISTORY OF THE RANCHO SUPER CAR WASH PINK ELEPHANT NEON SIGN

Awarded Historic Designation on September 7th, 2023

IT ALL STARTED AT A CAR WASH IN SEATTLE

In 1951 Dean, Archie, and Eldon Anderson along with Eldon’s wife Virginia opened a ‘Five Minute Car Wash’ in downtown Seattle – credited as being the first automated, no-touch car wash. In 1956, they opened a second ‘Elephant Super Car Wash’ on Battery Street. They commissioned Campbell Neon founder and designer Beatrice Haverfield to create a large rotating pink elephant with 380 blinking lights – a masterpiece of motion, light, and kitsch. While the concept of an elephant is attributed to Archie Anderson and the image of a pachyderm with a spraying trunk is credited to design firm Tube Art Inc., Bea added her own flourishes including four baby elephants at the base, in homage to her four children. The Andersons went on to build five pink elephant car washes across Washington state, each featuring the now-iconic neon signs. 

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Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Yeager

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Beatrice Haverfield – Photo Courtesy of Susan Rosenfield

THE QUEEN OF NEON

Beatrice “Bea” Haverfield was born in an age when, according to the Seattle Times, “The electric glow of Seattle’s new outdoor advertising, such as the famous Public Market Center clock, was becoming as iconic as the Space Needle.” She went on to design other Seattle landmark signs including Ivar’s Acres of Clams, the original Rainier Beer “R”, Hats ’n’ Boots gas station, Sunny Jim preserves, and Dick’s Drive-In. Her artistic contributions shaped Seattle’s metropolitan identity, earning her the rightful moniker the “Queen of Neon.”

The Andersons went on to build five pink elephant car washes across Washington and Oregon, each featuring the now-iconic neon signs. 

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A PINK ELEPHANT IN THE DESERT

Rancho Mirage in the early 1960s spanned a stretch of Hwy 111 that had become the commercial center of the well-established subdivision now known as Magnesia Falls Cove. The first Safeway supermarket opened in 1959, with the adjacent retail mall including a bakery, clothing stores, cleaners, hardware store, and real estate offices. Hotels and guest ranches like Whispering Waters, Desert Air, and the White Sun Guest Ranch were also nearby. The only thing missing was a car wash.

 

In 1966 Richard Fromme, whose wife Marilyn was the daughter of Eldon Anderson, opened the ‘Rancho Super Car Wash.’ The pink elephant neon sign that stands on Highway 111 today was built by Tube Arts Display in Seattle for a car wash in Portland at 1530 N Union Ave. In 1966 the Frommes moved to Rancho Mirage, the sign was packed into their moving truck with the elephant’s head sticking out the top for the duration of their journey. It was rebuilt and installed at its current location by Chief Sign Crafts.

 

The car wash building was designed by respected modernist Harold Bissner Jr., who moved to the Coachella Valley from Pasadena, partnering with local architect Rob Pitchford. It was built by Hunter Structure who specialized in car washes and gas stations in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Rancho Super Car Wash Photo Courtesy of the Palm Desert Historical Society

A 1979 Desert Sun article explained:

 

“In 1965 Mr. and Mrs. Richard Fromme came to Rancho Mirage from the state of Washington, where he had been in the car wash business with her father. Rich, as he’s called, built the elephant car wash in his new hometown. Atop the business, a sign with an elephant joyfully squirting himself with a shower of water looks down.”

 

The car wash's success was instant; Richard Fromme became a director of the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce in 1967 and received a ‘Civic Award’ in 1968 in the ‘Desert Beautiful Awards.’ He opened a second Pink Elephant car wash opened in 1973, at the corner of Frank Sinatra Dr. and Hwy 111, opposite what is now, coincidentally, a car wash.

 

In 2002, the City of Rancho Mirage historic resources survey cited the ‘Rancho Super Car Wash’ sign as follows:

 

“Neon road signs such as ‘Rancho Super Car Wash’ are evocative of an era of the individual “mom and pop” commercial buildings that were common along America’s highways, such as Hwy 111, from the ‘40s through the ‘70s.”

 

“…the monumental roadside neon signs of the mid-century were a site-specific art form virtually lost to the twenty-first century.”

HISTORIC DESIGNATIONS

In 2020, the remaining Washington car washes closed and only three of the original neon signs remained, the two in Washington were unanimously voted to become Seattle city landmarks in August 2022. The large sign was donated to the Seattle Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), it joins their neon collection which includes the Rainier Brewery letter "R" and the Washington Natural Gas blue flame sign. Amazon stepped in to restore the smaller neon sign which once stood on Denny Way and has now been moved to 7th Avenue and Blanchard Street, near Amazon's headquarters.

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The Restored Small Pink Elephant Neon Sign Photo Courtesy of Kylie Cooper – The Seattle Times

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Randy and Lorraine Barnes took over operations of the Rancho Super Car Wash in 2008 – although the property is still owned by the first owner, Richard Fromme. Over the decades, updates have been made to the car wash buildings, but the pink elephant sign remains the most iconic landmark in our city.

 

In 2023, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Rancho Mirage, Preservation Mirage approached Randy and Lorraine through Katie Stice with the Rancho Mirage Chamber of Commerce to discuss obtaining a full historic designation for the third sign to ensure it remains a permanent fixture on Highway 111 for generations to come. At the recommendation of the Rancho Mirage Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), the Rancho Mirage City Council unanimously awarded the historic designation on September 7th, 2023.

The Rancho Super Car Wash Neon Sign Today

PRESERVING THE PINK ELEPHANT

The harsh desert environment has taken a toll on the Rancho Super Car Wash sign over the years; Preservation Mirage has retained the premiere neon authority YESCO to undertake a full restoration of the historic sign. To fund the endeavor, we commissioned artist John Pirman to create an original work of art depicting the most iconic Rancho Mirage landmark, all proceeds will be directed to a restricted ‘Pink Elephant Fund.’

 

John is a mid-century modernist, artist and designer based in Sarasota, Florida, where he is associated with Architecture Sarasota. His work has been seen in The New York Times, Vogue, Wallpaper and Fortune, among other publications. He has created campaigns for The New York Botanical Gardens, The Ringling Museum of Art, Viacom and American Express. For fifteen years John designed holiday cards for the Museum of Modern Art. His private commissions and limited edition prints are collected widely. 

 

Available as both a 24” x 32” signed Digital Archival Print for $1,400.00 and signed 18” x 24” Poster for $35.00, both unframed, plus sales tax and shipping. All proceeds will fund the full restoration of the historic sign, Preservation Mirage is a section 501(c)(3) nonprofit (EIN 82-3717476) and your purchase may qualify as a charitable deduction for federal income tax purposes, please consult your tax adviser or the IRS.

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