Vintage Vegas neon signs light up Sin City museum

The world’s largest museum of neon signage formally opens Saturday in Las Vegas.

The brightly-colored, flashing lights of neon signs and the city of Las Vegas go together like gin and tonic water, so it’s no surprise that Sin City is the site of the Neon Museum, which its founders say is the world’s largest museum of neon signage.

On Saturday, when the museum opens its doors, visitors will be able to view a collection of more than 150 neon signs - some vintage dating back to the 1930s, others more recent.

But all the signs are an important part of the social, architectural, design and pop-culture history of Las Vegas, said Danielle Kelly, the museum’s executive director.

“Everyone knows the Stardust, which is highly recognized by so many people all over the world,” Kelly said. The museum has three different versions of signs from the iconic Stardust Hotel-Casino, which was demolished in 2007 after an almost half-century run. During its heyday, the resort was considered the ultimate in luxury and style.

Other signs are from lesser-celebrated properties, like the one from the Algiers Hotel - once “the place for a power breakfast,” for locals, Kelly said. Other signs are from the Moulin Rouge, the Desert Inn, the Flamingo and other bygone hotels, restaurants, casinos and businesses.

The museum features a two-acre outdoor space known as the Neon Boneyard, and a visitor center housed inside the former La Concha Motel lobby, a distinctive modern shell-shaped building from the early 1960s.

The initial effort to collect the signs began in the 1980s when a local arts group recognized their historic and artistic value, as many signs were being destroyed when buildings were torn down, Kelly said. In 1996, the formal collection began with a handful of rescued signs.

The museum has been offering tours informally since 2008, but they were by appointment only. As part of the official opening, three electrified signs will be included for the first time in the permanent collection in the Neon Boneyard.

Today, the museum’s collection includes almost 200 signs, as well as hundreds of pieces of signs. Some signs have been restored, but most have not. Many have peeling paint and faded colors but “are visceral and alluring. Their imperfect condition is really meaningful,” Kelly said. “But all the signs are significant, and tell a story.”

About 15 restored signs are currently installed as public art in downtown Las Vegas.

Danielle Kelly, the Neon Museum's executive director, said visiting is a unique opportunity to pay homage to one of the country’s newer cities.

Kelly recommends that visitors take a night drive down a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard just north of the main downtown area, or Fremont Street, where seven signs are installed, for an authentic experience down memory lane. In 2009, the boulevard became one of three U.S. urban streets to be named a Federal Scenic Byway by the Department of Transportation, she said.

The museum’s opening is part of a much larger city-wide revitalization, said Courtney Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Since 2010, more than $9.2 billion has been invested in tourism-related development in the greater Las Vegas area, which includes new restaurants, new cultural institutions and remodeled hotels - like the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, the city’s first hotel and casino. Both The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and The Mob Museum (National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) opened in 2012, she said.

In addition, “there has been a trend lately in people wanting to know about the history of Las Vegas, how the city got started. The Mob Museum and the Neon Museum both tell that story,” Fitzgerald said. People often associate classic neon signs with ‘old’ Las Vegas, so they “are excited to see those signs are still living on in some shape and form.”

Kelly, the executive director, said unlike so many cities that have pasts steeped in history, visiting the Neon Museum is a unique opportunity to pay homage to one of the country’s newer cities. Visitors to Rome can savor ruins from antiquity, but “in the Boneyard, you can feel the history of Las Vegas.”

Tickets are $18 for adults; $12 for students, senior citizens, veterans and Nevada residents; and children ages 6 and under are free. Tours of the Neon Boneyard, which last about an hour, will be available every half hour beginning at 10 a.m., with the last tour departing at 4 p.m., every Monday through Saturday. The La Concha Visitors’ Center will be open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.