Las Vegas may not have invented neon, but love of its indigenous art form inspired the city to create a Museum of Neon. The Neon Museum contains more than 150 neon signs, hunks of metal and glowing glass that fulfilled the growing demands of mid-20th-century commerce. They are increasingly considered expressions of history, art and architecture, worth preserving and exhibiting.
“No city is great if it doesn’t understand who it is,” said Alan Hess, an architecture critic, author of the classic book Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture. When members of a community recognize an important piece of their artistic heritage and join together in an effort to preserve it, that community has experienced a significant moment in its evolution.
That encapsulates what happened with neon signs in Las Vegas from the mid-1980s until the opening of the Neon Museum on Oct. 27. What started as a small group of concerned citizens has culminated in a nationally recognized cultural institution supported by local government, major philanthropists and everyday residents.
Mapes Hotel Neon Sign, Reno Nevada
“Historical preservation of this sort is a mark of maturity of a city,” Hess said. “All the great cities of the world build on their past.”
Over time the neon signs of Las Vegas have earned recognition beyond those of any other city, said Bill Marion, the chairman of the museum’s board. This may explain why the museum’s collection has drawn 20,000 visitors a year by appointment only, plus countless photo and film shoots, even before it officially opened. Mr. Marion said the museum would “get people to rethink what Las Vegas is, and recognize that it has made a significant cultural impact worldwide.” He estimated that attendance would reach 55,000 within a year. The foundation running the museum formed in 1997 and the Young Electric Sign Company donated dozens of signs shortly afterward, but for years they sat in a dusty lot that could be seen only by appointment. That changed in 2005 when a quirky building with a roof shaped like a seashell, from La Concha Motel, was donated to the museum. The 1960s motel lobby, designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first black member of the American Institute of Architects, would become the visitors’ center and headquarters of the Neon Museum.
Bucky The Nevada Club
The museum has a staff of eight docents and 20 volunteers trained for tours. When a place receives as many visitors as the Las Vegas Strip — 41.5 million passengers passed through McCarran International Airport last year — that can add up to a lot of stories.
Mr. Marion recalled a Venezuelan brother and sister in their 30s who teared up in front of the Stardust sign. Their parents had gotten married at the hotel but had never been back, and this was the first time the siblings had been in Las Vegas. They grew up seeing the photo of the newlyweds on the wall.
Danielle Kelly, the museum’s executive director, said the value of the signs goes beyond personal memories. “This is commercial archaeology, art and architecture,” she said. Ms. Kelly, who also oversaw the museum’s layout, with signs from the 1930s to the 1990s arranged along a mazelike path, said the “kind of design that has happened here could only have happened here.” An example: several fonts were created and became widely used, including Atomic Age letters from the early signs of the Stardust, which was demolished in 2007. “All this was developed in a so-called cultural wasteland”.