The Moulin Rouge neon sign at the Neon Museum on Las Vegas, Nevada

photo by: Neon Museum Las Vegas

Preservation Magazine, Summer 2023

6 Places Where You Can Bask in the Glow of Historic Neon Signs

If you are driving down historic Route 66 near Vinita, Oklahoma, late in the day, the sign for the Hi-Way Cafe glowing in the dark will beckon you to stop, at least for a while.

It’s a simple sign: “Hi-Way” lit a gentle twilight blue, “Cafe” below it in a particular shade of red likely recognizable to anyone who has spent much time on America’s back highways. The colors, the welcoming glow, even the sense of nostalgic familiarity—all are part of the appeal of neon signs.

Since around the 1930s, the sign that has called to us at the end of a day’s journey has often been neon. The lighting fell out of fashion in many areas in the last decades of the 20th century, when it was considered cheap and even a little tawdry by some, but recent years have seen a renewed appreciation for the art of neon signage.

Hi-Way Cafe Neon sign on Route 66 near Vinita, Oklahoma

photo by: Rhys Martin/Oklahoma Route 66 Association

The Hi-Way Cafe’s relit sign after its 2023 restoration.

Part of that appeal is the light itself, which Aaron Berger, executive director of The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, describes as “warm and inviting.” Part is that neon sign-making remains an art, with glass heated and carefully bent into shape by hand. Another part, says Demion Clinco, CEO of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, is that through its rich history “neon has become embedded in memories, family histories, and popular culture.”

Beth Hilburn, owner of the Hi-Way Cafe for the past 12 years, knows that tug. “I remember my family taking road trips, and I remember the neon signs vividly,” she says. But neon requires upkeep, and the Hi-Way Cafe sign was no longer working by the time she and her family acquired the building. “I wanted the sign relit for 12 years,” Hilburn says. “I have pined and pined for that sign to be aglow again … but [for a long time] I just couldn’t afford it.”

Hilburn was finally able to restore the Hi-Way sign in the spring of 2023, thanks in part to a $40,000 grant from the National Trust and American Express as part of a program called Backing Historic Small Restaurants. The crowd that gathered at the relighting ceremony, including representatives from various states’ Route 66 organizations, signified the renaissance of interest in neon. Visitors so often tell Hilburn they love seeing the sign appear as they travel down Route 66 that she hasn’t had the heart to turn it off since the ceremony. “Even though we’re usually closed at night,” she says, “I’ve left it on.”

Neon had its heyday from the 1930s through the 1950s. Like many things considered quintessentially American (pizza, bagels, democracy), it originated elsewhere. In 1910, French inventor Georges Claude introduced neon lighting, which creates illumination by applying electricity to neon or similar gas types in a sealed glass tube. (The various gases create different colors.) Claude is believed to have then designed the first neon sign for a barbershop in Paris. Neon signage came to America in the 1920s, when it appeared at a Packard automobile showroom in Los Angeles.

The Neon Museum's Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas, Nevada

photo by: Neon Museum Las Vegas

The Neon Museum’s Neon Boneyard, an outdoor exhibition area (also shown at top).

It soon spread nationwide, illuminating Times Square in New York City and commercial streets around the country. Many of those examples are gone, but some from the era remain, such as the Nathan’s Famous sign on Coney Island and the Apollo Theater sign in Harlem. Though neon was foreign-born, it found its natural home in Las Vegas, where it soon lit the Strip with a warm glow visible for miles across the desert.

Today, the city’s Neon Museum has more than 800 signs and related objects, many of which have been restored, in its collection. About 250 of these are on display in its outdoor “Neon Boneyard.” The museum’s collection also includes about a dozen signs still operating out in the city, including Horse and Rider, which once greeted visitors to the long-gone Hacienda hotel and casino at the south end of the Strip.

The Neon Museum’s tours go beyond the signs themselves. “The signs are really portals into telling the stories of the history of Las Vegas,” says Berger. One favorite of his in the museum is the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino sign, written in exuberant coral-pink script, that sat atop one of the city’s first desegregated hotels in the 1950s. “[I like it] for its craftsmanship, but also for the significance of its history,” he says. Today it is a beautiful example of neon restoration.

For a healthy sampling of neon “in the wild,” the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation’s Neon Sign Project has assembled a guide that directs visitors to 30 examples of midcentury neon in the Arizona city, a neon hotbed. Many of the signs are clustered along Tucson’s Miracle Mile, a commercial strip that was once part of major north-south and east-west highway routes. Some have been restored with the help of the foundation.

Hotel Congress Neon Sign Tucson, Arizona

photo by: Hotel Congress

The sign atop Tucson’s venerable Hotel Congress.

Among the project’s highlights are the Hotel Congress sign, which towers above a landmark hotel, and the sign for a former hotel called the Ghost Ranch Lodge, with a cow skull at its center designed by the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. A driving tour reveals a host of other neon for motels, markets, and restaurants, including a classic drive-in, Pat’s Chili Dogs. “It’s really about the preservation of this folk art, this American 20th-century industrial folk art,” says Clinco.

Much of the restoration and maintenance of Tucson’s neon signs has been performed by Cook & Company Sign Makers. The work is clearly a labor of love for Jude Cook, the company’s owner, who has gathered an impressive collection of neon at his Ignite Sign Art Museum, tucked away on an industrial Tucson street. The eclectic museum includes everything from a 17-foot Arby’s sign to a group of about 50 to 60 advertising clocks. Ignite also offers classes in neon bending, which involves heating glass tubes until they are pliable enough to be fashioned into letters and shapes. They are then filled with neon, argon, or a similar gas and sealed. Cook, who has spent decades in the sign business, has worked with everything from hand-painted signs to LEDs. Neon, he says, “is just much more interesting.”

The Pike Place Public Market neon sign in Seattle, Washington

photo by: Pike Place Market PDA

Pike Place Market’s famous neon sign and clock in downtown Seattle.

At Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which advertises itself as the nation’s oldest continuously operating public market, that interest is reflected in the number of visitors stopping to photograph the neon Public Market Center sign, meticulously restored in 2022 and perched above the site’s shops and restaurants. “The sign represents, to me, the city and the market’s commitment to preserving its historic landmarks and traditions,” says Madison Bristol, marketing and public relations manager at the Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority.

Neon Roanoke star on a mountain in Roanoke, Virginia

photo by: Star City Skycams

The Roanoke Star is a beloved Virginia landmark, reputed to be the largest freestanding illuminated star in the world.

On the other side of the country, the neon Roanoke Star has stood atop Mill Mountain in Virginia, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, since 1949. Reputed to be the largest freestanding illuminated star in the world, it is visible throughout the city of Roanoke and also can be seen from mountaintops as far as 60 miles away, says Kathryn Lucas, public relations director for Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, a regional marketing organization. The star overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains and the surrounding valley, says Lucas, “serving as a beacon and welcoming sign for visitors,” a description that could also apply to many other neon signs across the country.

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Reed Karaim, who grew up in North Dakota, is a freelance writer now living in Tucson, Ariz. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, Architect, and U.S. News and World Report, among others.

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