When the 400-foot-tall Magnolia Petroleum building opened in 1922, it was the city’s first skyscraper – and tallest building west of the Mississippi River. With 29 floors and seven elevators, the Magnolia building towered over the nearby Adolphus Hotel, built in 1913.
After the 1922 opening, a local reporter described the Magnolia – which cost the oil company $4 million to build – as “a great peg driven into the ground holding Dallas in its place.” In 1925, when Standard Oil Company of New York (Socony) acquired Magnolia Petroleum Company, the Dallas headquarters building was included. Nine years later Pegasus would land on the roof.
The flying red horses began their journey in 1911, when a Vacuum Oil Company subsidiary in Cape Town, South Africa, first trademarked the Pegasus logo. Based in Rochester, New York, Vacuum Oil had built a successful petroleum lubricants business around an 1869 patent by its founder, Hiram Everest, long before gasoline was even a branded product. At first, a stylized red gargoyle advertised the company, which produced the earliest petroleum-based lubricants for horse-drawn carriages and steam engines.
The Pegasus trademark proved to be a more enduring image. In Greek mythology, Pegasus – a winged horse – carried thunderbolts for Zeus. By 1931 growth of the automobile industry expanded the Vacuum Oil product lineup to include Pegasus Spirits and Mobilgas – later simplified to Mobil.
When Standard Oil of New York and Vacuum Oil combine to form Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, the new company adopted the familiar winged trademark, as does an affiliate, Magnolia Petroleum.
It took a year to build the rotating 35-foot by 40-foot Pegasus sign. It first beamed its red neon glow in 1934, welcoming the first annual meeting to be held in Dallas by the American Petroleum Institute.
For decades the emblem slowly rotated above the growing city as corporate consolidations and mergers changed Socony-Vacuum ownership. In 1955 the name of the company changed to Socony Mobil Oil; in 1966 became just Mobil Oil.
A neon Pegasus displayed at the 1939 New York World’s Fair found its way to a Mobil gas station in Casa Linda, Texas, and later to the Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture – where it’s on exhibit today.
In 1974 the petroleum icon’s motor ground to a halt. Mobile Oil moved out of the Magnolia building three years later and sold the aging skyscraper and glowing but unmoving sign to the city of Dallas. Twenty-years later, Pegasus’ neon lights finally went out.
As a Denver-based developer restored and transformed the deteriorating Magnolia building into a luxurious 330 room hotel in the late 1990s, a group of patrons and corporate partners joined in to bring the broken and rusty Pegasus sign back to life. They raised more than $600,000 for the project
Project Pegasus targeted New Year’s Eve of 1999 and dawn of the new millennium to reintroduce Dallas citizens to their petroleum heritage landmark. Restoration of the 8,000-pound sign proved challenging.
The derrick-like tower structure was reparable and the old mechanical rotation system could be updated with new technology. But time and weather had damaged the porcelain coated steel signage and neon tubing. New 16-gauge steel panels had to be cut, using the originals as templates.
Only two facilities in the United States were large enough to accommodate baking the emblematic red porcelain onto the new panels; fortunately, both were in Dallas. More than 1,000 feet of new neon tubing was required to trace the familiar outlines as craftsmen and technicians remained faithful to the original.
The efforts of all were rewarded at midnight on December 31, 1999, when fireworks and millennium celebrations welcomed Pegasus back to the Dallas skyline.
Problems led to the sign being turned off in March 2013 until restored in June by Starlite Sign of Denton, Texas.
Although cost of fixing the machinery that once turned the structure was too high to attempt, even stationary, “the new lights will glow from dusk until dawn,” said a city official. The public art manager for the Office of Cultural Affairs manages its maintenance. Kay Kallos, manager of the department proclaimed, “The Pegasus sign is a beloved icon of the city of Dallas.”