The Neon Museum Creates a Monument Out of Nothing

Celebrating the unique identity and legacy of Las Vegas with materials that others have literally thrown away

What does it mean to change the identity of a place or a location? Discarding everything and anything that signified the old identity is a given, meaning all of the material that helped create this identity ends up in the trash. In Las Vegas, where establishments of all types are torn down, rebuilt or refurbished all the time, materials that helped create the identity for some of the most famous establishments in the world were often treated the same as industrial waste.

Luckily, various organizations came together to ensure this history wouldn’t be thrown away. At the Neon Museum, visitors can go on guided tours of the Neon Boneyard, where signs that used to reside over everything from casinos to dry cleaners can be viewed at ground level and up close. Many of the signs are functioning as they did or have been fully restored, which makes going through the Boneyard a completely different experience in the day versus the night.

The Neon Museum is an amazing example of what it can mean to create a monument out of material that others are literally throwing away, all while celebrating a unique identity and legacy.

 

Preserving and Exhibiting the Icons of Las Vegas

It wasn’t so long ago that the signs associated with a casino were treated the same as the brick and mortar that formed the structure of these buildings. Many casinos were imploded with everything that identified the establishment still in them, which included the neon signs. Few gave much thought to the iconic nature of these signs and how they represented a powerful legacy and history for the city.

While many had recognized the power and iconic nature of these signs to the point that such material has been pulled from demolition sites for the past few decades, it took a partnership between the Allied Arts Council of Southern Nevada and the City of Las Vegas to give them a home. This partnership created the Neon Museum, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment.

The former La Concha Motel lobby is now the visitor’s center, having been taken apart and reassembled at the new location. In fact, a large section of the original La Concha Motel sign is on display in the Boneyard, complete with climbing rungs that were utilized by workers to change the light bulbs in the sign, which absolutely do not meet current OSHA standards for safety.

Before the museum was created, many of these signs were stored in the boneyard of the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO), where they were deteriorating at a rapid rate. The Neon Boneyard allows visitors to interact with iconic neon signs from places that have been closed like the Stardust Resort and Casino and the Sahara Hotel & Casino as well as establishments that are still in operation such as Caesars Palace and the Golden Nugget. It’s also home to a variety of other pieces of Las Vegas history that have been pulled from gas stations, wedding chapels, restaurants and plenty more.

Walking through the Neon Boneyard is like walking through a time capsule of Las Vegas, but one of the most striking things about doing so is how visitors can have completely different experiences depending on when they go.

Distinct Day and Night Experiences

As you might expect from a place that has the word “neon” in the title, the main attractions at the museum are the neon signs that showcase the history of a variety of Las Vegas establishments. However, the aesthetics are just part of the experience of being at the museum. Whether it’s getting a sense of just how humongous the Stardust sign was, asking why the year 1905 has such prominence, or learning what the letter “S” in Sassy Salley’s is designed to invoke, a walk through the Boneyard is a literal trip through the history and legacy of Las Vegas

Tour guides are on hand to lead visitors on this journey, and they explain and explore this history and are also available to answer questions. Each tour guide has different attractions that they believe are notable to highlight, which is just part of what makes each and every visit a unique one. What adds to that uniqueness is how varied the experience can be in the day versus the night.

During the day, visitors can get a sense of the variety of neon signs that provide viewers with a definitive history of Las Vegas. The bright Las Vegas sun highlights the bravado and decay that all of these attractions feature to one degree or another. It’s also easier to get a sense of the scale of these objects during the day, which includes “Skully” from Treasure Island. It’s so large that the only way to really appreciate it is to see it from above. All of these signs and objects take on a whole new identity at night though.

Many of the signs in the Boneyard are not in working condition, which means that at night, they rely on backlights to give visitors a sense of how they might have looked when they were in operation. That doesn’t detract from the experience though, and it’s a great contrast to the signs that have either been restored or are fully operational. Many have talked about how neon-sign making is a dying trade, which means attractions like the restored neon for the Yucca Hotel might soon be something that unavailable to experience anywhere else.

Visitors will have different criteria around which are their favorites, and that’s an argument many have as soon as the tour is over, regardless of what time it takes place. For some, the historical significance of what’s being preserved is most important, while others are far more focused on pure aesthetics. Regardless of the reasons, the options people have around the times they go as well as groups and tour guides that are always different ensure visitors will be able to have a unique experience on the tour.

The neon signs and sculptures are iconic in more ways than one, and that has contributed to the economic opportunities that are being created and enabled at the museum.

 

Admission, Photo Shoots, Events and Memorabilia

The Neon Museum Boneyard is only available to the public through an hour long guided tour, and the prices for that tour vary depending on the time that someone chooses to go. Options include day tours, night tours, and late night tours, each of which requires separate payments.

Public tours are just one way the museum is generating revenue though. The Neon Museum is available for photo and video shoots by individuals, professionals, and organizations. The kinds of photo/video projects that are booked at the museum range from photo/wedding shoots all the way to full-scale film productions.

The museum also features event space available to rent for private parties, corporate functions and other special occasions. A new event space offers plenty of room along with a view of the Neon Boneyard, but there are a variety of spaces and places to rent. Tours of the Neon Boneyard are not included as part of a standard event package, but can be added for additional fees.

Regardless of how visitors get into the museum or why they’re there, the gift shop enables them to purchase a variety of objects that showcase the history on display at the museum. There are many items here that you’ll only be able to purchase at the museum. It also provides the perfect place for books like Lost Las Vegas and Las Vegas Then and Now, which contain many of the objects on display in the Boneyard.

The legacy and history these books contain give visitors a sense of why these signs and memorabilia are about more than light and color. They’re part of the history of the city, which directly ties into how they have and continue to influence the culture of the area.

 

Showcasing a Cultural Evolution

As an international destination best known for gambling, entertainment, and nightlife, Las Vegas has established a culture that permeates the city. This culture has changed and evolved over the years though, and the signs on display in the Neon Boneyard display this evolution in a literal way.

The Boneyard contains a simple sign for the Green Shack restaurant on Fremont Street, which dates back to the 1930s. Many believe this is the very first neon sign that hung in the city, and it’s striking to compare it to signs that are far larger and more ostentatious for establishments like the Moulin Rouge and the Stardust. It’s an evolution that can be seen in real-time on the Las Vegas Strip, but the genesis of it all is right here.

Las Vegas isn’t just about casinos and gambling, but the influence these elements have on all other walks of life in the city that are also on full display in the museum. Whether it’s the “Happy Shirt” neon for Steiner Cleaners, the 10-foot-tall Pool Player who once stood upon the roof of Doc and Eddy’s Pool Hall, the two-sided baby duck from Ugly Duckling Car Sales or Liberace’s neon signature, the way in which this culture has influenced the past, present and future of the entire city is on full display.

The Neon Museum isn’t just about preserving the past or creating an attraction for tourists though. Educational programs that include school partnerships, library outreach, off-site exhibits are all part of the happenings and activities at the museum. Events like the Boneyard Ball and Nevada Day are just a couple examples of the activities that have enabled the Neon Museum to become an important part of the community.

Ultimately, that aspect of community is what the Neon Museum has been able to preserve and enable, which is why the legacy it celebrates is about far more than neon signs and pieces of old casinos.

Turning Trash into a Monument

One of the most important things to remember about the Neon Museum is that it was created to house what had otherwise been discarded or thrown away. It’s a perfect illustration around how to turn nothing into something, and what it can mean to turn trash into a literal monument. The Neon Museum has proven to be something that is as significant for the history it preserves as the economic and cultural developments it has enabled. It’s the sort of place that can end up representing a much bigger cultural evolution.

All of these elements have provided a showcase for a Las Vegas legacy that doesn’t belong to a single era, person or place, and which can now be experienced anytime, by anyone, regardless of whether they’re coming in from down the street or across the world.

Jeremiah Karpowicz

Jeremiah Karpowicz always envisioned a career as a screenwriter, but found the autonomy and freedom he was looking for in the digital space. He has created articles, videos, newsletters, ebooks and plenty more for various communities as a contributor and editor. Get in touch with him on Twitter.