- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the era of electronic billboards, chain stores and corporate logos, few commercial signs remain in the District that can match the iconic red-and-yellow neon glow of the Central Liquors sign in the heart of the city’s downtown shopping district.

Yet due to tough economic times or, perhaps, the high price of D.C. real estate, the vintage landmark, a “blade sign” that has hung like an upside-down thermometer above the store’s various Penn Quarter locations since 1934, is in jeopardy.

In August, after encountering difficulty in keeping up with the rent, Central Liquors’ owners, Alec Akopov, Gregory Baiatyan and Valery Akopov, vacated the storefront at 917 F St. and relocated to the 600 block of E Street.

But missing from the new location on the ground floor of a condominium complex is the one-story tall sign that has distinguished Central Liquors for the better part of a century, inspiring photographs and artist renderings that place it in the city’s cultural landscape. Asked about the sign’s fate, Alec Akopov said his current landlord does not permit a sign that large because of the residential units above him.

“The [F Street] building owner now owns the sign,” he told The Washington Times this week. “It is not ours anymore. We have a nice new space here and a nice new sign.”

Robin Mathews, vice president of asset management for Stavins & Axelrod, the property management company that owns the F Street building, confirmed that her company is trying to figure out what to do with the Central Liquors sign, calling it a “delicate issue.”

According to Ms. Mathews, the store owners simply abandoned the sign when they realized it could not go above their new location.

“It’s large, and it’s bolted to the building,” she said. “It’ll take a crane to move it, and it will cost us a lot of money. If the new tenant can’t use it or rework it, then we’ll have to figure out a way to dispose of it. It’s a neat sign. The building itself is historic.”

Ms. Mathews added that she has considered approaching the owner of another Penn Quarter destination, 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, where celebrity chef Michel Richard’s Bistro Central is located, to see if they might be interested in the sign.

No matter where the sign ends up, it is likely that some other store’s gain will be 917 F St.’s loss.

Thanks to the Central Liquors sign, the historic F Street building, with a restored facade that reads Thos. E. Waggaman, Auctioneer across the top, stands resplendent in the middle of a block that already has been stripped of much of its authenticity and surrounded by condos, tourist attractions and the bustling newness of Gallery Place, the Verizon Center and mainstream restaurants like McCormick & Schmick’s.

Of particular concern to one constituency is the store that will be replacing Central Liquors: a souvenir shop.

Joann Newhouse, executive director of the Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association, described the Central Liquors sign as “typical of another era.” But preserving that era could be difficult with a souvenir shop in place of one of D.C.’s oldest existing liquor stores.

“This is the first time we’ve had a souvenir store on F Street,” Ms. Newhouse said. “The building owners told us ‘we’re sorry you aren’t happy about this,’ and I’m astounded that they thought we might be.”

• Jeffrey Anderson can be reached at jmanderson@washingtontimes.com.

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