Not so many years ago, Colorado Springs was a prime destination for a curious subcategory of visitors: neon connoisseurs. Quirky, exuberant and sculptural, mid-century neon signs brought life and color to our city's streets.
Historic photos and postcards give some inkling of just how brassy, flamboyant and charmingly vulgar our city's transportation arteries were during the "liquid fire" age. Now-vanished signs illuminated motels, car dealers, pawnshops and downtown movie theaters.
The sedate façade of the Burns Opera House on Pikes Peak Avenue, then the Chief Theater, was enlivened by a bright, multicolored neon sign. Along Colorado Avenue a block to the south, neon signs advertised bars, pawn shops, shoe stores and other businesses. A 1955 Myron Wood photo (left) shows the now-nondescript block between Nevada Avenue and Tejon Street in all of its multicolored glory.
But not everyone loved neon. Planners and architects nationwide considered it to be offensive and seedy. The term "red light district" predates neon lighting, but the reddish-orange glow of classic neon came to symbolize bars, pool halls and shady businesses of all kinds.
So what did puritanical urban planners do? They outlawed neon. Colorado Springs and Manitou effectively banned new signs, though existing businesses were not required to junk theirs.
As businesses closed or were remodeled, the signs went dark. Some were left in place, silent reminders of times past. Others were junked.
Today, fewer than two dozen old-school neon signs remain in the region ("A flickering local legacy," City Sage, Sept. 5, 2012). Many are wholly or partially dark. Without some kind of intervention, we'll lose them all.
In other cities, young preservationists, artists and quirky neon aficionados have teamed to restore these glowing sculptures, the "Art on the Streets" of a vanished time. Here, downtown property owner Brad Stark is putting together a modest nonprofit with a single goal: Save the signs.
Stark hopes to enlist local businesses and the downtown/arts community. He's begun identifying defunct or abandoned signs and contacting property owners. Rather than paying to have them taken down and junked, owners may be amenable to giving the signs to the nonprofit, which then would arrange to have them removed and transported to a new home.
Where? Stark is excited about creating a museum in a downtown location. Think of the Alley Arts District, the City Auditorium's west wall or any urban space that could handle the bright lights of Colorado's past.
This isn't a new concept. Las Vegas, where the art of neon signage reached its highest (or, if you prefer, lowest) point, has led the country in preserving them. Thanks to a partnership including the gaming industry, 10 iconic signs have been preserved, restored and displayed as art along medians and street corners. For unashamed, unadulterated and deeply satisfying American kitsch, check the wondrous Hacienda Horse and Rider, which has been installed at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street for several years.
The Las Vegas museum also has a neon "boneyard," a two-acre site where scores of signs await restoration.
In Colorado, the State Historical Fund provided a small grant to help restore a sign in Boulder, but state support for neon preservation is basically nonexistent. That hasn't deterred a few local business owners, who understand that neon attracts the young customers who see the signs as charmingly retro, even hip.
Bar owner Johnny Nolan restored the iconic Navajo Hogan sign on North Nevada, first created in the 1940s. His SouthSide Johnny's also features a magnificently gaudy neon sign that defines the popular nightspot.
"I got it from a junkyard in Pueblo," says Nolan of the latter. "We love it."
I've agreed to help Stark. If you're interested in joining us, email me — and maybe neon once again will cast its friendly glow over downtown.