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.
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