September 26, 2016

Kaiser Permanente hospital signage

Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center showing palimpsest of former signage that reads 'KAISER FOUNDATION HOSPITAL'
Old Redwood City Medical Center showing palimpsest of former signage — "KAISER FOUNDATION HOSPITAL," 2014

In early 2015 I got a call from the project manager handling the rebuild of the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center. He asked if Heritage Resources might be interested in the old signage from the sides of the 1968 building designed by Portland, Ore., architects Wolff and Zimmer.

My answer was immediate. “Are you kidding? Of course!”

A year and a half later I finally drove my van over and picked them up. Our archive does not have a lot of objects — most of what we have are photographs and documents — and these artifacts were glorious physical treasures from an important medical facility.

Kaiser Center sign, Oakland, California

The lettering is distinctive and was common to the whole suite of Henry J. Kaiser’s many international industries from the 1940s through the late 1960s — steel, aluminum, cement, engineering, and even the proud lone survivor, the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan. The huge word KAISER in a version of this lettering (note the slightly different "K") graces the side of Oakland’s iconic Kaiser Center, which was built in 1960.

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan logo, 1959
Kaiser Foundation Health Plan logo, 1959

But what exactly is this lettering? It’s not full-blooded anything but was produced specifically for Kaiser. We don’t know if it was done in-house or by an outside design firm. California typographic historian Alastair Johnston thought it was “…probably influenced by Aldo Novarese, who designed Microgramma type.” Noted American design author Steven Heller chimed in: “…kind of looks like a [reworked] version of Eurostyle, the O is almost square or like an outline of a TV set. Novarese also designed Eurostile, it’s the same family of square-based gothics. [Kaiser] … overemphasized the italic.”

Old Kaiser Permanente logo, circa 1974
Kaiser Foundation Health Plan logo, circa 1970 (changed 1984)

Regardless of typographic pedigree, these 15-inch tall letters are powerful historic artifacts. They were handcrafted from heavy gauge sheet steel, enameled the equivalent of our brand’s Pantone 307 blue. They held up very well over 46 years of exterior use.

Corporate logos and building signage are the proud public faces of an organization. These physical veterans extracted from Redwood City have now been retired to fulfill a new role in sharing our history.

Digitally assembled signage recreation that reads 'KAISER FOUNDATION HOSPITAL'
Digitally assembled signage recreation from individual letter photos
Pile of blue singage letters