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The Journey of the "Jesus Saves" Neon

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, September 16, 2010, at 02:47PM
Eric Richardson [Flickr]

This pair of "Jesus Saves" neon signs have stood atop the United Artists theatre since 1989, but the first went up Downtown in 1935.

They’re a familiar fixture in the Downtown skyline, but many who have seen the pair of neon “Jesus Saves” signs have little idea just why exactly they shine out over South Park every night.

Today the signs sit atop the United Artists Theatre, which since 1989 has served as home of the University Cathedral.

That spot wasn’t where the signs first became famous, however.

The first sign was dedicated on February 17, 1935 by Rev. Louis T. Talbot and the congregation of the Church of the Open Door, which met on the campus of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles at 6th and Hope. It stood atop the school’s north dormitory, which had been converted to hotel use at the time.

A second sign was later added to the school’s matching south dormitory. There they stood for a half century.

In 1959 the school moved its operations to 50 acres in La Mirada, where today it is better known as simply BIOLA.

The church stayed, though, even as attendance started to drop. Where the congregation once averaged over 3,000 in the mid-1950s, only 600 to 800 were attending when the church decided to look at relocation in 1983. It inked a deal to purchase land in Glendora, and in January of 1984 signed a contract to sell the church facility to a developer who planned to raze it and build an office tower for $14 million.

It was when that deal fell through that things began to get interesting.

In January of 1986, television preacher Gene Scott purchased the church building for $23 million after the original developer defaulted. “Over my dead body will a wrecking ball now ever hit the front of that church or tear down those signs,” Scott told the L.A. Times, referring to the iconic “Jesus Saves” signs.

So well-known were the signs that the paper often referred to the structure simply as the `Jesus Saves’ Church in headlines.

Scott was welcomed by Church of the Open Door when he showed up to purchase their building, but later non-payment and legal wranglings left the two parties less than friendly.

The earthquake-damaged Hope Street building was finally torn down in 1988. Scott would lease the theater the following year, telling his congregation on the Sunday of the purchase that he had plans for the top of the building that could be “seen from the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways.”

According to an account given during an episode of Huell Howser’s “Downtown” series, Scott ended up purchasing the signs from a scrapyard after the church refused to sell them to him.

While the preacher passed away in 2005 and the theater building is up for sale, his signs are still visible from just as far away.

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