Neon Museum and Boneyard

6 Feb

There’s something surreal about seeing the skeletons of dearly loved signs from Vegas’ past as they sit slowly decaying in the desert sun. You’ll discover this at The Neon Boneyard, a large lot downtown that’s part of The Neon Museum. It’s like a graveyard full of electronic fossils. But instead of burial, here retired signs get an afterlife. Saved from the dump, they can be viewed by visitors and their storied backgrounds can be retold.

Plus, the hope of a second coming lingers. The Neon Museum has been restoring and displaying signs as public art installations. Although you can see them at any time of the day, these cultural icons truly shine in the evening. Refurbished signs — including The Hacienda Horse and Rider and the original Aladdin’s Lamp — are part of a self-guided walking tour near Fremont Street Experience. The sparkling high-heeled shoe from the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall is among the signs that have been placed on medians along Las Vegas Boulevard, between Bonanza Road and Washington Avenue, as part of the Scenic Byways beautification plan.


When tourists think of Las Vegas, naturally their memories flash back to its glittering lights. In addition, their first impression of the city often comes from the world’s most famous neon attraction. Designed by Betty Willis, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign has been greeting visitors at the southern end of the Strip since 1959.

So when did the inert gas become such an integral visual component in the Entertainment Capital of the World? Its playful, flickering glow debuted in 1929 at the Oasis Cafe on Fremont Street. From the 1930s to the ’60s, neon popped up on much of the signage in the city — including spectacular large-scale façades like the pink plumage still seen at the Flamingo. It was the ultimate marketing tool for businesses because it attracted so much attention.

Although neon had a good run, in recent decades new technology has taken over the sign industry. LED and LCD screens require less maintenance and are visible in the daytime. They are also easily programmable and can display changing information.


As neon signs were being eliminated, a movement arose to collect, preserve and exhibit them. It started more than 20 years ago by people from the Allied Arts Council and Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO), the manufacturer responsible for creating a number of the city’s neon pieces. Since YESCO leased signs instead of selling them, many were returned and stored in the company’s production lot. When The Neon Museum was officially established in 1996, the city allocated space in downtown on the east side of Las Vegas Boulevard for The Neon Boneyard. YESCO then donated its retired signs to the fledgling organization. About 40 percent of The Neon Museum’s vast collection originated there, and items from newly imploded or remodeled properties are added continually.

The Neon Boneyard encompassed three acres. An acre of that space is being used by The Neon Boneyard Park. Along with benches, tables, a stage, informational kiosks and a parking area, there will be a giant sign that welcomes visitors featuring replicas of letters from iconic casino signage.

The remaining two acres form a divided rectangular parcel. Half of the space makes up The Neon Boneyard. About 120 signs are there. They comprise the curated collection that the public can visit. The other half of the space serves as a staging area for commercial photographers and videographers.


The Neon Boneyard is fenced off and located directly behind the La Concha Motel lobby, a white curvilinear structure that is being developed for use as a visitors’ center. Designed by acclaimed African-American architect Paul Revere Williams, it’s on the city’s Historic Register. Slated for demolition in 2006, the lobby — considered a Googie architectural marvel because of its soaring arches — was cut into eight pieces and moved from the Strip to The Neon Boneyard. It was reassembled in the spring of 2008 and is under renovation to eventually become the Boneyard’s Visitor Center.

Funding for The Neon Museum is also generated through tours. Tours of the Boneyard have to be scheduled in advance. Call (702) 387-NEON or go to to arrange for a tour. Tours often sell out so make reservations at least a week in advance. Don’t show up without a confirmed appointment. You will be turned away. Each tour lasts about an hour. All of the guides hit upon the same basic points concerning the history of Las Vegas, but their own interests generate the rest of the presentation. This means there’s an incredible oral history component to the tours.


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