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What happened to one of Vancouver's most iconic neon signs?

"I would feel terrible if this beautiful sign had somehow been sign-napped from Vancouver"

Vancouver used to be one of the great neon cities, and one of the icons of that era still exists, even if it's not sitting above a cafe in East Vancouver.

The Only Seafood Cafe seahorse was one of the most popular signs that survived from the city's neon-era in the 1950s. For a time, Vancouver had 19,000 different signs.

Located above the cafe at 20 E Hastings St., the red seahorse hung above the street for decades and became an icon of the city's vibrant history.

The sign's history

The brothers Nick and Gustave Thodos opened the cafe in the 1910s and it became a long-running spot for fish and other seafood. The Only's iconic sign, however, was designed in 1950 and created by Neon Products (which is now a part of Pattison ID).

The Thodos family ran the cafe until 1992; the business continued for a bit but closed permanently in 2010.

After The Only's closure, the fate of the sign was up in the air a bit, though it was brought down at one point and refurbished. The refurbished sign can still be spotted hanging on the building in Google Streetview in 2012. The building was torn down in 2021.

The sign's mystery

And since the building is gone, so is the sign.

But if one were to search all of Google Streetview, the Only Seafood Cafe sign can be found...sort of.

In Pueblo, Colorado, there's a place called Neon Alley. Started by Joe Koncilja and his brother, Neon Alley is a huge collection of neon all in one place: an alley behind restaurants on West B Street near South Victoria Street.

And up on one of the brick buildings, surrounded by dozens of other signs and movie posters, sits a familiar design. But it's not the sign.

"I would feel terrible if this beautiful sign had somehow been sign-napped from Vancouver," Koncilja tells V.I.A. in an email. 

"Fortunately, the sign is a recreation of the original based upon pictures that I happened upon some time ago."

While most of the signs in the collection are originals, the seahorse is one of a handful that was remade; that’s why it’s not exactly the same (the seahorse is on the wrong side, notably).

So where is the real Only Seafood neon sign?

Safe and sound, says Matt Thodos. He's Nick's grandson.

"It's in my family's care," he tells V.I.A.

Before the building came down the sign was removed and given to him, along with his brother, sister, and mother (who's 93).

He says Vancouver's beloved neon seahorse is in storage and good condition.

"People have tried to buy it in the past," Thodos explains, adding that he and the family have decided against selling.

The old neon sign would be difficult to put up in Vancouver now, Thodos notes, due to laws around signage. Because it had stayed in the same spot on the cafe for so long new laws didn't apply to it.

"There's nothing planned for it," he adds.