3 Must-See Vegas Monuments to Neon
In 1898, two British chemists were playing around with their atomic spectrometer—as you do, if you’re a turn-of-the-century British chemist—when they changed the world of lighting forever. William Ramsay and Morris Travers isolated a previously undiscovered element in their device, and after sending some voltage through it, marveled to see it take on a bright, red-orange glow.
They named the element ‘neon,’ which is the ancient Greek word for new. About a decade later, a French engineer popularized neon lighting and the boom began in earnest. From the beginning, it was associated with cocktail culture: one of the first neon signs ever was a massive Cinzano vermouth beacon that blazed above the Paris skyline in 1913. Also from the beginning, neon was a form of light that combined the utilitarian and the artistic—even the earliest “Joe’s Bar and Grill” signs had an undeniable, eye-catching cachet.
Neon would light up the United States from roughly 1920 to 1940 before dimming somewhat during World War II. The glow returned brighter than ever in the late 1940s and into the ‘50s—and no city was, or is, more synonymous with neon than Las Vegas, which started taking its modern shape in the middle of the Nevada desert in the mid-50s. Contemplating the city’s uniquely radiant skyline, composed entirely of signs instead of buildings, author Tom Wolfe wrote, "But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless."
That ineffable art form is enjoying a comeback lately, and Las Vegas remains at the forefront, with three initiatives in particular. Next time you head to the desert playground for cocktails and memorable nights on the perma-glowing town, be sure to check out these monuments to the city’s most prominent feature.
1. Neon Boneyard
With the restored lobby shell of the iconic La Concha Motel functioning as its visitors center, the Neon Museum is Las Vegas’s tribute to its neon culture. Founded in 1996, the museum features the Neon Boneyard, a place where old neon signs go not to die, but to gain a second life. To walk around the Boneyard is to wander through Las Vegas' glorious past. Visitors receive guided oral tours, conducted by knowledgeable folks who held occupations like showgirls and district attorneys before learning about all things neon. Many of these historic and artistic items originated at YESCO (Young Electric Sign Company), which started making neon signs in 1932. There are more than 200 signs in the Boneyard, including the spectacular Lady Luck Hotel & Casino display, the towering Jerry's Nugget sign, and the stylized script of the Moulin Rouge marquee. The boneyard also has a retired Caesars Palace sign and the skull from Treasure Island Casino, which is big enough to see from space.
2. Las Vegas Boulevard National Scenic Byway
After browsing the Boneyard, hop in your car and go see some living, blinking neon in action. For that, there's no better place in the country than the 3.4-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that starts at the Old Mormon Fort—the first European settlement in Nevada—and ends at the base of Stratosphere Tower, which is the tallest freestanding structure west of the Mississippi. (It’s 1,149 feet tall, and you literally can't miss it.) Between those two iconic landmarks is a visual feast of neon so sumptuous that the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration named it a National Scenic Byway in 2009. It's one of only three urban streets to receive that designation. Highlights include the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada" sign designed by Betty Willis and deployed in 1959; the Hacienda Horse and Rider on Fremont Street, the city’s first neon sign; and the Red Barn’s leaning Martini glass.
3. Las Vegas Signs Project
Forget what that classic rock song says, the city of Las Vegas is determined to make sure its neon signs don’t burn out or fade away. A collaboration between the Neon Museum and the City of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Signs Project is in the process of transforming iconic neon masterpieces into public art. In 1996, the organization debuted its first effort, relaunching the sensational Hacienda Horse and Rider sign that originally graced the Hacienda Hotel. During the past 20 years, the Signs Project has restored eight additional Vegas icons to their original splendor in Downtown Las Vegas, including the literal-minded (and brilliant) Silver Slipper, the 5th Street Liquor Store, with its iconic Champagne bottle pour, and the dazzling Binion's Horseshoe. The city—and the world—are better for it.