Winter 2001–2002

Leftovers / (G)Litter

Learning from lost Vegas

Sara Harris

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

Out in the Mojave Desert, not far from Las Vegas’s main Strip, is an industrial park. At the end is the Young Electric Sign Company, or YESCO, a sprawling, seventy-year-old factory owned by a Mormon family that makes neon signs. In their back lot is a place called the Boneyard, where Cupid’s Wedding Chapel, El Rancho motel, The Golden Nugget, The Silver Slipper—all relics of the golden age of Vegas neon—lay stacked like picture frames at a flea market, fading in the Nevada sun behind a chain-link fence.

In 1976, the Smithsonian presented an exhibit of a pop cultural phenomenon that was flourishing in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Called “Signs of Life,” the exhibit displayed models, photos, and examples of the great and towering signs of the Las Vegas Strip. Neon was deemed worthy of the museum. Earlier that same year, the letters of the world’s tallest neon sign, the Stardust, were pried from their scaffolding on the Strip and retired to the lot behind the YESCO sign factory. The recognition from the Smithsonian coincided with the dismantling of the most spectacular sign on the Strip, marking the end of an era in Las Vegas.

The Smithsonian exhibit was not the first highbrow attention these signs had earned. In 1968, a group of architects from Yale studying Vegas discovered the inherent logic and inventive functionality in the ornate gaudiness of buildings/signs like the Golden Nugget. At a time when pared-down modernism was considered the height of architectural achievement, they sang in praise of excess: “Like the agglomeration of chapels in a Roman church and the stylistic sequence of piers in a Gothic cathedral, the Golden Nugget Casino has evolved over thirty years from a building with a sign to a totally sign-covered building.”[1] Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, and Robert Venturi learned much from Las Vegas about “people’s architecture,” and the vernacular significance of “the ugly and the ordinary” buildings adorned with blatant symbols and elaborate signs. The neon-covered architecture of Las Vegas provided pop culture prototypes that challenged the profession to create buildings that announced their purpose as opposed to subtly, tastefully implying purpose through highly designed structure.

Las Vegas had long been synonymous with neon. From the city’s earliest days, signs overpowered the buildings they announced. In the second half of the 19th century, Mormon settlers on their way to California set up camp at an artesian spring in the middle of the desert, called Las Vegas, or “the meadows,” by the Spaniards. Settlers withstood the harsh climate to set up an outpost offering liquor and gaming to miners on their way to California. At the turn of the century a depot, which drew thousands of land-grabbers, was built on the rail line out from Southern California. By 1905, the town was sold in parcels for a total of $265,000.

Las Vegas’s welcome sign, late 1950s. Courtesy VSBA.

With an economy of vice and leisure already well-established, signs advertising saloons, whisky bars, gambling, and brothels started to appear faster than the buildings that housed them. For the most part they were just tents with elaborately painted wooden and metal signs lit with incandescent bulbs, visible from a great distance. It was during the Great Depression that Las Vegas discovered neon, around the same time that Nevada legalized the gambling that had been fueling the boomtown economy. Casinos cropped up and a spate of sign unveilings ensued, continuing through the US entry into the Second World War, when rationing put such extravagances on hold. Thomas Young, a Mormon sign-maker from Reno, landed there at the right time. Before long, he’d made a small fortune making hand-crafted signs for the burgeoning commercial sector.

After the war, YESCO started to hire sign artists from the movie industry. The Golden Nugget went up at the corner of Fremont and 2nd Streets in 1948. It would be re-worked and re-installed many times before its extreme 1956 incarnation was achieved—a wrap-around, “chasing, scintillating,”[2] bull-nose shield design of ornate golden yellow, red, and blue against the night sky. The Mint Hotel and Casino sign was the unrivaled gem of the “Glitter Gulch” section of the city. Also designed by YESCO, it crested out of the middle of Fremont Street in an elegant “white” and “fuchsia” one-hundred-foot- long ribbon with a nine-foot-tall vertical “Mint,” topped off with a sixteen-foot starburst. Vegas Vic was commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce. The neon cowboy, standing 50 feet tall atop the Pioneer Casino and weighing in at six tons, bellowed “Howdy, Pardner” at passers-by every quarter hour. Vegas sign design had arrived.

A parallel design development was unfolding on the Las Vegas “Strip.” Officially Nevada Highway 91, the Strip was designed for the motorist, vast and sprawling compared to its pedestrian-friendly northern neighbor, Fremont Street. In the 1940s El Rancho was the first hotel on the Strip with a sign prominent enough to be seen from miles away. In the 1950s, traffic picked up and hotels were built well off the highway, recessed behind large parking facilities. Hotel and casino proprietors began to commission signs that would attract the eye at the steering wheel level and from afar.

In 1964, the sign designers of Ad Art of Northern California were the first to challenge YESCO’s dominance on the Strip. Charles Barnard and Paul Miller created an expansive but thin bursting cloud of stars that looked like a meteor shower against the desert night. With the street blocked off, hundreds of people came to watch as they erected the world’s tallest, and arguably Vegas’s most beautiful, neon sign, announcing Stardust in golden shimmering Sputnik letters. Over the next decade, Ad Art, YESCO, and Federal Sign Co. bathed the Strip in a flourish of towering light visible from the moment motorists passed over the mountains on the highway from Los Angeles.

In 1975, the new administration that took over the Stardust wanted a newer, more modern sign. There was an energy crisis and they were hoping to hold down the high cost of maintaining the complex sign. The original lighting sequence consisted of twinkling stars, with colors and scintillating, chasing letters that melted across the sky. The circuitry had gone bad. Charles Barnard at Ad Art was crushed by the Stardust’s belt-tightening decision: “We couldn’t believe it when they called us up and said they want to take down the old letters and put up Helvetica. We were heartbroken. So we did it. We basically screwed up our own sign.”

The carvings of the Stardust facelift—the original Sputnik letters—went to rest in the Boneyard. The last vestiges of the old Golden Nugget sign went there, too. El Rancho motel on the Strip went out of business, but its sign rusts unobtrusively behind the Boneyard’s chain-link fence. No one had ever thought to save discarded signs, no one except for smaller sign companies, that is, who would cannibalize jettisoned neon for use in maintenance and as scrap material. Charles Barnard recalls that in their heyday designers replacing signs on the Strip would joke that someone ought to make a neon theme park where the old signs could go to die. In 1976 YESCO started saving some of the signs that had been scrapped. Steve Weeks, who runs manufacturing at YESCO, remembers: “We recycled 600 tons of old signs that had little historical value. Sent ’em to the recycler. Now an old Mercedes sign might be a new Mercedes, so to speak. We decide by how popular they are...anything that had a little class to it we saved....We knew the Golden Nugget was a keeper….We can’t seem to find the Mint anywhere.” Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour had also noted the changing face of the Strip. “The rate of obsolescence of a sign seems to be nearer to that of an automobile than that of a building. The reason is not physical degeneration but what competitors are doing around you.”[3] Charles Barnard points out that in an environment where newer is better, it’s quite remarkable that the original Stardust and Frontier signs still stand, albeit as altered images of their original designs.

The Neon Boneyard. Photo Sara Harris.

Gaming entrepreneur Steve Wynn bought the Golden Nugget in the mid-70s, and ten years later revamped its façade to look more like Beverly Hills. That sparked the remodeling of all of Fremont Street, intended to make it more family-friendly. Signs on the Strip changed too, and the flashy, ornate neon was traded in for the Port Cochere design you see at Caesar’s Palace today, built to lure gamblers and shoppers into the lair of the casino. In the new Vegas, the building doesn’t need a sign, it is the sign. The Luxor pyramid, Paris, the MGM Grand, the Venetian, all announce themselves from miles away, noticeably sans neon. The symbolism of these buildings bears little direct relation to their purpose—houses of gambling cushion casino gaming in familiarly romantic themes. The authors of Learning from Las Vegas identified two types of Vegas symbolism—the “Duck” phenomenon, where the building is the symbol, and the “Decorated Shed,” where a non-descript, functional building is adorned with symbols that give it meaning independent of the structure. The former, they dubbed in homage to “The Long Island Duckling Drive-Thru” restaurant, which is shaped like a duck. A lot like a church whose shape and size announce its function, the “duck” foreshadows contemporary Vegas structures like the Luxor and New York, New York. The “Decorated Shed” they defended as “people’s architecture”—functional, plain—“architecture as shelter with symbols on it.”[4] Its symbolism is the sign; this is the predominant landscape of vintage Vegas.

If you want the old Vegas, the Sputnik letters and scintillating, chasing lamps, you’ll still find some of them on Fremont Street. Aladdin’s original lamp has been refurbished by YESCO and is now mounted in front of the construction site of the Neon-o-polis shopping center, soon to open downtown. But the Boneyard is being dismantled. YESCO donated its defunct signs to an organization that had long coveted them. It has its own dusty lot on the northeast corner of McWilliams and Las Vegas Boulevard in which to house them. The Las Vegas Neon Museum has been rehabbing salvaged signs, and randomly populating Fremont Street with them since 1996. They are creating a “Living Neon Museum,” a bit like the theme park Charles Barnard and his fellow designers joked about during the golden age of construction on the Strip. Signs that once announced the decadence and debauchery of grand casinos to the adventure-seekers of the night now announce, well, themselves to tourists in search of the lore and nostalgia of old Vegas.

Steve Weeks at YESCO feels little nostalgia for the golden days. “There’s always gonna be one time that you come to Vegas when you really discover the town, and then you always want it to look the way it did that time.” But the face of the town is ever-changing, and high culture is the latest arrival. The Bellagio Hotel Casino—understated in its neon, over-stated in size and price—features a gallery where you can marvel at the ar­t collection of Steve Martin, his prized Francis Bacon and a portrait of Martin by Eric Fischl. Soon there will even be something for serious museum goers in Vegas—the Koolhaas-designed Guggenheim at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino opened its doors in October with an exhibit featuring motorcycles. The Living Neon Museum lacks the high-brow appeal of the Guggenheim, and is quite different from the 1976 Smithsonian exhibit. The latter existed contemporaneously in a place far removed from the Strip and its neon. The Neon Museum exists at another time in the same place where the signs once stood with great purpose. As Steven Izenour put it, “the sign is the ultimate artifact of impermanence. There is a delicate line crossed when you put them in a museum—ordinary in one life, extra-ordinary in another.”[5]

Dedicated to Steven Izenour, who passed away unexpectedly in late August.

  1. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996 [1972]), p. 34.
  2. Chasing and scintillating were technical terms for animated light movements that simulated the trail of a shooting star or the sparkling of glitter.
  3. Learning from Las Vegas, op. cit., p. 34.
  4. Ibid., p. 90.
  5. From a personal interview with Steven Izenour.

Sara Harris is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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