By: Debra Darlington
A bit of the “real thing” in Las Vegas. On a recent trip to Las Vegas to see what was new in the worlds of design & environments since the last time I’d braved the city (about 5 years ago), I discovered a gem – the Neon Boneyard.
It’s part of the Neon Museum , which is dedicated to preserving Las Vegas’ neon history. It’s definitely worth a visit, and was a refreshing change to see things that were “real” after a couple of days spent in the spectacle of the rest of the Strip’s “managed environments” and a tradeshow.
The Neon Museum was created in 1996 to preserve Las Vegas’ sign design history after it was recognized that some of these mid-century modern properties, and the neon signage that gave the Strip its character, might actually have some historic value but were being demolished to make way for the new mega-casinos. Their main “gallery” is along the Fremont Street Mall, and along the north part of Las Vegas Boulevard, where you can visit some restored signs.
The museum will be opening a new visitor and interpretive center at the Boneyard this Summer (2012) in Paul Revere Williams’ concrete, paraboloid La Concha Motel lobby – an example of 1950’s Googie architecture (saved from demolition and relocated to the Boneyard’s location). It was still under construction during my visit, but should really add to the experience once it’s finished.
The Boneyard has another history. The signage that gave the Strip it’s character was actually owned by the companies that designed, manufactured and maintained the signs, who then leased them back to the property owners (would you want to be responsible for changing all those lightbulbs?).
When hotels were updated or demolished, the old signs went to desert storage lots, where they were stored, and sometimes cannibalized for materials (hey, neon’s expensive!) or remade into new signs. They ended up with a lot of stuff that they didn’t quite know what to do with, but is very cool to look at, and needs to be preserved.
On a tour of the Boneyard, you’ll wander through this jumble with a guide, and hear the stories behind the signs. Some of the signs I’d vaguely remembered seeing as a 10-year-old on an epic family vacation (see the “S”s from Caesar’s Palace?).
One of the interesting things about the place is that you’re looking at this hodgepodge of signs out of context – letters are out of order, having been placed on their supporting armature to maximize storage space and for ease of transport, not for viewing or readability. Others have random new neighbors such as Caesar’s pediment with the “R” from the Desert Inn.
You can stand in front of a sign that would have been originally more than 50 feet above you, and see the hand and foot pegs that were used for maintenance and bulb-changing and wonder that this was someone’s job. The craftsmanship that went into creating these signs, especially the neon wonder of the Yucca, is really amazing (do you know what it takes to bend glass – this much?).
There’s a wealth of stories yet to be told at the Neon Boneyard. Make sure to put it on your list the next time you find yourself in Vegas.
If you visit: The Neon Boneyard offers 2 tours daily (noon and 2 pm, Tues-Sat), with advance reservations ($15 adult). Make sure to visit their website or call ahead to reserve a spot for the tour as they sell out quickly.
Based in the Bay Area, Debra Darlington has produced immersive, interpretive creative projects for museums and educational institutions for over 18 years. She’s always interested in finding new projects to work on and new people to play with to create amazing experiences. When traveling, she’s constantly on the lookout for unexpected treasures. She can be reached at email@example.com.