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 is a revival in interest and enthusiasm for science-driven art. There are museums, neon parks and preservation efforts popping up all over the country. Young artists are drawn to the neon’s unique glow and hard-to-replicate look. Many restorations are underway with radiant signs reclaiming space that was once forbidden.
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. It has a magical, intangible quality. 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, chemistry and physics caused a voltage to pass through electrodes in a sealed tube made of glass. This noble gas produced a glow discharge. Lynxwiler says that it was like painting with tubes. The tubes could be animated in any way you can imagine. 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”). The American West’s lonely highways were made famous by Neon, which attracted weary travelers to a comfortable bed, warm meal, or a table at the blackjack table.
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. The neon went out of fashion, with many being discarded or left behind by mass-produced billboards and TV-like displays.
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 would fix them up and hang them 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. Aaron Berger, the museum’s executive director, says that Vegas is more known than any other city for building things and then tearing down. “Historic preservation such as this is relatively new.” Signs can be found on fencing or scattered about 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. Rose says that neon feels authentic to students. It is organic and real. “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. Berger says that neon is “sort of like moths to flames, the kind of attraction people have.” “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.
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. Downtown Los Angeles has seen an increase in the number of hotels and restaurants that have been built in historic buildings over the past decade. There have also been many restorations of neon movie marquees. “L.A. Lynxwiler says that L.A. still has so many neon in the wild. “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
American Sign Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio
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.
Jennifer Barger is a senior travel editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.