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Finding The Lost Art in Las Vegas Architecture

By Matthew Braga

The Neon Museum has the vibe of a junkyard. But make no mistake, the signs here have been carefully curated and arranged, saved over the years from destruction by a dedicated team of heritage-minded enthusiasts. There's real historical value in even a shattered neon tube.

It looks like this is where signs go to die. But upon closer inspection, it's actually where they've been given a second life.

There are giant rusting letters strewn about, outlined by neon while incandescent bulbs handle fill. There are myriad fonts, from lowercase cursive text, to all-caps cowboy western type. And that's to say nothing of the non-typographic signs – the cartoon palm trees and the pool-playing statue and the giant-sized poker chips that peek out from behind countless other designs.

This hodgepodge collection of metal and rust is known as the Neon Museum, and it's a big, gravel, outdoor lot, a modest drive from the modern day Las Vegas strip. It's here that relics of decades past are stored – including the big, extravagant neon spectacles once used to lure visitors off the highway and into to casinos and hotels.

The museum has the vibe of a junkyard. But make no mistake, the signs here have been carefully curated and arranged, saved over the years from destruction by a dedicated team of heritage-minded enthusiasts. Some are rusting, and most are in need of repair, but a few notable signs have been beautifully cleaned and restored.

Though it wasn't always obvious to Las Vegas moguls as the demolition crews loomed, there's real historical value in even a shattered neon tube.

"The story we want to tell about the neon sign is really the neon sign as it was," explained Neon Museum executive director Danielle Kelly – "[Both] the innovations of neon in Las Vegas, and to really celebrate the art form as a native Vegas art form."

Neon, after all, was not merely about lighting up the night sky (though it certainly did a good job) – rather, it was crucial in establishing a sense of space and of place for a flat, budding desert town that had little in the way of either. Typical Las Vegas buildings in the 1940s and 1950s were cheap, single story, low-lying motels and casinos, set far back from the strip, and it was up to the expensive, extravagant towering signs to draw tourists from the highway in.

A well-known study in architecture called “Learning From Las Vegas” was first published in 1972 (and revised five years later) and dealt heavily with the city’s then-unique use of space. The signs used “mixed media – words, pictures, and sculpture – to persuade and inform,” the book reads, and “some signs [were] hardly distinguishable at a distance from the occasional high-rise hotels along the Strip."

The sign really became the tool by which to lure people in, to convey a sense of theme, a sense of place.

However, authors Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour also argue that Las Vegas was hardly the first to flaunt its signs as beacons in populated urban space.

Baroque domes and churches, for example, were "symbols as well as spatial constructions" built bigger and taller and higher than realistically necessary in order to dominate the European landscape and communicate their symbolic message.

“The sign really became the tool by which to lure people in, to convey a sense of theme, a sense of place,” Kelly explains. “So that's when you really started to see these incredible signs that were architecture and sculpture all at the same time – playful [and] fantastical.”

The actual invention of neon comes from beyond Las Vegas too. It was the year 1910 when inventor Georges Claude unveiled the first neon sign in Paris, France. The technology was named for the neon gas contained inside a glass tube that, when plied with a current, exhibited a bright, red-orange glow (in fact, different noble gasses have been used for decades to produce different colors – though we still colloquially refer to, say, an argon-filled tube as neon).

Neon made its way to the U.S. not long after, and sign companies proliferated nationwide.

The effort to preserve many of Las Vegas’ most impressive and culturally important signs didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1980s. According to a 2011 cover story in Vegas Seven magazine, a sign preservation committee was officially formed at the Allied Arts Council of Southern Nevada, after years of talk but little action. The committee's founders "thought of themselves as urban detectives" scouring the town "for signs, for clues of signs about to come down" before they were either destroyed, or snapped up by private collectors flush with cash.

After then-mayor of Las Vegas, Jan Jones, expressed interest in a sign museum, the Neon Museum was established in 1996 – with a few new rules. Writes author T.R. Witcher: "They’d only collect signs from Southern Nevada. They had to have historical merit. They had to be beautifully designed."

The Museum found its current site in 2000, and two years later became an independent non-profit group. Then in 2005, the lobby of the old La Concha Motel – "a quirky building with a roof shaped like a seashell" – was donated to the museum. At a cost of $1.6-million, the hotel was cut up, moved, renovated and reassembled at the Neon Museum's current site, and now serves as its visitor's center and main office.

“Once we got the La Concha shell,” Kelly said, “everything fell into place.”

She speaks fondly, for example, of the old Stardust Resort and Casino sign, one of the largest items in the museum’s collection.

"You've got a font that was literally invented for a place that opened in 1958, a year before Sputnik had just orbited the Earth,” she explained. “It was literally the dawn of the atomic age."

[With Stardust] you've got a font that was invented for a place that opened in 1958, a year before Sputnik had just orbited the Earth.

Once, the resort tried to change its lettering to Futura Bold, as part of a new corporate look, according to an article from IDSGN last year – “[But] when the angry local community protested, management formally apologized to the public and re-instated as much of the former signage as possible."

Suffice to say, Kelly and the Neon Museum have preserved the Stardust’s old look. These days, the museum is home to over 200 signs from 60 years of Las Vegas history – many in varying states of disrepair.

"They're like battle scars,” Kelly says of the rust and wear. “We want to honor that history as it’s worn by the signs. But we're also very concerned with restoration as well.”

For example, a recent Neon Museum project covered the access panels of a sign that had been exposed to the elements so that moisture and animals couldn’t get inside. Restoration teams have also used residual gas in old tubes to reproduce period-accurate neon colors, and studied paint chips because postcards and pictures used for reference were sometimes falsely colored.

The good news is that all of the group’s hard work has certainly been paying off. Bill Marion, chairman of the museum's board, told the New York Times last fall that "the museum’s collection has drawn 20,000 visitors a year by appointment only … even before it officially opened." With the arrival of the La Concha Motel, the Museum is now open to the public for tours too.

“We’ve already outgrown the space we have now,” Kelly said later on the phone.

As you might expect, the Neon Museum even has a sign of its own. It’s of modestly sized design, hardly much higher than a nearby utility pole, but is an amalgam of all the styles, textures and designs found within the museum’s collection.

Its presence is a small touch, but an important one.

"If you take the signs away,” reads a passage in Learning From Las Vegas, “there is no place.”