Vegas is cool. I’ve found proof. It’s slightly off the beaten track but there is a boneyard in Downtown Las Vegas that celebrates the history and decadence of Vegas in an unexpectedly hip fashion. It’s called The Neon Museum and it is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a graveyard for old neon signs from the casinos, motels and businesses of Vegas.
Like signposts for giants the old neon lights and billboards are clustered in pastel-coloured groups. On a 1-hour tour we were guided passionately through the boneyard as the historical relevance of each sign was explained to us.
There were simplistic signs from the 30’s that just said what their owners sold: “Cocktails, Steak, Chicken.” There were statues, wedding bells, Aladdin’s lamp. There were giant arrows, which we learned were incorporated into signs as the popularity of the motor car grew. They pointed every which way around the yard, beckoning us to ‘come this way’ and go over there, sending my head into a spin. There were parts of famous casino signs that we could just about recognise – a face in profile from Caesars (modelled on the owner himself), golden-coloured bogies that were previously Golden Nuggets – and the whole of the Stardust sign sparkling its name across the yard.
The process of how these signs would have been made, as well as restored, is explained on the tour. But the fascinating part for me was what we learnt about the history and stories behind them. These signs belonged to places that Elvis first performed, themed casinos that were declared doomed for failure, and flashy Mob run hotels whose launches were a failure (talking about you, Flamingo.)
The museum’s visitor centre is also a piece of history having once been the lobby of La Concha Motel. Built in 1961 La Concha was originally located at 2955 Las Vegas Boulevard South but when it was set for destruction the owners, the Doumani Family, promised the Atomic-age inspired building to the Neon Museum instead. In 2006 it was relocated and became the museum’s entrance hall. Rather sweetly, the original La Concha Motel sign stands bright and proud just outside the exit (kept company by a funky chicken, no less).
The restoration of Vegas’ historical signs extends beyond the museum. As part of the National Scenic Byways “Neon Signs” project some of the city’s glitziest signs have been lovingly restored and are now dispersed throughout the Downtown area. Spinning high heels (from the Silver Slipper Casino), bucking horseman (the Hacienda Horse and Rider) and signs for motels long since closed down (like Lucky Cuss), line the road to the museum and make you truly feel like you are taking a walk down memory lane. The sign for the Neon Museum itself is a tribute to the design innovation of the Las Vegas neon sign, and they have used the typography from some of the more famous signs in the graveyard to form it.
Elsewhere in Downtown there is more to delight a fan of street art and street food (such as myself). The Container Park is a collection of eateries and boutiques hosted in old storage containers. With a child-friendly play area in the middle and live music on stage it’s a relaxed yet happening place to hang out in Vegas. Who knew we would find that here?
Other unexpected attractions we found in this area include Slotzilla – a zip line that runs through the Fremont Street Experience – and a number of antique shops in the area selling old casino chips and memorabilia.
The newest hotel and casino sitting in the centre of all this history is the Downtown Grand. For dinner we visited their diner Stewart & Ogden. The food is an edgy mix of modern and traditional American cuisine, which is reflected in the restaurant décor – think 50’s diner but with chandeliers and comfy couches. I ate a delicious dish of braised rib and mash followed by a Key Lime Pie. The quality and service was far beyond anything I expected in this grittier part of town.
But if all this history and hipness is not enough to convince you to visit Downtown Vegas I have one last temptation to offer you – it’s called the Premium Outlet . With offers of up to 60% off premium brands like Kate Spade New York, Coach and Michael Kors – surely I can rest my case?
Have you been to Downtown Las Vegas? Has this tempted you to make a visit on your next trip?
Ticket prices for day tours of the Neon Museum are $18. For more information or to book a visit head to www.neonmuseum.org.