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Bright Lights, Little City

Looking back into the neon past of the Pikes Peak region


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It's hard to imagine the nighttime urban landscape without the powdery electric luminescence of neon signs.

Their deco velvet glow and snaking glass tubes practically defined America in the 1950s as they beckoned from the roofs of bars, motels, movie theaters, drive-ins, bowling alleys and casinos, and guided motorists across thousands of miles of open road to the Rocky Mountain West.

Neon was first discovered in 1675 -- over 200 years before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb -- when French astronomer Jean Picard noticed a small glow caused by trace amounts of incidental neon and static electricity in a mercury barometer.

Because almost nothing was known at the time about the properties of electricity or about neon (which was isolated and named in 1898), it wasn't until 1902 that another French scientist, Georges Claude, invented the first neon lamp.

On Dec. 11, 1910, Claude unveiled the first neon sign in the window of a barbershop in Paris.

In 1923, neon made its first appearance in the United States when the Packard car company purchased two signs from Claude for its Los Angeles showroom.

It's fitting that the first neon sign in the United States would grace the faade of a car dealership. The booming automobile culture that followed in the wake of World War II became inextricably linked to the American ideal of freedom, and neon lights were the beacons that guided motorists across its otherwise dark and empty landscapes.

Motels, in particular, relied on neon signs to draw in weary motorists or "couples seeking a discreet afternoon or evening rendezvous," said Douglas Towne, a neon aficionado in Phoenix, Ariz., who's a member of the Society for Commercial Archaeology (SCA), an organization dedicated to recognizing and publicizing the importance of 20th-century commercial architecture, including neon signs.

"Motel signs featuring exuberant colors, varied shapes, and animated figures mirrored the optimism that energized the country after World War II," said Towne, in an article on neon motel signs in the SCA's online journal. "These so-called mom-and-pop motels developed from the demand for improved overnight lodging by a nation madly in love with nascent auto travel."

Some of the remnants of this 1950s neon/car culture are still alive and glowing in Colorado Springs.

Nobody who's ever taken a drive through Manitou Springs at night could turn their eyes away from the racy coral-and-blue allure of the La Fon Motel, or the undulating blue waves beneath the yellow sailboat at the Mel-Haven Lodge.

The feathers on the headdress of the chief still ripple at The Chief Motel on South Nevada Avenue in Colorado Springs, and the Navajo Hogan Roadhouse, Palomar Lodge and Skylark Motels on North Nevada still light up with the opulent promise of an infinitely bright and modern future despite their age.

These motel and bar signs are relics from a time before interstate highways, said Richard Marold, director of the Cheyenne Mountain Heritage Center, when the only ways through Colorado Springs were Nevada Avenue to the north and south.

"Nevada Avenue was the main highway going through town. There was no I-25," said Marold. "So everyone going from Pueblo to Denver had to go down Nevada. Particularly the area of South Nevada."

Manitou Springs with its high number of seasonal tourists was also a prime destination for car travelers. Like North and South Nevada, Manitou Avenue was a prime location for motels and bars, and the neon signs, like Sirens, hoped to snag tourists and travelers with the best design and as many amenities as possible. Heated pools, color television, and vibrating "Magic Fingers" beds were just a few of the essential implements leisure travelers demanded.

Because so many people are involved in the process, it's almost impossible to attribute signs to individual neon "artists." For Douglas Towne, this fact has earned neon a place in the category of American folk art.

Even local old-timers in the neon sign business have little or no recollection of which companies or individuals had a hand in the classic neons of the Pikes Peak region, many of which are still standing.

Whatever particular stories the signs -- and the motels they so emphatically signal -- may hold are also all but lost. Many of the motor courts with classic signs are now owned by immigrants from Poland and Czechoslovakia who bought the motels within the past eight years and shrug when asked about the signs.

"I think the original owner's name was Mel," said Ted Geber, owner of the Mel-Haven Lodge at the edge of Manitou. "It's a nice sign -- the water moving at night, but I often have to have it repaired," he said, gesturing to the yellow sailboat and its fluttering waves.

This frequency of high-cost maintenance, explained Dwayne Maples, plant manager at Gordon Sign Company, is often due to wind and hail. One ball of hail or a big gust of wind can cost a motel owner hundreds of dollars in repairs. For this reason alone, exposed neon almost became extinct as sign buyers began to move to the now-ubiquitous plastic case neon signs (think Wal-Mart, Safeway, KFC, etc.) and most people aren't even aware that the signs are lit by neon.

Nevertheless, neon is experiencing a huge revival. Take a walk down Tejon Street at night and you'll see that same powdery pastel glow spilling out onto the streets from bars like the Ritz, Jose Muldoon's and Tequila's.

"Neon was real popular in the '50s, died down in '60s and '70s, and now it's back hot and heavy," said Wendell Lueders, owner of Aspen Sign Company in Security. "Look at Sonic Drive-Ins: They use at least 1,800 feet of neon for every new location they open."

A few of the motel owners in Manitou definitely know they've got a good thing. "I like the classic stuff. I like that sign," said Suzy Malec, originally from Czechoslovakia who now owns the Alpine Motel in Manitou.

Aleece Gronski at the Foothills Lodge just down the street agrees: "If you just had the plain boring letters, it wouldn't attract as many people. Neon is good!"

Neon for dummies

The process of making neon lighting has changed surprisingly little since its invention.

Stephen Cimino, son of longtime local sign-maker Jim Cimino of the Cimino Sign Co., demonstrated the process in his shop at The Gordon Sign Company.

It starts with a piece of glass tubing that's heated over one of several kinds of burners to around 2,500 degrees and then bent into the desired shape. Once the tube is bent, electrodes are placed in either end of the tube. The tube is then hooked up to a pumping system that takes the air out and purifies the chamber by bombarding it with a shock of electricity. A device called a manifold (a setup that looks like something straight out of the Bat Cave) pumps air out of the tube and pumps neon or argon gas into the tube. The color of the light, it should be noted, depends on this mixture; neon can only be fiery red, while all other colors are made by a combination of argon with mercury and phosphor or by using colored glass. Then, once the gas fills the glass tube, the ends are sealed off with a small hand torch and the tube is "aged," or lit it up for 15 to 20 minutes to make sure that it works.

"Then the service man takes it out and breaks it," joked Cimino.

Glass benders like Cimino represent just one aspect of the sign-making process. Designers, case-builders, plastics and vinyl specialists, painters and installers are all required to see a sign through to completion.


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