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City of lights

Welcome to Las Vegas sign

Finally I had a chance to shoot this iconic (and widely photographed) sign. I wasn’t expecting the power lines, but I think they add a graphic counterpoint.

Detail from sign at El Cortez Hotel

Detail from a neon sign at the Neon Museum

It’s been a few days since I came back from a photo-centric trip to Las Vegas in search of vintage neon.

First on the to-do list: Photograph the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. Designed by Betty Whitehead Willis, the sign has greeted visitors since 1959 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places 50 years later.

I found the sign easily enough. It’s in the middle of Las Vegas Boulevard (AKA the Strip) near the airport, maybe a half-mile walk from my hotel.  But like most things in Vegas, the sign was not in a pedestrian-friendly location and I had to cross three lanes of traffic without a signal or crosswalk. But no matter. I got the shots, dodged a few more cars,  and moved on.

Next item on the agenda was to meet up with my gambling friend for our tour of the Neon Museum. This was our third visit to the spot, a collection of salvaged neon signs from casinos, motels, and more.  First time around, the neon boneyard was still a well-kept secret.  Surrounded by a chain-link fence, and across the street from museum staff offices, the collection seemed randomly displayed and the tours were casual and dusty affairs.

Fast forward a few years.  The museum was able to raise enough money to rescue the La Concha Motel lobby, an extravagant clamshell design by architect Paul Revere Williams, and the restored structure now houses a visitors center, gift shop, and staff offices.  A stylish new fence has replaced the aging chain-link barrier. Tours are more tightly organized, and the collection has been arranged into thematic groupings — early Vegas, motel row, Atomic Age.  A border of rocks now separates the signs from visitors, and a security guard trailed after our group.

But the signs are the main attraction, and they are as appealing as ever.  The collection comprises spectacular examples of the city’s love affair with neon, from the art deco Green Shack, where workers building the Hoover Dam came for steak dinners and bootleg whiskey, to the 1976 Aladdin’s Lamp.  Peeling paint, broken light bulbs, and empty neon tubes litter the ground from signs that have seen better days. And that’s where the museum comes in, restoring vintage signs for display on the city’s main streets.  Since my first visit, the shoe-shaped sign from the Silver Slipper — said to have spooked Howard Hughes — has been restored and now sits proudly on Las Vegas Boulevard outside the museum.

The Neon Museum is a singular spot in a city that doesn’t always respect its past. For a neon aficionada like me, there is no better place.

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