Minnesota Avenue’s Oasis Bar sign sold to local collector

The old Oasis Bar sign, a landmark on Minnesota Avenue for more than 60 years, is being sold to a private collector.

Building owner Angie Cormier confirmed that the sign, with its camel and cactus outlined in neon, has been sold to Billings native Steve Henry, who will display it at Henry’s Garage, his corporate conference center on Garden Avenue.

Henry could not be reached for comment, but Cormier said Henry already owns other iconic Billings signs, including the Casey’s Golden Pheasant sign, the Kit-Kat Cafe sign and the Western Bar sign, which used to hang two doors down from the Oasis.

Cormier said Henry approached her and her husband, building co-owner Pat Cormier, several years ago about buying the sign. One reason they decided to sell the Oasis sign, she said, was that they were impressed with the way Henry had restored and displayed the Casey’s sign, also purchased from the Cormiers.

“He doesn’t want them to get lost,” Cormier said of the old signs, and his collection, which includes a restored ’50s diner and lots of automobile memorabilia, “is to die for.”

The Cormiers’ daughter, Michelle Lee, said she and her husband, Rod, are planning to overhaul the ground floor of the Oasis building into a studio apartment, which they will occupy, paying rent to her parents. Lee, who lived downtown for many years above what is now the Imperial Thai Cuisine restaurant on North Broadway, said they have long been planning to move back downtown.

“We’re looking at it as our forever home,” she said.

The renovation will involve removing the “awful log facade,” added in the 1950s, and replacing it with tall, storefront-style windows, Lee said, so it also seemed to her parents like a good time to take Henry up on his offer to buy the sign.

The building, at 2718 Minnesota Ave., was originally known as the Crystal Saloon. A survey of buildings in the neighborhood, conducted as part of efforts to create the Old Town Historic District, said the Crystal was built between 1900 and 1903. However, according to the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board, the building was constructed between 1896 and 1900.

That information is on the board’s Downtown Billings Historical Tour, a free web app for smart phones or tablets. Information there says the cigar shop was up front and the saloon in the rear, and that a series of restaurants occupied the front section over the years, including the Surita and Andy and Jim’s Cafe.

It later housed a series of secondhand stores until becoming the Oasis Bar. It is not clear when it became the Oasis, but Kevin Kooistra, director of the Western Heritage Center, found a clipping from the Aug. 24, 1950, Billings Herald that mentioned the Oasis.

In a story about a Billings pioneer who knew the infamous Calamity Jane “quite well,” the man was said to have met her while he was operating a roulette table at the Crystal Saloon, “where the Oasis now stands.”

So the Oasis was there by 1950 at the latest, but it is not clear when the sign went up, or, for that matter, whether it used to hang above an earlier version of the Oasis Bar, if there was one.

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

This photo was taken on Oct. 29, 2013, when some of the neon was lit up, for reasons unknown. Notice the old Western Bar sign in the background. It was sold to the same collector.

Cormier said she and her husband bought the Oasis sometime around 1990 and converted it into two apartments, one at street level and one on the second floor. The building had been vacant for years before they bought it, and most recently was home to Jimmy’s Tattoo Oasis.

Kooistra said it was disappointing to see the Oasis sign leaving Minnesota Avenue, but “the positive spin is that people love history. … With these signs, at least they’re staying with a local collector.”

Henry’s Garage, at 12 Garden Ave., on the south side of Interstate 90 a little east of South 27th Street, advertises itself as “the most unique corporate destination venue you’ll find, a facility with outstanding décor, excellent space flexibility, stage, sound system, and plenty of on-site parking.”

It can be rented for conferences and other private gatherings, and on Aug. 9 it will be the setting of a Business After Hours event sponsored by the Billings Chamber of Commerce.

Kim Olsen, with O2 Architects, who is working on the renovation for Michelle Lee and her parents, said the glass-storefront-look they are planning will be “more in keeping with the character not only of that building but of the neighborhood it’s in.”

They will have to go before the Yellowstone Historic Preservation Board as part of the process of obtaining a building permit for the renovation. Lora Mattox, the Yellowstone County historic preservation officer, said the board has no real power, but it can place recommended conditions on building plans.

Those recommendations go to the city Building Division, which can withhold a permit until the board signs off on plans. The board concerns itself only with exteriors, and tries to ensure that renovations don’t detract from the historic feel of the district, Mattox said.

Lee said the Oasis sign is scheduled to come down on July 27. At least some of the neon on the sign was working as recently as 2013, but too many segments of it have been damaged or destroyed and it no longer lights up, she said.

Olsen said Henry’s Garage “will be a good place for that to go. The sign needs a ton of work.”

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