CHICAGO (CBS) — If you ever plan to motor West to Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket in Willowbrook, the absence of the iconic neon sign, that has been a beacon along Route 66 for 71 years, might make you feel a little nostalgic.
“I think my sign is one of the most beautiful signs in the country,” said Patrick Rhea, owner of the restaurant.
The steel and neon emblem has been welcoming diners hungry for a fried chicken fix since the 1940s.
“Its so beautiful at night – get a dark night, no moon – it’s colorful, it speaks of history,” Rhea said.
The nostalgia along the highway is pure magic, according to Rhea, who’s restaurant welcomes visitors from all over the world.
Rhea said he asked one customer from Japan about the draw: “Why with 5,000 years of culture and history are the Japanese so interested in Route 66? And he said that’s exactly why. Because in 5,000 years, we are where you are in 200 years.”
But in spite of Patrick Rhea’s loving attention, yes that’s his family name on the sign, this icon from the past is now past its prime.
“It’s pretty much worn out,” Rhea said. “They can’t put parts in it anymore, the metal casting needs to be redone.”
The sign is being refurbished due, in part, to a $17,000 matching grant from the National Parks Service. The sign is being disassembled and trucked to a neon studio in Missouri for restoration. Artists there have reconstructed over a dozen Route 66 signs and David Hutson has worked on each of them. It is expected to take about one month.
“Some of these signs are made by big companies and have a lot of engineering, some were made in someone’s garage,” said Hutson, Neon Time.
Winding from Chicago to LA, Route 66 came to symbolize America’s roadside culture following its debite 91 years ago. But when superhighways motored past the route, it became an endangered species that the National Parks Service now works to preserve.
When asked if Rhea is nervous about the sign coming down, he responded, “it’s been there for 71 years. What happens if it goes poof and falls apart?”
It’s easy to see the sign, to Rhea it is like a member of the family, and he will be looking around the bend waiting for its return.
“It’s not just a sign that advertises my restaurant, it’s truly a piece of art,” Rhea said.
Rhea said foreign travelers arrive daily checking out the signs on Route 66. The chicken on the menu for them is just a bonus. The restoration incidentally should take about four to six weeks.