In the first half of the 20th century, neon hummed and flickered across the United States, decorating billboards in New York City’s Times Square, on New Mexico motor inns along Route 66, and at casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
Yet, even by the 1950s and 1960s, neon was considered “grandpa’s technology,” says J. Eric Lynxwiler, president of the board at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles. Soon enough, billboards were scrapped or neglected across the country, and many areas banned neon, calling it trashy or energy hogging (even though such lights are relatively energy efficient).
Now there’s a revival of interest and enthusiasm for the science-driven art, with museums, neon parks, and preservation efforts popping up around the country. Young artists, drawn to neon’s handmade, hard-to-replicate glow, are learning the craft.
Many restorations are underway, with radiant signs reclaiming space in cities that had once outlawed them.
In downtown Tucson, Arizona, drivers cruise by brightly lit, flashing neon advertising everything from Italian food (a chubby chef flipping yellow glass “spaghetti” at Caruso’s restaurant) to “refrigerated” hotel rooms (La Siesta Motel’s circa-1940 sign with its sombrero-ed men). Dozens of the decades-old blinking, buzzing advertisements line the city’s “Miracle Mile,” a commercial corridor whose mid-century architecture and glitzy billboards landed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
“Neon stirs nostalgia—it’s classic Americana,” says neon artist and printmaker Chris Bovey, who recently opened a studio/gallery in Spokane, Washington’s neon-lit Garland District. “There is something intangible and magical about it. You hear the buzz and see gas moving inside the glass.”
Here’s where to see the resurgent signs casting dazzling light (and throwback charm) across the U.S.
Neon flashes into the U.S.
Neon first lit up the U.S at the turn of the 20th century, shortly after French engineer Georges Claude debuted the concept at the Paris Auto Show of 1910. His combination of physics and chemistry sent a voltage through electrodes in a sealed glass tube that held a noble gas, resulting in a “glow discharge.” By shaping the tubes glass blowers (sometimes called “benders”) created letters, lines, and elaborate forms.
“It was like painting with tubes, which could be animated any way you could possibly imagine,” says Lynxwiler. This “liquid fire” inspired U.S. glassblowers to fashion advertisements both big (“Vegas Vic,” a 40-foot-tall cowboy still blinking in Las Vegas) and small (motel signs lit to say “vacancy” or “no”). Neon became particularly emblematic of lonesome highways in the American West, drawing weary travelers to a soft bed, a warm meal, or a hot blackjack table.
(Learn why this is the loneliest road in America.)
Neon featured in some of the 20th century’s most rollicking architectural styles, frosting the Art Deco hotels and apartments of Miami’s South Beach and outlining the Space Age-y diners and drive-ins of Los Angeles in a futuristic form known as Googie, named after a now-defunct Hollywood coffee shop. And the beach resorts of Wildwood, New Jersey, exhibit Doo Wop style, where jutting rooftops, sunshine-y colors, and kidney-shaped swimming pools come with a side of neon.
But by the 1970s, neon had fallen out of favor. “People used to consider neon something glamorous and beautiful, and downtowns were full of it back in the 1950s,” says Bovey. “But at some point it became associated with tackier things, like tattoo shops.” It didn’t help that, as movie marquees and hotel signs went “modern,” neon glimmered on pawn shops, adult bookstores, and even in the typography for lurid films.
Since neon requires some maintenance (keeping it clean, lit, and free of damaging bird poop), many businesses found it was easier—and cheaper—to hawk their Broadway shows, pizza parlors, or air-conditioned motel rooms with backlit plastic signs. A universe of neon disappeared, getting scrapped or just going dark as mass-produced billboards and TV-like displays proliferated.
The lights go back on
As neon dimmed toward the end of the 20th century, American collectors and preservationists started scooping up the old signs, sometimes for free. They’d fix them up to hang in their homes or businesses. “Then neon began to resurface a bit in the 1980s, both with Day-Glo fashion and New Wave bands,” says Lynxwiler. “Just watch a WHAM music video and you’ll see.”
A growing appreciation for the medium—and a desire to protect historic artifacts—resulted in a proliferation of illuminated sculpture parks and indoor galleries, and inspired preservation efforts along the lines of Tucson’s Miracle Mile. After all, its blazing glory feels both futuristic and patriotic, a distillation of the hopeful, optimistic energy of the U.S. in the mid-20th century.
The Neon Museum Las Vegas opened in 1996, and today the mostly outdoor “boneyard” holds some 250 signs, from car-sized cursive letters to an 82-foot-tall guitar from the defunct Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. “More than any other city in the world, Vegas is known for building things and then tearing them down,” says Aaron Berger, the museum’s executive director. “Historic preservation like this is relatively new.” Signs are propped on fencing or scattered around 2.27 acres near downtown; 22 of them are illuminated, the others are brilliantly spotlit by night.
L.A.’s Museum of Neon Art (MONA) launched in 1981; its current space, a 10,000-square-foot former gaming arcade, holds dozens of vintage pieces as well as contemporary artwork. Dazzlers include a 1930s frog that appears to tip its top hat, a mod, 18-foot-tall liquor store sign, and artist Bill Concannon’s giant “flowers,” formed of neon-lit recycled plastic bags.
Roxy Rose, a third-generation neon artist with work in MONA’s collection teaches classes in the museum’s workshop, showing newbies how to use torches to manipulate glass tubes and fill them with neon, argon, or other glowing gasses. “Neon feels very authentic to students, something organic and genuine,” says Rose. “I love seeing the delight on their faces when they make even a simple bend.”
Neon in the wild
But the best place to see neon is outdoors, where its lightning-in-a-bottle gleam starkly contrasts with dark skies over little-traveled highways or gray twilights in big cities. “It’s sort of like moths to a flame, the kind of attraction people have for it,” says Berger. “You see an orange or red glow as you’re driving through some big open space, and it’s a beacon.”
Although neon once blinked all across the U.S., the West Coast now holds more of the vintage kind.
Historic Route 66 in Albuquerque still features vintage signs, including the one on the Dog House, where a dachshund wags its tail and gobbles frankfurters, and the 1946 Monterey Motel, where fiery orange, pink, and green letters and an enormous arrow mark the spot for chic, updated guest rooms and a curvy pool.
(Here’s why historic hotels are worth preserving.)
Other neon-lit zones include Seattle, where Pike’s Place Market operates under a jumbo electrified billboard, and the Baltimore, Maryland, harbor with its iconic Domino Sugars sign. In San Francisco, the nonprofit San Francisco Neon offers frequent walking or virtual tours of illuminated neighborhoods such as the Castro, Nob Hill, and Chinatown.
In the past decade, downtown Los Angeles has seen a surge of new hotels and restaurants in historic buildings, as well as the restoration of numerous neon movie theater marquees. “L.A. still has so much neon in the wild,” says Lynxwiler. “Downtown is aglow again, and people hone in on that with a caveman instinct.”
These signs are among the stops along MONA’s frequent Neon Cruises, after-dark tours aboard an open-top double-decker bus. It swoops past glittering pagodas in Chinatown and flickering signs in Hollywood, inspiring riders to take 21st-century smartphone selfies backdropped by early 20th-century technology.
As Rose says, “You can talk all you want, write all you want, but if you say it with neon, people will listen.”
Other places to see neon
The largest sign museum in the U.S. fills 20,000 square feet with historic advertisements (both neon and not) plus a glass-bending studio.
Casa Grande Neon Sign Park, Casa Grande, Arizona
A dozen illuminated vintage ads are on outdoor view, including a shoe store sign with a glowing goose.
Neon Museum of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
An indoor showplace for neon signs showcases glowing clocks, animated pieces, and Philly memorabilia.