Neon safari

Head Downtown for a tour of the glowing monuments to Las Vegas' past



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If there's one piece of the past that lovers of Las Vegas miss above all others, it's the old-time signs. Just listen to Alan Hess, author of Viva Las Vegas: After-Hours Architecture, wax nostalgic about one of his favorites: the 15-story, 40,000-bulb Aladdin sign from the 1960s: "It was a full-blown fantasia, a dreamy mirage made real. The artistry that requires—to put that much steel and neon up in the desert sky and make it convincing, otherworldly, floating—is tremendous. It represented the ultimate achievement of that era of Las Vegas design. And it's an art that has not been recaptured in recent years."

Discarding the past is itself a key part of Vegas history. The giant movie set known as the Strip constantly moves on to the next big idea without so much as a glance behind it. These days, though, the town's two-million-strong permanent community of non-tourists carries enough influence to preserve some of the neon left in the wake of the economic machine. The main voice of this movement is a non-profit project called the Neon Museum, set up "to collect, preserve, study and exhibit neon signs and associated artifacts to inspire educational and cultural enrichment."

Fremont Street

Fremont Street

One of the museum's first achievements was to refurbish the genie's lamp that once crowned the old Aladdin sign and install it at the corner of Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard in 1996, 40 years after its original debut. Since then, the collection has expanded apace, and now includes everything from 1940s pieces to the decommissioned Stardust sign. Piece by piece, each sign is moved from its location to the museum on Las Vegas Boulevard, where it undergoes enough work to spruce it up without washing away its patina.

There are 11 old signs dotting Downtown, in the so-called "outdoor galleries" on or just off Fremont Street. The old Hacienda horseman is riding high again, and the long-defunct Nevada Hotel continues to help light up the night, alongside smaller signs devoted to the Flame Restaurant, the Chief Hotel Court and the Anderson Dairy. The museum has also put several signs on display at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort Historic Park, including the shapely Arabesque "A" from the Sahara.

The best, though, is the collection, the Neon Museum—a.k.a. "The Boneyard" (770 Las Vegas Boulevard N, 387 6366,—a three-acre park full of historic Vegas signage. The landmark lobby from the old La Concha Motel, one of the city's great Googie structures, has been rescued and moved up the boulevard to serve as the visitor center, gallery and gift shop for the museum. Tours must be booked in advance, so call ahead first.


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