Las Vegas: Neon Boneyard

By Richard White, 

I often wonder when developers and urban planners will wake up and see the light (pun intended), recognizing the importance of “lighting” in creating urban vitality - and I am not just talking about street lights.

When will they realize the bleakness of today’s city centers and urban streets is due in part to the absence of the colour, charm, playfulness and character that neon lights provided (day and night) to downtown hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas and retailers.

Show me a street full of neon and I will show you a street full of life.  Human beings are attracted to neon like moths to a light bulb.  

Downtown Decline

The heyday for most of North American cities’ downtown was in the early to mid 20th century.  It was a time when downtown streets were full of bright, flashing neon lights. 

Perhaps the best articulation of the importance of neon light to creating great street life was in the 1964 hit song “Downtown” in which Petula Clark belted, “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares.” 

 In retrospect, the mid ‘60s was also the beginning of the rise of minimalism urban design that shunned “ornamentation and decoration,” including neon signage.

Neon signs are works of art and function much like public art in creating a more visually engaging public realm that invites people to stop, look around and linger.  Cities around the world spending millions of dollars on public art each year that rarely captures the public’s imagination and is soon forgotten or ignored in the new minimalistic urban landscape.

Perhaps we should be encouraging developers to create signature neon signage that are “works of art” while at the same time help brand the building and add to are part of an engaging downtown wayfinding system.        

 

In my mind, the Boneyard Park is a must see Las Vegas attraction, way more interesting than The Strip.  It is much more authentic and offers an up close and personal look at one of the iconic artifacts of urban design - the neon sign. 

The link between folk art and neon art becomes more obvious the more you explore the Boneyard Park.

I am not sure which came first Disneyland or Vegas but there is a strong link between the two i.e. the sense of play, fun and fantasy. 

A perfect example of how neon signage was critical to the branding of hotels in Vegas. The sign immediately said "Fun" even without the lights on. 

Another example of branding and signage.  Love that the signage is large and easy to read. Too many downtown and suburban buildings today have small signage that is hidden away making it very difficult to find them.

The Boneyard is like a grave yard or junk yard; this just adds to the fun of exploring.  The juxtaposition of the different signs is wonderful. You also get the sense of how sculptural the signage is.  These truly are works of art. 

The Boneyard entrance is a wonderful mid-century modern building that is very inviting and memorable.

Freemont street recalls the main streets of many cities from the mid 20th century when the streets were indeed brighter and more fun visually than they are today.  

The Silver Slipper is fun day and night, male or female, young or old.  

Love the link between cartoons and neon characters.  

A good example of how neon signage can be used to add fun and colour to an otherwise ordinary streetscape. 

Lighting can also used to create a fun facade in the evening, which is even more important in winter cities like Calgary. 

Las Vegas’ Boneyard Park

Being in the Neon Boneyard Park (a two-acre oasis with over 150 historic neon signs) is like being in a museum’s storage room, with the “museum” being outdoors in the middle of the city. See artifacts in their raw state, not polished, lit up or presented in isolation on a pedestal. Here you see them randomly mixed together in junk-yard like fashion, yet they are still  wonderful works of art.

Las Vegas Signs Project has been restoring signs from the Boneyard Park and installing them along Las Vegas Boulevard in downtown Vegas since 1996. Several restored neon signs including the Horse and Rider from the Hacienda Hotel and the Silver Slipper can be enjoyed day and night by both pedestrians and those in vehicles. 

Access to the Boneyard is by guided tour only.  Our tour guide was very informed and informal, providing lots of information but allowing lots of freedom to explore on our own, take pictures and ask lots of questions. 

Guided tours are 7 days a week and reservations are recommended.  (Note: As tours can be cancelled due to inclement weather - especially wind storms - don’t wait until the last day of your Vegas vacation to visit).

The Neon Museum’s Visitor Center is the lobby of the old La Concha Motel Lobby designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams. It is like something right out of the Jetsons.  Built in 1961, it is an excellent example of the mid-century modern Atomic and Space Age design with its curvilinear arches.

See Appendix for history of neon.

The crowd gathers waiting for the Freemont Experience to begin.  

Age of LED

Today the most popular form of decorative lighting is LED light.  There are several reasons for this. While the initial price is almost the same as neon, once you have a neon sign there is no changing it, whereas LED lights can be updated as often as you like. 

Secondly and the biggest advantage of LED displays is that they use 5 to 10 times less power. Thirdly, neon tubes need their gases refilled periodically and the glass can break, while LED is maintenance-free. In addition, LED lights are brighter and can be seen from further away and even in daylight. 

Arguably, the best use of LED lighting is also in Vegas – The Freemont Experience, which began in 1995. Today, a 1,500 foot-long canopy (three football fields) covers Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas. It acts as a movie screen.  The canopy has 12.5 million LED lights, which when combined with 180 strobe lights and 8 robotic mirrors on each block plus a sophisticated computer system, can generate 16.7 million colour combinations. 

Combine this with the 555,000 watt sound system and you get an amazing light and sound show that attracts, on average, 25,000 people per night for the Freemont Experience.

While I realize not every downtown can afford this kind of nightly entertainment, more downtowns should seriously look at how sound and light shows can be part of their quest for 18/7 vitality. 

Another good example of use of LED lighting to enhance downtown vitality is “Crown Fountain” at Chicago’s Millennium Park.  Learn more: Putting the public in public art.

 

The Freemont Street canopy is washed with colour as thousands of people mill about waiting for the show to begin.  

Let the show begin...the canopy becomes a huge video screen for spectacular light and sound show.

Even at night the Crown Fountain attracts hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds to play and interact with the LED faces and the wading pool. 

Take away idea

Downtowns need to focus more, or as much on becoming entertainment districts as business districts.

They need to become a place where people, “Linger on the sidewalk. Where the neon signs and LED lights are pretty. The lights must be much brighter there, so you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”   

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtowns need to be fun

Putting the public back into public art

Cruising in Chicago

The curse of minimalism

 

 

 

 

 

Neon History (excerpts from www.neonlab.com)

Over the last 150 years, the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world-wide proportions.

In the late 1800s, scientists developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was discovered the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.

After British researcher William Ramsey discovered the five rare gases between 1894-1898 (receiving the Nobel Prize in 1904), it then became possible for French scientist, Georges Claude, to figure out that these gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. Finally, the long desired method that scientists had been looking for - a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light which emitted “light without heat.”

By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively and soon the generic “Neon Sign” was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And by 1927, 611 out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.

A great period of creativity for neon took place in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the Depression slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon continued to work its magic during this period was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.

Then following World War ll and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon, by then considered old fashioned, was relegated to use as a hidden light source. Still today, 75% of neon is used in this way.

During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, as artists, architects and interior designers have begun to rediscover its exciting possibilities. Neon tube construction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. It’s still a handcrafted medium where a glassbender heats and forms each letter, one bend at a time. However, state-of-the art components and much-improved equipment make the neon tube of today superior to its predecessor.

 

Everyday Tourist Transit Tales

One of the first things we recommend - and do - when visiting a new city is purchase a multi-day public transit pass (not the one day “hop-on hop-off” sight-seeing bus passes) so we can hop on transit anytime and anywhere we want. We have been known to see an interesting café, thrift store, mural or gallery and quickly pull the cord, get off at the next stop and check it out. While on the bus, we sometimes sit apart so we can each take one side of the street to keep our eyes peeled for something of interest. We rarely rent a car because you miss too many great “street surprises.” 

The one exception was Anchorage, Alaska.  After much research and checking with friends whose house we were looking after it was determined city exploring by transit just wasn’t viable. And we were correct.

Perhaps our biggest public transit challenge was exploring Las Vegas.  We were told we couldn’t/shouldn’t do it.  But, we were bound and determined to use the RTC (Region Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada) even though we were staying on the “tourist trap” strip.  We researched the transit system and found they had a four-day transit pass for $15 – perfect!  However, upon arriving, we found out that it was for locals only. A bit of a disappointment, but not giving up, we took a short walk off the strip to a local convenience store where we scored two, 4-day passes.  While the service wasn’t very frequent, we were able to get to our off-the-beaten path destinations like the Neon Boneyard and various thrift stores.

We even found a nice collage artwork propped up against the garbage can at one bus stop in Vegas after visiting a nearby thrift store (looked like somebody only wanted the frame). We would have never have found it if not talking transit. FYI…we have an excellent collection of “unknown” artists’ artworks from thrift stores, church bazaars, flea markets and garage sales, proudly displayed in our “wall of thrift.”  

Lesson Leaned: Souvenirs sometimes come from unexpected places.

Las Vegas' Boneyard Museum is where all the  mid-century neon signs are stored.  Gradually they are being restored and place along major roads in the city.  It is a wonderful place to explore, a photographers paradise. 

Tattoo Parlour in San Diego. We often find that tattoo parlours have some of the funkiest store fronts.  

One of the great things about using transit is the opportunity to interact with the locals.  Probably our most memorable “transit tale” was what happened in San Diego.  Again, we had four-day passes (a bit harder to get than we expected), but while waiting in line, we stuck up a conversation which resulted valuable information from locals, including catching the bus just outside the transit shop door, and go to a great night market in 30 minutes.

Even luckier for us, the bus we needed was out front when we stepped out of the transit shop. Two locals, on the bus not only told us what stop to get off at, but what specific vendors and shops we should check out, which proved to be very accurate.

Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to ask locals for tips on what to see and do. You will often learn things that aren’t in the tourist propaganda – a new café, where the good muffins for breakfast are or where the best happy hour is.

One of our funniest transit tales happened on the way home from the San Diego night market. At about 9 pm, we got on an empty bus which soon filled up with a cast of characters including four, lively teenage girls who were bouncing from seat to seat.  I asked them if they were playing “musical chairs.” They smiled and said nothing. At the next stop, I moved to another seat and they quickly did too. For about 10 stops, we did this, much to the amusement of the other transit riders.  At their final stop, they waved goodbye and we wished them a good evening.  Who knew riding the bus could be so entertaining!

On another transit trip, again in San Diego, we were sitting at the back of the bus when a young tattooed woman got on and sat across from us.  It was hard to keep our eyes off her, as not only was her face half tattooed, but the way she was dressed and her many piercings made her look as “tough as nails.”  As we got closer to our where I thought we needed to get off, I pulled out our map to check street names before our stop. After a few minutes, we heard a soft, shy voice say, “Can I help you?” To our amazement, it was the tattooed girl.  She was most helpful and as we got off the bus and said thanks, she smiled and wished us a “good evening.” 

Lesson learned: Don’t judge a person by their tattoos. 

But perhaps our most fun-filled transit tourist day ever was in San Francisco. We signed up for the Real San Francisco Tour by Chris Courtney (technically this was an organized tour which we rarely do, but this tour is so personal and “insider,” it is in a league of its own). This all-day trek takes you through 11 of the city’s coolest neighborhoods via cable cars, city buses, light-rail and subway transit. It includes stops at secret spots - fortune cookie-making bakery, OJ Simpson’s high school, back alley gardens and unique views of Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, painted ladies and the Golden Gate Bridge. The tour includes over five miles of walking, four separate uphill sections as well as six uphill and fifteen downhill flights of stairs. But it was totally worth it to get the “inside scoop” on SF’s past and the present.  We would never have found some of the places on our own, despite priding ourselves on “digging deep” with our online research.

Lesson Learned: If you do one thing in SF, take the “Real San Francisco Tour.” More info at: The Real SF Tour 

The Real SF Tour offers many unique and quirky experiences including this behind-the-scene tour of a fortune cookie bakery. There is no way we could have found this on our own.  

Hopping on the street car to start the real SF tour.  Who knew transit could be so much fun...every city should have a street car/trolley route. 

One of the many interesting vistas along the Real SF tour - that is Alcatraz in the distance. 

Then there was the “early morning massage on the crowded Vancouver bus” story. Minding our own business, with me sitting directly Brenda, I jokingly started to give her a shoulder neck rub. Just then a very tiny older Asian woman told me I was doing it wrong and proceeded to give me a hands-on lesson right then and there.  You just never know what is going to happen when you get on transit.

Lesson learned: Enjoy the journey as much as the destination. 

You never know what you might see when riding the bus in Vancouver.  I captured this image while the bus was waiting at the traffic lights along Commercial Drive.  At first was taken aback but then realized they were filming a movie. These are the kind of impromptu "street surprises" that we enjoy as transit tourists.  

As for one of our most epic bus trips, it was when in Guadalajara, Mexico when we got on the wrong bus and found out we were heading to Ajijic and Lake Chapala (can’t remember the town we were planning to visit). Once we realized we were on the wrong bus, we decided to just “go with it.” Turned out to be one of the best “treasure hunting” days of our lives.  Arriving in Ajijic, we found a wonderful resort town on the shore of the largest lake in Mexico at the same latitude as Hawaii.  It was full of expats from Canada and US who have wintered here since the mid-‘50s.  It is also famous for being the home of D.H. Lawrence   After wandering the downtown for a bit with its charming town square, we found a spot to have lunch and quickly started up a conversation with two snowbird couples at an adjacent table who drive down from southern Ontario every winter.  After lunch, we wandered further afield and stumbled upon Bazar Barbara’s a flea market/used-furniture emporium.  Brenda the scavenger she is, unearthed behind a pile of old frames a framed Mariam Shapiro 1961 drawing with a Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York City sticker on the back for $25. We knew we had a great find – and so began our “Wall of Thrift.” We also found an authentic Asian gong for 10 bucks, which we hauled home and now holds pride of place in our garden. It was a perfect day!

Lesson Learned: Don’t be afraid of getting on the wrong bus. It might just end up being the best decision you make that day.     

Bazar Barbara in Ajijic Mexico was a great place to explore and was probably the catalyst for us to begin our 'found" artwork collection. 

"Yesterday" by Miriam Shapiro a 13.5 by 15 inches pencil drawing was our big find at Bazar Barbara's.  It is a bit wrinkled but otherwise in great shape. 

The gong acquired at Bazar Barbara's in our garden.

Some of the artworks collected over the years have been collaged into a "wall of thrift."  

Advantages of taking public transit:

  • It is cheaper.
  • It is more fun.
  • You get to interact with locals who are often only too happy to give you insider information
  • You see more when someone else does the driving.
  • We enjoy the bus more than subway as you get to see things along the way.
  • It allows you rest a bit and most buses today are air conditioned so you can cool off a bit too.
  • You don’t have to search for a parking spot.

We’d love to hear your “transit tales.” We will add them to this blog.    

Lessons learned flaneuring North America!

 

By Richard White, revised July 20, 2014 

Top Ten Lesson Learned Flaneuring

  1. Thou shalt always look all ways – up and down, left and right, inside and out.
  2. Thou shalt stop often to look, listen and reflect.  
  3. Thou shalt choose comfort over fashion – especially when it comes to footwear.
  4. Thou shalt think like a boy scout - be prepared for wind, rain, snow, sleet and sun!
  5. Thou shalt take the sidewalk/path/road/stairs/trail less travelled at all times.
  6. Thou shalt honour thy “holy weekend” by going for at least one long walk to somewhere new and different.
  7. Thou shalt smell the flowers – as well as the food, sewers and exhaust... and embrace them all!
  8. Thou shalt never over research or over plan your trip. 
  9. Thou shalt not let photo-taking detract from “experiencing the moment.”
  10. Thou shalt attempt to “get lost” as often as possible.

Some Random Flaneur Finds

Green Apple Books was a great find when we were in San Francisco.  The entire Clement Street district was discovered when we wandered away from the Haight Asbury area. 

Calgary's Inglewood community is still home to two barns just off the city's original Main Street. 

I love to flaneur my own neighbourhood and I am always amazed at what I find even after 30 years. 

This ivy covered warehouse in Chicago was pleasant flaneur surprise. 

We stopped in a Dottie's, in Circleville, Utah on Highway #89 on our epic 8,907 km spring 2014 road trip to stretch our legs.  It was here that we learned where to find the Butch Cassidy's family homestead and that Dottie's has the best German Chocolate cake ever. And, it was only $2 for a huge piece.  We will be back. 

  Found this live work play sign on a window in downtown Memphis. Live work play has been my mantra for over 25 years. 

Found this live work play sign on a window in downtown Memphis. Live work play has been my mantra for over 25 years. 

  I had time to kill while Brenda was shopping so I went flaneuring and found the Good Mod literally by accident. Found an odd sandwich board leading to what looked like an abandoned warehouse in downtown Portland. In fact,  it lead me to an old elevator to upper floor where I found this salvage warehouse space. Too cool! 

I had time to kill while Brenda was shopping so I went flaneuring and found the Good Mod literally by accident. Found an odd sandwich board leading to what looked like an abandoned warehouse in downtown Portland. In fact,  it lead me to an old elevator to upper floor where I found this salvage warehouse space. Too cool! 

  The iron stairs in Chicago's Gold Coast neighbourhood - the best streetscape in the world!

The iron stairs in Chicago's Gold Coast neighbourhood - the best streetscape in the world!

  Flaneuring in Ottawa we managed to sniff out this "off off" the beaten path bakery. 

Flaneuring in Ottawa we managed to sniff out this "off off" the beaten path bakery. 

  A block off the Vegas strip is a retro pre "Ronald" McDonalds. 

A block off the Vegas strip is a retro pre "Ronald" McDonalds.