Drama and resurrection of an iconic Lents landmark

By BARBARA BADER

(Barbara Bader is a former Lents Neighborhood Association board member-at-large.)

Once upon a time, a flashy 14-foot neon sign presided over the Lents Town Center. For four decades, the red, luminous profile of Abraham Lincoln was the herald of The New Copper Penny’s (NCP) betting parlor, lounge, bar, restaurant, and Pantheon Banquet Hall.

Despite the New Copper Penny’s sometimes controversial reputation, its sign was a glowing beacon for residents. When the NCP was sold in 2016 and scheduled for demolition by Palindrome Communities, many Lents residents campaigned to save the sign for its historic value, as a symbol of Lents collective memory, and for its kitschy coolness.

The New Copper Penny dominated Lents’ central intersection at SE 92nd Ave and Foster Rd, until it was razed in January 2017 to make way for the Palindrome’s Oliver Station, a mix of apartments and retail space.

Overview

More than three years ago, the Tzantarmas family gave the sign to the Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA) to hold for the people of Lents until a new location to display it was found. Many, but certainly not all, community members had expressed in a variety of ways their hopes that the historic sign might be saved and repurposed for display in Lents.

Though I’d resigned from the LNA board in September 2018, I made my own unsuccessful inquiries, keeping the board in the loop, that fall to help find a new home for the NCP sign. To establish the chain of ownership necessary for anyone taking the sign from the LNA, I’d asked Deana Tzantarmas to send a letter to the board verifying that her family had given the sign to the LNA.

I bowed out of the process after I discovered that the board had created a committee to deal with the sign. I updated the LNA membership of my actions at the January 2019 general meeting (52:27). At the same meeting, LNA board chair Sabina Urdes explained some of the new committee’s suggestions deal with the sign. She stressed that they’d come to no conclusions and welcomed suggestions.

In January of this year, Deana Tzantarmas sent the letter on behalf of her family to LNA vice-president Sarah Wines confirming that they’d offered ownership of the sign to the LNA. Other LNA records and actions indicate that the organization had taken ownership.  

Current LNA board members decided by February and March this year that no evidence exists that convinced them the LNA owned the sign.

The LNA board then wrote to Cindy Martin, the owner of local business Tidee Didee Diaper Service & Natural Baby Boutique, shifting all responsibility for the sign onto her. Martin had granted the LNA the favor of temporary free use of outside space at Tidee Didee two years earlier to store the sign.

LNA board’s decision

On May 3, I sent the first of several requests for comment for this story to Urdes. On May 26 she emailed the following:

“After much research, neither the LNA, nor anyone else, has provided documentation showing a clear owner of the sign. It is our understanding that Tidee Didee has the strongest legal claim to ownership of the sign. We, as a community organization, can not simply declare ownership of the sign. Additional details are available in our meeting minutes, which can be found at lentsneighborhoodassociation.com.”

In the email, Urdes writes that the statement is on “behalf of the LNA.” In effect, it seems the LNA board shed its responsibility for the sign without membership discussion of that decision and action, without giving LNA members a chance to vote, or even publicizing an announcement of intent. A request for the letter sent to Martin was acknowledged by the LNA secretary, but has not been provided.

Travels & travails of the NCP sign

The one-ton sign had been moved twice by the LNA since Palindrome removed it for preservation October 26, 2016, finally spending two years stored in the Tidee Didee parking lot. A couple of Lents residents threw a tarp over the sign, which was built to survive decades of outdoor conditions outside the New Copper Penny, in the mistaken belief that the LNA had abandoned it to deteriorate in the Portland weather. The covered sign attracted vandals who threw barrels on it, breaking many of the neon tubes hidden by the tarp.

Public awareness

A concerned LNA member directed me to a few lines written about the board’s decision in the February and March 2019 board meeting minutes. In turn, I reported that information in the “I Love Lents” Facebook group. “I Love Lents” is a closed and moderated group with more than 3,000 members. I am one of five admins.

Gauging from discussion threads there, concerned Lents folks were unaware of the board’s decision and the letter to Martin shifting all responsibility for the sign’s future onto her. I am one of those who expressed indignation on “I Love Lents” at the board’s actions in the name of the LNA membership.

It seemed as if the board ignored years of direct and indirect evidence, including a financial statement, funds paid, correspondence, references in available meeting minutes, and some members’ recollections from meetings where no minutes had been filed— which all point to the NCP sign as an LNA responsibility.

(Link to LNA 2017 Financial Statements – screenshot below is from Page 9 of the document. The sign is listed as “3. Property and Equipment”.)

Though the board did not add a discussion of their decision about the sign to an agenda for a general membership meeting, Autumn West and I spoke up at the April 2019 general meeting (15:45 and 17:35 below) to express our shock at the LNA board’s lack of integrity and transparency for forcing Martin to deal with the destiny of the sign.

Martin did not want to be interviewed for this article. She expressed to me that the sign had to go, but wanted to avoid trashing it. She preferred to save the sign for the people of Lents as originally intended by the LNA.

Within days of receiving the letter from the LNA board shifting the burden of the sign to her, Martin had found four credible potential homes for the sign. She discussed the situation with a lawyer and with Deana Tzantarmas before giving the sign to Erin Wagner, who stepped up to give the iconic landmark a safe home in the neighborhood.

“Cindy contacted me to explain her idea and make sure we were okay with it,” Tzantarmas wrote. “There’s a lot of honor in this approach and I greatly appreciate her respect and integrity. She has my blessing.”

Future at The Eagle Eye

Wagner plans to refurbish and display the sign in her Lents tavern, The Eagle Eye, at 5836 SE 92nd Ave. That’s just around the corner from the sign’s original location near the entrance to the New Copper Penny.

Wagner hopes to fit the sign in the karaoke room by opening up a false ceiling there. “If it won’t fit inside the karaoke room once the false ceiling’s removed then an outside patio would be my next option.”  

The Eagle Eye Tavern’s karaoke room.

She has experience working with other neon signs she’s collected. “I estimate neon repairs to be a couple grand based off past repairs I’ve had done.” Once the sign is installed, Wagner estimates that keeping the neon turned on might double The Eagle Eye’s electricity bill.

There’s no timetable yet for refurbishing and displaying the sign. Wagner says her immediate goal was “to relieve Tidee Didee of the burden this sign had caused and hopefully put an end to any neighborhood disputes surrounding it.”

New Copper Penny history

Some of the NCP sign drama is rooted in the history of the controversial New Copper Penny itself. Some with deep roots in Lents recall good times when the NCP was a gathering place for family dinners, dancing, and events. Others saw the NCP only as a dangerous and decrepit magnet for an unsavory crowd, which led to at least one shooting, a death, and many police calls.

After owner Saki Tzantarmas sold the New Copper Penny to Palindrome Communities in April 2016, many in the community hoped the large red neon Lincoln-head penny might be saved when the NCP was demolished to make way for the new development, Oliver Station. Ideas circulated about its historical value, and how it might be displayed or repurposed.

At the Tzantarmas family’s request, Palindrome removed the sign intact. The family, in turn, gave it to the LNA to store until the association found a way to display it in the community.

Saki was well-known and well-loved by many in Lents. People remember his big personality and generosity to neighborhood individuals, as well as his support for beloved local events and institutions, such as Founder’s Day, Concerts in the Park, and the Wattles Boys & Girls Club.

He supported the LNA, for example, by putting on free dinners. Its treasury grew because of proceeds from fundraisers. Back when every Founder’s Day included a party in Lents Park, Saki was there feeding the crowd. Saki died July 20, 2017.

It’s important to note that community support for saving the sign has always been mixed. Some thought it should be demolished along with the New Copper Penny, given their feelings about the disreputable aspects of the business. Others loved the sign. In keeping with years of fond family memories of good times at the New Copper Penny, they were enthusiastic about saving it.

On behalf of the Tzantarmas family, Saki’s daughter Deana offered the sign to the LNA as a gift to the people of Lents. The LNA took responsibility for storing the sign until the community decided how and where to display it.

Transport and storage

In late summer and fall 2016, Palindrome Communities’ head of development, Robert Gibson, and the LNA’s Land Use Chair, Cora Potter, coordinated the initial removal, transport, and storage of the sign. The sign was never Potter’s actual responsibility, but she ended up managing the project for the LNA board. Despite her repeated requests for help throughout the sign’s long saga with the LNA, Potter recalls that no board or community member followed through with assistance.

Gibson offered the LNA free storage for the sign in the basement of Zoiglhaus Brewing Company, 5716 SE 92nd Ave. ZHaus was Palindrome’s first investment in Lents. “The sign would not fit in the freight elevator at Zhaus, and therefore could not be stored in the basement. This was the original plan for storage,” he said.  

At the August 2016 LNA board meeting, Potter informed the group that Commissioner Nick Fish had volunteered a staffer to arrange storage space with the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) in its Troutdale warehouse. Other board members approved and thanked her for her efforts, she recalls. May through September 2016 board meeting minutes were not filed.

Security Signs removed the sign from the soon-to-be-demolished New Copper Penny on October 26, 2016. Palindrome shouldered the $4,700 fee for its removal and relocation to the OHS warehouse, according to Gibson.

OHS sent a storage agreement in November to the LNA board. It warned the LNA that the warehouse would be closed up in April 2017. As that deadline approached, a community member who volunteered to search for new storage space had not followed through.

The rush was on for the LNA to arrange transport to an unknown new space for the weighty landmark. Potter stepped back in to fix the problem. “I felt a responsibility for ensuring that we didn’t dump the sign for OHS to deal with as they closed their warehouse,” she recalls.

Community help appeared in the form of Martin, who called Potter when she heard about the concerned board member’s many social media requests for help. Cindy came to the rescue of the LNA by storing the sign for free in the large parking lot of Tidee Didee, her business at the corner of SE 92nd Ave and Woodstock Blvd, a stone’s throw from the old New Copper Penny site.

Security Signs had been booked to move the heavy 14-foot sign from Troutdale to Tidee Didee at an hourly rate approved by the LNA board via email. As it turned out, the company added a second employee for the job, which still took two hours longer than predicted. The cost ballooned to $1,260 from the original quote of $350 to $600, thanks to the extra time and doubled cost of labor. The bill was paid to Security Signs by the treasurer, according to April and May 2017 LNA general meeting minutes.

Ownership Controversy

Neighborhood drama escalated when a discontented LNA member convinced himself and some others that the Tzantarmas family had given the sign not to the LNA, but to the “I Love Lents” Facebook group. It seems obvious that the Facebook page “I Love Lents,” is not a physical entity, is not owned by anyone except Facebook, and can’t own anything.

The LNA member based his notion on a nonsensical statement falsely attributed to Deana Tzantarmas by Aaron Mesh in Willamette Week’s July 12, 2016 article “Portland’s Best Giant Neon Gift Is the Copper Penny Sign in Lents“.

Mesh wrote “… Saki’s relative Deana Tzantarmas sent a Facebook offer to the “I Love Lents” neighborhood group: They could keep the giant neon penny, gratis.”

Willamette Week’s inaccurate statement, and some people’s stubborn belief in it despite rebuttals, fueled the final destiny of the sign.

Deana actually wrote, “I have expressed to my family the neighborhood’s repeated comments about your desire to keep the iconic Penny around after the NCP building demolition. It’s with much love for this neighborhood that we would like to donate it to our Lents community. If someone from LNA (?) could contact me so we know how to proceed, I’d be grateful.”

As recently as the January 2019 LNA membership meeting (1:04:55), a member continued to suggest that ownership of the sign was unclear.

During the February 2019 LNA board meeting, even board members questioned whether the Facebook group owned the sign. According to its meeting minutes, the board “Still [has] questions on ownership since it’s not a registered asset, uncertainty over whether it was donated to LNA or the I Love Lents group.”

The board had already received Deana Tzantarmas’ confirmation that the sign was offered to the LNA, not to a facebook group, in her letter to the board. It was signed by 10 family members, including Deana.

“I understand there is some confusion about the New Copper Penny sign’s ownership and thought I would write to clarify things,” Tzantarmas wrote in her January letter. “When my father Theodosios “Saki” Tzantarmas sold the New Copper Penny property to Palindrome Communities, we asked the neon sign remain ours. After some discussion with Cora Potter, I offered the New Copper Penny sign to the Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA) on behalf of my father and siblings.”  

Once the LNA board’s final decision and actions became widely known this year, Tzantarmas wote, “My family donated the sign to the community, via the LNA, because we heard from so many people how much they thought the sign was a neighborhood landmark and should stay in Lents. I’m disappointed in how the LNA has handled this situation and how much controversy the sign has raised as a whole. Particularly, making the sign Cindy’s responsibility is shameful. Neighborhood kindness should never be taken advantage of like this.”

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