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Sunday, March 10, 2013
When we describe Roanoke, we talk about a vibrant city nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains: a place that is rich in history, community spirit and natural beauty. Regionally, we promote Roanoke as part of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, filled with genuine hospitality and with opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities and explore an active cultural scene. We’re also proud of our railroad heritage and how it spurred our success — first as a town, and then as a city. But that’s not how we officially portray ourselves to the world.
Picture this: Lady Justice seated in the forefront, on guard with a pair of scales in one hand and a sword in the other hand, a cog wheel and sledgehammer at her foot; in the background are the smoke stacks of business and industry, and a railway engine pulling a train loaded with cargo; city buildings frame the horizon. The image described is our current city seal, adopted by Roanoke City Council in 1906 to replace the original 1884 Historic City Seal. While those elements may have depicted our city’s industrial prominence at that time, most people would agree the Roanoke of today is a very different place.
Why does our city seal matter? First, it is the official symbol used to signify Roanoke as a government. Second, it is an image reflecting our heritage, what makes Roanoke special. Thus, the image needs to be simple and clear. And it should be something future generations can look at and easily understand its significance.
Roanoke’s history and heritage are very important to me as the city manager. Where we have been and how we have evolved is crucial in shaping the direction for Roanoke, and how we should move forward as a city. But it is also important that the dominant image seen by the outside world as representing Roanoke transcends time, something that will always be true about our city.
To this end, on Monday, I presented city council with a proposal to consider changing the image used to represent the city from the 1906 City Seal, to the Historic City Seal adopted by city council in 1884. The importance of making this change is evident given the striking difference in these two images.
The Historic City Seal is direct and to the point, reflecting Roanoke as a city in the mountains, where people sought a new life via the prominent mode of transportation at that time — the railroad. Those ingredients were what set the city’s future in motion. Today we appreciate our unique place both historically and geographically, and the historic seal more clearly reflects the confluence of the natural and man-made environment that formed the city in which we live.
Some people may confuse the purpose of the city seal with that of a city brand image or logo. A city seal is an image that conveys a clear concept of the locality’s heritage; it is timeless. A city brand image or logo depicts a current view of a locality; it is timely. The message of a city seal never changes; it is our history — why we exist. The message of a city brand image or logo incorporates a specific point of view of the locality and is used to promote the city; it has the flexibility to reflect current times.
In 1975, the city entertained the idea of revising the seal and held a contest for the public to submit possible designs to use. Not surprisingly, the contest grew out of a desire to change the seal to reflect Roanoke more currently. The winning design was a seashell concept, which was ultimately rejected as not suitable because it was thought the image was likely to be confused with current logos used by some national companies such as Shell Oil. City seals should be self-evident, needing little or no explanation.
In response to council members’ comments made to me about the city seal, I began to look into its history and the possibility of revising it. As part of that process, I asked the city clerk to look into the archives for any background information her office might have. Her discovery was the original pen-and-ink drawing of the Historic City Seal by Kennedy Palmer who, at the time, was an employee of Stone Manufacturing and Printing Co. Over the past few months, the city’s Office of Communications worked with Access, a local public relations and advertising firm, to recreate the Historic City Seal as a digital file, and add color to it.
As in 1975, the opportunity has now presented itself to reconsider the prominent image used to represent Roanoke’s government. Now is the time to re-examine and re-establish what we, as a city, want to be known for — not just for today, but throughout history. Because of its classic beauty and simple message, I heartily endorse the Historic City Seal as the more timeless symbol. Now, I would love to hear what you think about our current and historic city seals. Please let me know by providing your comments at roanokeva.gov/cityseal.
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