The sign had already been standing on its three long legs for a decade by the time Tom Nebelsick joined Randolph Car Wash, and that was more than 40 years ago.
The top section — Randolph in red neon, Car Wash in colored panels — used to revolve. The three-sided clock below used to tell the time to those stopped at the corner of 21st and N streets.
Before it disappeared, the sign became a fixture on the east edge of downtown, a symbol of his family’s business.
“It was near and dear to my heart,” Nebelsick said last week. “A lot of people have inquired about that sign.”
The car wash had opened in 1967 to clean the cars at the dealership across the street to the east, at Randolph Oldsmobile, owned by Nebelsick’s grandfather, Floyd Randolph.
But the long, brick building on the corner also served the public, and the public couldn’t miss it. Separate from the sign, eight pillars towered above the building itself, with more backlit blocks spelling out Randolph Car Wash.
Tom Nebelsick kept the equipment working and his wife, Nadine, kept the books. Over the course of four decades, they figured they gave jobs to maybe 400 employees, mostly young workers.
They sprayed and scrubbed and rinsed and vacuumed and detailed interiors. And they worked year-round, because here’s something most people don’t realize about car washes, Nebelsick said: They’re busier in the winter than in the summer.
“I’m proud a lot of kids got a chance to do some hands-on, honest work that served the needs of the community,” he said. “But there was quite a bit of turnover; it was not easy work.”
Change came gradually at first. Randolph Oldsmobile was sold to Williamson Honda, which later sold the land to the city and moved south. The neon Randolph stopped revolving. The clock stopped telling time, and the wind blew its hands off.
It had just become too difficult to maintain, Tom Nebelsick said. “But we kept the lighting going on it.”
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Then change came quickly. Speedway Properties and Nelnet announced plans to replace this industrial fringe of downtown with the $50 million Telegraph District.
The massive makeover includes the construction of 14 buildings — and the remodeling of nine — to create 650,000 square feet of new offices, apartments, condos and shopping space.
And the two companies needed the car wash site, which had become a valuable piece of property. Last summer, Nebelsick made an announcement on Facebook.
“We are shutting the garage doors for the last time,” he wrote. “This is the end of an era and we thank Lincolnites for their patronage over the years.”
That was in June. But he kept returning to 21st and N, and he kept posting photos of the slow dismantling of the business.
And he shared plenty of pictures of the sign.
In December, he posted a photo of a crane easing the sign down, uprooted for the first time in more than 50 years. He wrote: “Maybe one day we’ll see it again.”
Maybe he will.
The new owners of the old car wash put the sign in storage, said Nelnet spokesman Ben Kiser. He didn't provide details, but they ultimately hope to return it to the neighborhood, a sign from its earlier time.