Those of you who know me or have seen my photographs know that I’m a little bit obsessed with vintage neon signs.
For the past few years I’ve been photographing them wherever I see them — mostly in and around Boston, but also in Chicago, California, New York City, Reno, and of course Las Vegas.
Why neon? (And I’m using neon quite broadly, albeit incorrectly, to refer to the whole range of neon, electric, LED, and occasionally plastic commercial signs.)
First, the aesthetics. I’m a fan of Art Deco and mid-century modern design, and neon typography often references these styles. Think about the sign for RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL with its perfectly round O and that top-heavy R. Gorgeous. And the exuberant atomic-era STARDUST sign, now residing at the Neon Museum in Las Vegas.
Second, these signs are a rapidly vanishing piece of roadside America. Originally designed to beckon travelers, many have fallen victim to changing times. National chains with their standardized signs have replaced many quirky mom-and-pop shops, restrictive sign codes typically frown upon anything flashy, and aging neon is often too expensive to maintain and repair. Radio City probably isn’t going anywhere, but I’ve seen plenty of other signs disappear just in the few years that I’ve been shooting them.
Some have been snapped up by collectors or museums. (Occasionally they even show up on eBay.) A few have been saved from the wrecking ball, with plans to incorporate them into the new projects that will replace the original business. One of the best known success stories is the Pepsi-Cola sign on the Queens waterfront in New York, which just received landmark status. Boston’s old Coca-Cola sign was not so lucky, but reuse plans are in place for the Hilltop Steak House and Circle Cinema signs.
Other signs have disappeared without a trace; such was the fate of the sign for the South Pacific restaurant in Newton. And more than a few are endangered. The most recent and visible example is the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square that has come to symbolize Boston for many. The sign is owned by CITGO, now a Venezuelan company, mounted on a building owned by Boston University, and maintained by the Federal Heath sign company. When BU put the building up for sale with no provisions for the sign, people grew alarmed. Stories popped up in local media and a petition was circulated on Change.org. For now, the City of Boston’s Landmarks Commission has granted the sign provisional landmark status, pending a detailed review. Stay tuned.
Third, as I embarked on this photographic quest, I was struck by the connections people had to the images. Many individuals shared personal stories: A first date at the Rosebud, an under-age drink at the South Pacific, or an Allston apartment that overlooked Twin Donuts.
Which brings me back to Red Nickel Neon. Boston’s inventory of neon signs is small compared to cities like New York and San Francisco and Chicago. But our signs are no less worthy, and a smaller inventory means that every loss is noticeable. So I am making it my mission to document, celebrate, and help save as many of these signs as possible.
I want to write a book about this, but I’m starting with a Facebook page @RedNickelNeon.
Red Nickel Neon will be a place to share stories from other neon fans around the web — the successes, to be sure, but also the tales of lost and endangered signs.
But I also want to hear from you. Which signs do you love and why? Can you share your recollections of a special time at a long-gone restaurant or movie palace? Which do you prefer: Modern Pastry or Mike’s? Or is Regina’s Pizza more your style?
Please check out the page, give it a like, and share with your friends. And do post your stories, photos, and memories. I can’t wait to hear from you.