Thanks to the increasing availability of giant LED screens, the Golden Age of Neon has quietly faded in Las Vegas. For decades casinos defined their visual identity with colorful neon signs and competed for the most innovative signage. But with casinos closing, being refurbished and the arrival of new lighting technology a lot of neon signs were replaced, and for many years the Young Electric Sign Company kept the old neon signs in their "boneyard" for storage and recycling. Fortunately historic preservation groups rescued these signs. With support of the arts council The Neon Museum was born to save neon treasures and to educate the public.
Read on to explore Las Vegas' luminous landmarks and The Neon Museum.
When Las Vegas was incorporated as a city in 1911, the now-famous Fremont Street was the main road leading to the railroad station. The first illuminated signs appeared there in 1906, in combination with the street lights to create focal points, and around 1920 visitors were already attracted by a growing number of light advertisements. The occasional animated border of lamps even introduced dynamic lighting - based on manually operated switches.
Due to the gigantic Hoover Dam construction in the 1930s, Las Vegas did not suffer from the effects of the Great Depression like the rest of the USA, and developed its characteristic luminous identity. It was during this period, when neon lights began to shape Fremont Street, that the Las Vegas Review stated: "The Overland Hotel is displaying a new Neon gas-electric sign, of the most modern design, adding considerably to the appearance of that section of the city."
Many of these very expensive neon signs were arranged as lease agreements by the lighting companies that included a service contract. When returned, the companies reused the valuable components to assemble new signs, or they moved the signs to designated boneyards outside the city. Parts of these collections were later donated and eventually built the basis for the The Neon Museum in Las Vegas.
With the size of signs increasing and multi-colour displays on the front canopies of buildings, an intense lighting competition for more attractive neon signs began on Fremont Street in the 1940s. The casino and club scene evolved to become Las Vegas' primary industry, and left the former "Old West" theme for tourists behind. "Glitter Gulch" became the brand name for Fremont Street, with its buzzing gambling blocks and distinctive illuminated signs. While neon lost favor in other regions of the USA, the interest in this linear lighting technology continued in Las Vegas. The tough competition for an eye-catching visual language led to a new strategy in the 1950s, when sign designers collaborated more intensely with architects. Most prominently, the Mint hotel and casino represented this new approach and introduced Modernism to Fremont Street with its asymmetrical vertical blade sign and geometric structural forms. The historic “Old Western” style of the surrounding casinos was left behind in order to highlight the neon age at the Mint.
Another huge light facade emerged with the famous Stardust casino in 1958. The 65 meter long and 8 meter high facade included 11,000 flashing light bulbs and about 2,100 meters of neon tubing, with numerous stars and cosmic rays that mirrored the American ambition to win the space race of the 1960s. The luminous facade covered the unappealing building behind, and thereby convincingly symbolised the "decorated shed", which Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour discussed in their well-known 1972 publication Learning from Las Vegas. In a way, the color-changing Stardust facade anticipated the debate about contemporary media facades that act to some extent as superficial beautifications for uninteresting architecture.
Through the growing number of illuminated high-rise hotel towers, Las Vegas started to develop a night-time skyline for the first time in the 1980s. With the arrival of pictorial architecture in the south of Las Vegas, the desire for flashy neon signs faded significantly by the 1990s. The Excalibur casino with its stylized image of a castle or the Luxor casino with the Egyptian pyramid are typical representatives of the new themed architecture. These buildings were nonetheless strikingly illuminated but no longer with neon. Additionally, signs with new LED technology came into sight and replaced the incandescent and neon lamps.
In order to counteract the rise of the south Las Vegas Strip in comparison to the less vivid downtown district, Fremont Street received a barrel vault canopy for entertainment in 1995. The popular light shows there start by turning off the old lights of the buildings, followed by impressive animations on the 460 meter long screen that convert the vault into a luminous ceiling, banishing any feelings of nocturnal fatigue. Originally equipped with four colored incandescent light bulbs per pixel, the installation received a technical update with LEDs in 2004 that considerably improved issues of lamp maintenance and energy consumption. The famous Vic sign with the neon cowboy from 1951 and Vickie, the female counterpart, appear now as lonely relics of neon's golden age under the spectacular LED shows.
To grasp a feeling of the golden age of neon, The Neon Museum has preserved over 150 neon signs, with an outdoor exhibition that includes iconic signage from the Moulin Rouge Hotel, the Stardust, Desert Inn and Caesars Palace amongst many others. Restoring historical signs is part of their mission as well. These remarkable neon signs could once be seen throughout downtown Las Vegas. Visitors can also explore an extraordinary visitor center at The Neon Museum that demonstrates a sophisticated respect to the city's history with the restored lobby shell from the defunct La Concha Motel by architect Paul Williams, who also worked on the futuristic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport along with William Pereira, Charles Luckman and Welton Becket. Take some time when visiting Las Vegas and stop at The Neon Museum for a guided tour – and a dive into the luminous history of the glamour capital.
- Melissa Johnson, Carrie Schomig and Dorothy Wright, "Spectacular: A History of Las Vegas Neon" (The Neon Museum, 2013).
- Rudi Stern, "The New Let There be Neon" (ST Publications 1996)
- Martin Treu, "Signs, Streets, and Storefronts: A History of Architecture and Graphic along America's Commercial Corridors" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).
Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works for the lighting company and academy DIAL. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the book “Light Perspectives”. For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces. The visit to Las Vegas and the Neon Museum was part of the lighting field trip by the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf, which was kindly supported by Zumtobel and feno.