Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Downtown Las Vegas--Sign City

Circus-Circus is the last of the Neon Golden Age still standing.

Las Vegas the city-of-cities-within-the-city, a city that usually leaves most of its past in the dust, has taken the first step toward remembering itself.  The towering neon signs from the city's rat pack years are being saved and placed in a new outdoor venue, The Neon Museum. The museum brings a new vision of public art in an outdoor display that's part of a pedestrian mall downtown next to the entertainment complex, the Freemont Experience.

The signs come from all over the city and are being placed in an area where there are still many original ones whose lights still flicker as part of the existing older casinos of the neighborhood.

While the South End of the strip is adored by millions of frolicking tourists with new resorts that seem to sprout into the air like desert flowers after long spring rains, the North End and downtown have developed more slowly leaving pockets of life that seem frozen in time.

It's here that those who prefer a low-key, perhaps historic approach to this place where few say no to desire and impulse, that one can find a relatively peaceful escape from the clang and clatter of one of the world's most visited cities.

From the Strip's north End to the downtown lies a section of Las Vegas that is dotted with landmarks of the past. 

At Desert Inn Road and Las Vegas Boulevard among the Stardust (built in 1958) stars that sparkle mid-century begins the walk of what's left of Vegas's architectural past.  Here, visitors can discover round buildings with multiple arching facades that curve outward with glass that stretches from the floor to the ceiling; architecture usually associates with Palm Springs or sections of Los Angeles.

Look closely, too, and you'll find that COLOR TV, an amenity that is a dinosaur, spelled out in red, yellow, orange, purple, and blue and still hanging like nostalgic eye candy reflected among the smoky glass of the Rivera Hotel.

Take a few steps, backward, peek down Desert Inn Boulevard and you'll see the Somerset Shopping Center sign, a sparkling jewel, a disk that changes shape as you walk by it resembling a geometry problem yet to be solved.  One thing for sure, is it won't be here for long. 

If you turn around and begin to walk downtown (about an hour stroll)  you soon discover that everything teeters on tattered, yet still exulting in elements of design that exemplify the Golden Age. 

Buildings and casinos that rise to the sky among the neon and tacky windows with signs of Vegas' instant desires--Win big, ALL YOU CAN EAT, T-shirts $4.99-- are the background set for the new Starbucks and Walgreen's.  Nevertheless, cowboy boots and cocktail glasses are still never far away in the North end of this endless city.

Only one mid-modern classic along the Strip--Circus Circus still sports a sign that is retro (a giant clown), not in the same way as the Luxor, or the Stratosphere, but in the way of this place's heyday, where it wasn't Siegfried & Roy who graced the boulevard, but the King--Elvis--himself.

Even the Denny's sign here hasn't changed--lettering that swerve underneath itself in rectangles and circles, inside a hexagon, bright yellow and red.  And the word RESTAURANT is very visible letting everyone know that Denny's is a place to eat. 

Along the way the skyline is blessed with the Clark County Courthouse, a sole mid-century landmark of the downtown's almost officeless neighborhood, sweet design of yesteryear.  

Eventually the Strip brings you down to Freemont Street--more specifically The Freemont Street Experience.  Here the last century melds with the new one.

This 70 million-dollar amusement complex that includes 10 casinos and has been dubbed the Neon Center of Las Vegas spills out a jackpot of light. The refurbished neon signs are everywhere along with plaques containing historical tidbits about the last Las Vegas, the Las Vegas, a place that spelled G-L-A-M-O-U-R with stars who are etched into our memories as efficiently as the white tornado of that era used to clean our kitchens and bathrooms.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Googie Architecture is Flycatching

Mid-Century Modern Goes Googie
By Matt Bamberg

Googie, abstract and geometric, ignoring gravity and consisting of a combination of then-space age materials—sheets of glass, steel beams, asbestos (oh no), plywood and plastic— has caught the eye of Dale Wissman, Executive Director for Building Horizons, a non-profit training program that teaches local high school students entry-level construction and construction-related skills during the actual building of affordable homes. “Googie is space-age, roadside-ultra-optimistic, mid-century modern architecture. Think The Jetsons, Tommorrowland, The Astro Car Wash, The Seattle Space Needle, and any motel that has the total futurama motif,” he explained.

Googie has been traced back to Coffee Dan's restaurants designed by John Lautner in the early forties. There was a Googie’s coffee shop at Sunset and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles. Since then Googie has taken some twists and turns.

“It was wildly popular in Southern California for certain high entertainment/concept businesses in the late fifties and early 60's and dovetailed with the Cadillac's tailfins of the same era. There were structures riffing on the new shapes and designs coming from NASA,” Wissman said.

Seeking out new and innovative designs for his projects, Wissman’s found that Googie contains some of the mid-century’s most alluring and futuristic video game-like designs. Yet, Googie structures with their extreme, metaphorical qualities and humor are hard to categorize.

While Palm Springs is certainly not the Googie center of the world, as other SoCal locales, there are notable elements of this flamboyant architecture in the Coachella Valley, a place that has become a mid-century Disneyland.

The Tramway Gas Station (soon to be the new Palm Springs Visitor's Center.) is probably the best-known Googie landmark. “Frey did his Googie-style turn with such sophistication, that it may be hard to see the Tramway Gas Station as projecting the optimism and future (of that style),” Palm Springs Preservation Foundation member Wissman explained. “You have to notice the architectural drama in the triangular roof jutting out to shade the original gas pumps.”

Referring to Googie as “Roadside flypaper”, Wissman wants his students to know that the architecture served a purpose—to get the highway traveler off the road and inside a business. Frey’s style did just that, got people to stop at the gas station to buy gas for new fashionable vehicles of chrome and steel. “And it does something else,” he added. “Frey's Googie-style building was architecture built to succeed in yesterday's future: the current day.”

The roof is the first eyebrow lifting experience on which Googie brings to the casual roadside observer from his car window upon entering Palm Springs. The top of which would probably be a skateboarder’s paradise—slopes that swoop—had they been built on the ground.

Large plate glass windows are the next telling sign, letting the car culture know that there’s something that they want and need, whether they have to have it or not. In this aspect, up and down Palm Canyon, Highway 111, Date Palm and other established thoroughfares in the desert the tale-tall signs of Googie are lurking.

Meant to attract the automobile, a Googie building became a destination in itself. It served as a Disneyesque Tomorrowland, built with the sole purpose of creating architecture and outdoor space that itself was the attraction. Googie-style buildings serviced the new culture of mobility: car washes, gas stations, roadside cafes, convenience stores and drive-in restaurants.

It spread from here all over the United States and Canada, a celebration of competition for the highway traveler, paralleling the US-Soviet space race, the launch of the USA’s Mercury missions vs. the launch of the Sputnik, the Soviet-era space craft.

Googie fever’s rapid rise came among space success from John Glenn orbiting the earth to the men on the moon. Amusement parks and tourist attractions followed in celebration, which gave way to spinning restaurants, and space-age banks and airports. “The L.A.X. tower is SUPER GOOGIE,” Wissman said.

“Now more than ever, nostalgia for a simpler, more optimistic time goes a long way towards explaining the resurgence in interest surrounding Googie design,” stated Wissman.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Anti-Neon "Keep America Beautiful" Campaign

Lady Bird Johnson began an anti-neon campaign on America's highways.
The beginning of the end of neon arrived in the 1960s when the first lady at the time, Lady Bird (yes, that's right) Johnson decided that highways should be beautiful and neon was not part of the plan."Ugliness is so grim," the first lady once boasted. "A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions."

Up until the passage of 1965's Highway Beautification Act neon was highway flypaper, attracting motorists with flashy classic steel-and-neon to stop and sleep or eat. After that, smaller back-lit plastic signs that were a better blend with the highway's natural foliage marked the roadside attractions. Neon-be-gone became persuasive from highway to highway all across the country.

Keep America Beautiful resurrected Lady Bird do-gooder wife and mother to a symbol of national pride, looking after America, a figure who distinguished neon's cutting-edge architecture.

sign art for sale

Friday, January 09, 2015


Fresh up with 7up
Oh, wait, there's another jingle that might strike your fancy.

Let's all go out to the lobby,
Let's all go out to the lobby,
And drink some 7up.