Flexlume Sign Company: Then and Now

For 120 years, Flexlume signs have adorned businesses across America. Their unique designs and patented construction techniques and innovative lighting technologies have lit up storefronts and theater marquees since the dawn of electrical signage. With a history older than World War 1, the story of Flexlume has ups and downs, but no end in sight.


vintage-flexlume-logo Vintage Flexlume logo
Source: https://www.brewaf.com/history/sign-manufacturers/flexlume-sign-corporation/


The Founding of Flexlume

Brothers Roy and Wallace Wiley partnered with W.S. Hough in 1904 to start their sign company with a novel creation they called white opal glass or “milk glass.” They made translucent letters that were pushed through signs and lit from behind to produce a vibrant glow. This signmaking technique, known as “flexible illumination,” became the heart of a company named Flexlume.

In the early 20th century, many sign companies were focused on cheap, quick production. Rather than following this trend, Roy Wiley decided that Flexlume signs would be known for their quality and craftsmanship. This focus set the trajectory for the company’s future.



Close-up of Flexlume’s white opal glass letters
Source: https://www.americansignmuseum.org/collection_item/stuertz-drugs-opal-glass-sign/


Early Success and Growth

After perfecting their formula for white opal glass and sign manufacturing techniques, the founders moved Flexlume to Buffalo, NY in 1911. Known at the time as the "City of Light", Buffalo was the first American city to have widespread electric lighting, thanks to the hydroelectric power provided by Niagara Falls.

Milk glass signs were incredibly popular in the early 20th century, and the Flexlume Sign Company grew steadily in popularity and size. By 1924, the company moved into a 125,000 square foot plant, the largest in the world for manufacturing electric signs.

Flexlume signs came in 36 different fonts and sizes, and also included unique designs like pointing hands. The commitment to quality in design and construction attracted top-tier customers like Standard Gasoline, US Tires, Chevrolet, Philco, Victrola, and Coca Cola.



Iconic Coca-Cola signs produced by Flexlume
Source: https://www.brewaf.com/history/sign-manufacturers/flexlume-sign-corporation/


The Great Depression and World Wars

One of the most powerful testaments to Flexlume’s popularity was its continued growth through the first world war, and even through the Great Depression. In fact, the company rose to 500 employees in 1933. This success came from maintaining their large client list of car dealers, movie theaters, and financial institutions.

The company’s first major setback came at the beginning of World War II. The US government designated steel and other crucial materials for the war effort, forcing Flexlume to shut its doors in 1940. Fortunately, this was not the end of Flexlume, but the beginning of a new chapter.



Gasoline and oil sellers nationwide relied on Flexlume signs
Source: https://www.americansignmuseum.org/collection_item/2-00501e11-62/


A Lineage of Caring Owners

The original three founders ran Flexlume for several decades, but by the late 1930s, both Wiley brothers had departed from the business. During WW2, the company was purchased by F.A. Rowell, owner of White’s Electric Signs.

Rowell took care of Flexlume, keeping the brand alive and continuing to produce world class commercial signage. For more than 70 years, the Flexlume Sign Company stayed in the Rowell family, passing to son and grandson. This finally changed when Paddy Rowell decided to retire and sell the company.

Thomas Hanft had worked at Flexlume and knew that the company was for sale. His son-in-law Curtis Martin toured the facility and saw tremendous opportunity for the company by updating the infrastructure and streamlining processes. Martin and Hanft purchased Flexlume in 2015 with a mission to "overhaul the century-old business without changing what it does best: create signage using impeccable craftsmanship with the unwavering goal of always doing the best work possible."


Integrating Modern Technology

Since taking over the business, Martin has invested in new equipment that increases the speed and accuracy of sign fabrication. Similarly, the company has integrated modern project management and customer relationship management (CRM) software, which allows them to manage complex projects and locate critical information effortlessly.

Modernization in both the workshop and the office has allowed Flexlume to not only maintain its edge but become even better equipped to serve large clients like M&T Bank, Speedway, 84 Lumber and many other multi-location companies across the country.


A History of Profound Projects

With 120 years of history and counting, the Flexlume Sign Company has been responsible for remarkable projects across industries. Some of these projects include:

North Park Theatre – This storied movie theatre was opened with the belief that it “should carry the power to lift the common man out of the monotony of his daily routine and transport him to worlds and to dreams he’d otherwise be incapable of rendering.” The marquee for this theatre was created by Flexlume in 1941, and endured more than half a century of use.

In 2013, the theatre’s owners embarked on a full-scale renovation of the building, which included its iconic signage. The owners returned to the team at Flexlume for this project; able to reference the original blueprints and integrate that knowledge into their renovation plans.



Flexlume created the original marquee and performed renovations on it 70+ years later
Source: https://www.buffalorising.com/2018/11/the-final-wow-for-north-park-theatre/


M&T Bank Seneca One – Seneca One provides for M&T Bank’s 330,000 square-foot tech hub and a driving force for Buffalo's growing tech ecosystem. The 40-story building stands out among the skyline and requires equally impressive signage.

This challenging sign project affixed the M&T Bank logo to all 4 sides of the building, with customizable lighting that is visible from miles away. The 28 individual channel letters each stand 12 feet tall and weigh 800 pounds, requiring specialized rigging equipment and staging to install.


M&T Bank Outdoor Signage in Buffalo Skyline (1)

M&T Bank logo lettering proudly sits atop the 40-story tech hub


Highmark Stadium – The 48-year-old stadium located in Orchard Park, NY recently signed a 10-year agreement for its naming rights with health insurer Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York.  The agreement required removing and replacing a vast amount of indoor and outdoor signage before the beginning of the Buffalo Bills’ 2022 season.

Thanks to many years of experience, Flexlume was able to handle the project and all of its challenges, which included moving electrical supply lines, custom staging, and printing 100-foot-long installation patterns to ensure perfect placement.  All of the stadium updates and rebranding were completed on time and on budget in time for the first game on August 13th.


Buffalo Bills Highmark Stadium Luxury Box Signage (1)

Flexlume’s legacy lives on through its work at the Buffalo Bills’ Highmark Stadium


International Recognition from Peers

Under Curtis Martin’s leadership, Flexlume was allowed into the World Sign Associates (WSA) by unanimous decision.  This network of North American sign companies maintain strict standards of ethics and value, which highlights their esteem for Flexlume’s quality as an electrical signmaker.



Of course Flexlume produced the signage for its new 30,000 sq.  ft.  facility


New Growth in a New Century

Steadily growing in size and demand, Flexlume outgrew its longstanding headquarters in Buffalo.  The company moved into a 30,000 square foot facility in nearby Lackawanna, NY.  The significant increase in space supports greater production capacity.  Similarly, all other departments have more space, which makes it easier for the team to handle pre-fabrication designs, permit acquisition, and all other aspects of complete signage projects.

Businesses looking to establish and grow their own history can contact the Flexlume team or schedule a meeting to discuss the custom solutions that will lead them into their own future.

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