Neon is a noble gas, and that’s not a reference to Prince Charles and baked beans. Rather, the term refers to an odorless, colorless, monatomic gas that has a low chemical reactivity. When a high-voltage current is run through a glass tube filled with neon (or argon or phosphor), the gas glows. The tubes are often made of borosilicate glass, which is highly heat resistant. (We sell glass coffee mugs made out of this stuff.)
There’s an art to how the glass tubes are bent into words and images, and some of the most outrageous examples of neon signs appeared in the 1940s and ’50s in Las Vegas. Unlike the furniture that defines mid-century modern, the signs from this era are aces in decorative excess.
The Stardust Hotel in 1958 (top), and the updated façade and roadside sign in 1964 (bottom).
Doing justice to neon was the Stardust Hotel, with its façade covered in an exploding solar system and sparkling neon starbursts. Using 7,100 feet of neon tubing and more than 11,000 light bulbs, the sign was visible from 60 miles away. In 1991, the typeface was updated to a less groovy-age font but that wasn’t enough to save the hotel, which closed in 2006.
The Stardust building was demolished, however its signage went to the “bone yard” of retired signs at the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). In the mid 1990s, the Allied Arts Council realized that YESCO had hundreds of these cultural relics on their property, which led to the creation of the Las Vegas Neon Museum. The Museum’s holdings of decommissioned signs are currently stored in two open-air lots, but in 2011 it will open a park filled with neon artifacts from 70 years of Vegas landmarks. The Museum’s visitors’ center will be in the former lobby of the La Concha Motel, designed in 1961 by Paul Revere Williams.
Like a neon sign that was saved when its hotel was demolished, the La Concha lobby was rescued by local preservationists when the hotel’s owner wanted to make room for a larger casino. To move the lobby, with its 28-foot-high swooping concrete roof, the structure was cut into eight pieces and reassembled on the Museum’s property.
I look forward to checking out the Neon Museum when it opens, and I’m especially interested in seeing the museum’s own signage – will it be outrageous neon or simple and straightforward, like a dry cleaners’ shirt?