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A flickering local legacy

City Sage

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The statue of General Palmer at the intersection of Platte and Nevada avenues belongs to a certain category of public art (famous dead guys on bronze horses); the cool-looking perforated stainless steel horse a block away, to another (abstract horses freed from their dead riders); and the handsome, freshly painted mural on the wall of the Cascade parking garage to a third (community-created art with or without horses).

You can invent as many categories as you want, but art is art. Like porn, we think we know it when we see it. And unlike porn, it's OK to tell Fr. Bill Carmody that you really like it.

Public art decorates, enlivens and uplifts. Art on the Streets has helped transform once-dreary downtown streets into visually engaging environments.

We might believe that Palmer's statue at Platte and Nevada has the same aesthetic value as a concrete garden gnome, but we'd be sorry if it were gone. And when the then-strangely mottled piece had to be repatinated about 30 years ago, money was found to pay bronze artist Barry Petri to do the job.

But the general needs a little help. The bronze rein that once rested in the general's right hand has disappeared, either snipped off by scrappers or removed by mischievous Palmer students.

The rein has been missing for years. The city hasn't done anything about it, nor has any private group. It wouldn't cost much to replace, but unless some public-spirited individual steps forward, it won't happen.

There's money to pave downtown streets, fill potholes, fix curbs and gutters, and host a major bike race. There's even money to buy public art — but there's no money to repair public art, even the iconic statue of Palmer and his horse, Diablo.

The general will get his rein back eventually, but other works of art will decay and disappear because their private owners can no longer afford to display them. You know them, you've seen them, you may love them, and you'll be sorry when they're gone.

Fifty years ago Nevada, Platte and Colorado were illuminated at night by fancifully conceived neon sculptures advertising motels, bars, drive-ins, liquor stores, pawnshops, used car lots and dozens of other businesses.

No more than half a dozen large-scale neon signs remain in the Pikes Peak region. Created by anonymous artists whose neon medium was once called "liquid fire," scorned by the art establishment, they're extraordinary pieces of vernacular art.

The mom-and-pop motels that still retain them find it difficult and expensive to maintain the signs, which may be why so few remain. Neon signs may be considered art in Portland, Ore., or Las Vegas, but in our stodgy city they're just cultural curiosities, junky old things left over from the 1950s.

Consider the Park Row Lodge sign at 54 Manitou Ave. Continuous scrolling tubes of pink neon spell "Park Row," in an elegant 1950s font. It's going dark — much of the sign is still brilliant, but some of the tubes emit only a faint pinkish glow.

A few blocks east, at 3715 W. Colorado Ave., is the Mel-Haven Lodge. The sign, a kitschy symphony of red, blue, yellow and green neon, would draw a smile from Vladimir Putin. A yellow neon sailboat bobbing on a blue neon sea beckons the weary traveler to a safe haven. The sign is prominently featured on the Lodge's website — alas, like its neighbor to the west, it's partially dark.

Last stop: the beleaguered Chief Motel on South Nevada. The animated sign is glorious, featuring an American Indian neon warrior swinging his neon tomahawk. Or he used to swing it — the sign, like the motel itself, is mostly dark.

Not so many years ago, Colorado Springs was one of the country's prime destinations for neon aficionados. Motelamericana.com noted that visitors could expect to see "the truly most awesome displays of mid-century motel [sign] design in the nation. Ranking easily with Tucumcari, New Mexico, and Wildwood, New Jersey, the towns of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs offer a stunning collection of animated signage and glowing neon."

Those signs are part of our cultural heritage. The half-dozen that remain need help, attention, and a little love. We wouldn't let scrappers steal the general, so why should we let time, like a thief in the night, steal our neon?

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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