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Restoring Hilltop Steakhouse Cactus Sign Has Been a Tall Order

Originally Posted By Emily Sweeney Globe Staff, Boston Globe

When workers began taking down pieces of the Hilltop Steakhouse cactus on Route 1 in Saugus, they weren’t sure what to expect.

“The first day, we had a person call the police on us,” said Raymond Brayton, co-owner of Barlo Signs International, Inc. in Hudson, N.H.

That was back in the spring. Since then, the sign company has spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours restoring the vintage sign, piece by piece, so it can eventually light up the night on Route 1 once again. If all goes according to plan, it should be finished sometime this fall.

“We’ve done a lot of this kind of restoration all over the country, but nothing quite as interesting as this,” Brayton said. “To see an actual cactus, almost 70 feet tall, is quite impressive.”

They were also surprised to find out how well the sign has held up. After being exposed to the elements for decades, the towering cactus was still structurally sound.

“Over all these years, the main lighting systems were still holding true in the display,” Brayton said.

The cactus has been a familiar landmark on Route 1 since the 1960s and stands as one of the last remnants of Frank Giuffrida’s Hilltop restaurant, which closed in 2013.

For a sign that age, they expected to find more deterioration.

“The craftmanship that went into this was well above and beyond what anybody should have been doing in that era,” he said.

To bring the cactus back to its former glory, the company has been consulting the original plans that were drawn up by Mack Sign Inc., the Everett-based firm that designed the cactus back in 1966.

“They did amazing work,” he said.

Much of the restoration work has been cosmetic and has involved “a lot of elbow grease” as they’ve cleaned each piece and “given them a little TLC,” he said.

Nearly half a mile (approximately 2,500 feet) of neon tubing and 210 feet of fluorescent lamps also had to be removed from the cactus, and then replaced with 2,925 total feet of LED modules, which are far more energy efficient. (How much more? The company said the change in lighting will take the sign from 180 amps, drawing 21,600 watts of power, to 43 amps, drawing 5,160 watts.)

Once the work is complete and everything is put back together, the refurbished cactus will still bear the name “Hilltop,” but there will be some new signage, too. The lower portion, which once bore Frank Giuffrida’s name, will be replaced by the word “Avalon,” which is the name of the new development that’s being built at the site. The “Steak House” sign will display the names of businesses in the new mixed-use development, which will include 24,000 square feet of retail space and 280 apartments.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Brayton said. Even with the new tweaks, “it’s still the great display it was all the way back in 1967.”

Michael Roberts, senior vice president of development with AvalonBay Communities, Inc., the company that is redeveloping the property, said the restoration of the cactus should be complete sometime this fall.

“There’s no textbook on how to restore a 68-foot neon cactus sign,” Roberts said. “It’s a pretty meticulous and detailed process.”

Roberts said that the cactus has been an “iconic and important” part of the landscape, and it will continue to be as part of the new Avalon development. “We’re excited about it,” he said.

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