Vintage sign from Bozeman landmark illuminates MSU architecture studio’s vision
The only thing larger than the sign on top of Bozeman’s former Burger Inn diner was the heart of its owner, the late Emanuel “Manny” Voulkos, who was known for his gruff exterior and his belief that no one should go hungry — especially students.
While Voulkos died in 1995, the two-story sign that once graced “Manny’s,” a 24-hour diner that opened in 1935 at the corner of Seventh and Main, has been restored and installed in the student architecture studio in Montana State University’s Cheever Hall. There, it serves as a reminder of Bozeman’s past and lights the way to the area’s future design.
“The Manny’s sign has two levels of significance,” said Dean Adams, a ceramics professor in the School of Art and associate dean of the College of Arts and Architecture. “As part of the built environment, signs are a part of architecture that we do not always think of when we consider buildings.
“I suppose there is a nostalgic element, too,” Adams added. “I always think of the Manny’s sign as a beacon in the lonely night. … Manny’s sign served as a welcome beacon to travelers and for the Montana State College students who were awake when most were asleep.”
Manny purchased Bozeman’s Burger Inn in 1949 with his brother, Peter, who went on to become one of the most influential ceramic artists of contemporary times after graduating in 1951 from the School of Art at what was then Montana State College. Commonly known as Manny’s, the drive-in operated in Bozeman until Manny’s retirement in the early ‘80s. It was known for dishwater coffee, greasy fries and tough steaks.
The two-story sign that called attention to the diner was built sometime in the 1950s, the neon tubes heated and bent to match the exact curvature of the letters: Burger Inn; Good Food. And for three decades, the sign blinked in the night, directing truck drivers and penniless students to Bozeman’s 24-hour burger joint.
More than 60 years later, the sign with a blinking arrow and marching lights shines again, newly installed in the two-story School of Architecture studio space. While there’s no Formica countertop or late-night food for sale in Cheever Hall, the restored sign conjures stories from Bozeman’s past.
“I think about this sign’s stories — they’re bigger than the sign itself,” said Christopher Livingston, associate professor in the School of Architecture.
And each story sheds light on the generous nature of the restaurant owner himself.
“Manny was somebody who lived during the Depression as a young person,” said Adams, who grew up near Bozeman and visited the Burger Inn as a child. “He thought that nobody should be hungry.” The restaurant was comprised of a single counter and 10 stools, and Adams added that “they always said that he fed the whole town, 10 people at a time.”
“He fed everyone, no matter who they were or how much money they had,” Manny’s daughter, Marcella Robino, said. “If they were broke, he’d find a way for them to do chores to pay for the meal. They ate first, though.”
Adams recalled a story told to him by his mother and his aunt. They were both in high school several decades ago and decided to stop by Manny’s on Thanksgiving before going home to holiday dinner.
“[Manny] thought they were poor students who didn’t have a place to go on Thanksgiving, so he cooked them a huge meal,” Adams said. Laughing, he recalled how angry their mother was upon their return home for having ruined their Thanksgiving dinner.
At the time of Manny’s death in 1995, Bozeman native, former legislator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dorothy Bradley was quoted saying that Voulkos had “his own scholarship program. He literally helped students through school by feeding them.”
After Manny’s retirement, the Burger Inn was dismantled and, as the story goes, some architecture thesis students convinced the city to let them have the sign. It was placed on the east wall of Cheever’s studio space; however, the broken shards of neon were dim.
It wasn’t until 2013, after the sign was removed to make room for seismic renovations in Cheever Hall, that restoration became an option.
Rather than reinstall a dysfunctional sign, former School of Architecture faculty member Bill Rea coordinated with the general contractors undertaking the seismic work to re-install the working sign on the south wall of the studio.
“Langlas and Associates offered to cover half the cost of the restoration if the School of Architecture covered the other half,” said Steve Juroszek, a professor in the School of Architecture. “Mosaic Architecture, AIA Montana and the School of Architecture Advisory Council generously provided the funding to cover that half of the restoration.”
“The Burger Inn was a special place in Bozeman — in large part due to Manny’s generosity with students and because it was open 24 hours a day,” Juroszek said. “It was a wonderful part of the local fabric, something that distinguishes the small-town community feeling that Bozeman had. So many students ate there — and many of them were in the groups that funded the sign’s restoration.”
The restoration team had to do a little detective work, Juroszek said. They had to rebuild the back of the sign to house electrical components and so it could be properly hung. They also had to do some research to match the colors of the new neon to the original.
The sign isn’t always on, but when it is, the structure comes to life. The neon glass glows and alternating letters G and F flicker to spell the words, “Good Food.” Light bulbs blink in series along the length of the arrow, marching in time. Sound emanates from the metal and glass as the sign takes mechanical breaths.
“I think it makes people think about making things big,” Juroszek added. “Sometimes I think we’re just way too serious. Can’t architecture and space be fun?”
Students have access to the studio space where Manny’s sign now resides 24-hours a day. To Livingston, it is only fitting the sign finds its home there.
“People spend a lot of time in this building,” he said. “People have always spent a lot of time in this building. Signs are boring these days. … [Manny’s] brings up ideas of memory and narrative, that storytelling is very important for the built environment.”
“We are all deeply committed to preserving the artifacts of the built environment that are unique to their time,” Juroszek said. “We all value good design and this sign is a wonderful example of that.”