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Neonopolis: Las Vegas' Homage to Neon

(February 2006) posted on Sun Feb 12, 2006

Visit neon's past, present and possible future in Las Vegas' new entertainment/retail complex.


By Louis M. Brill

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Neonopolis, a destination entertainment center in downtown Las Vegas, comprises 240,000 sq. ft. of flicks, fun, food and fashion. As the name implies, the building highlights neon -- approximately three miles of it run along the building's exterior, interior walls and ceilings. Occupying a complete city block next to the Fremont Street Experience (see ST, January 1996, page 132, and March 2001, page 138), Neonopolis will draw from Fremont St.'s annual 21 million visitors.

The center features three stories of entertainment, including retail shops (Zinc, Exo, Just Sports, etc.), restaurants (Jillian's, La Salsa and The Saloon) and a food court. Anchor tenant Crown Theaters offers a 14-screen multiplex.

Neonopolis resulted from public and private organizations' efforts to expand entertainment services for downtown residents and tourists. RTKL Assoc. (Los Angeles) designed the facility, which is owned by Prudential Real Estate Investors, in conjunction with support and investment from the city of Las Vegas.

One of three major players who molded and massaged the interior neon, Gene Sisco, president of Development by Design (Boston), established the location and presentation of the antique neon sign collection, as well as created the hip look of the modern neon that radiates at night. YESCO (Las Vegas) coordinated the manufacturing and installation of all the neon for Neonopolis. The company refurbished Neonopolis' antique neon collection, as well as fabricated and installed Sisco's modern neon embellishments that cover its walls and ceilings. Lighting Design Alliance of Los Angeles designed food-court and plaza-wall designs.

Sisco, who guided neon placement, says, "Neonopolis is about the value of neon for its own sake, and this building creates a connection of that value as to how it was used in the 20th Century as a lighting source for signage. It's also about how neon is used as an architectural component for decoration."

Sisco notes that Las Vegas' new downtown entertainment center is actually two buildings in one. By day, the building's Latin/Florida-styled architecture, bright-colored stucco and curvaceous forms are accented, while the intensive and creative use of neon transforms the center at night.

Old signs, new look

Years ago, the building's owner, Prudential Real Estate Investors, purchased an art-gallery collection that included antique neon from the Santa Monica, CA-based eclectic gallery Trac-16. As the building's design developed, Sisco felt the sign collection should be showcased in one area of Neonopolis, rather than dispersed throughout the building.

Thus, the signs were placed around the outer wall of the elevator tower in the central courtyard so that visitors can, at any time, see the entire antique-sign collection. The 18 aged signs cover the full bloom of neon's advertising use in movie theaters, supper clubs, motels and retail shops from the early 1920s to the '60s.

Sisco credits the signs' refurbishment to YESCO's craftspeople. J. Kevin Wright, the YESCO sales executive who sold the Neonopolis sign projects, says the company handled rehabilitation as well as installation.

"To preserve the historic value of the antique signs, they were restored to their original condition. If a sign face was originally handpainted, that's what we brought it back to; if the sign face was porcelain, that's how we finished it, and so on. Where required, we reworked the electrical elements [new transformers and wiring] to bring each antique sign light back to life." Wright says.

"We were required to apply the new sign code [1999 National Electric Code, which is adopted on local levels in Nevada] while restoring the signs, and that meant using code-compliant transformers that wouldn't work with the older signs as they were originally designed. If we had replaced the original transformers with current transformers that met present code, numerous changes would have violated the original historical value of the signs," says Mel Kochan, who managed the project's antique neon restoration.

He continues, "We had an equitable solution with the city of Las Vegas, which allowed us to upgrade the signs in a safe way. Consequently, the safety issues considered enabled us to restore the signs to their original historic condition, and we did so using the original equipment."

Another installation challenge was posed by weight restrictions. Heavy-load limits -- no cranes or heavy trucks were allowed -- on Neonopolis' interior-courtyard floors around the elevator tower required extra maneuvers.

Kochan says, "I had neon going in at over 90 ft. in the air, which made it very difficult. It took a lot longer than we expected."

The company used a Danka manlift with custom-built staging underneath to cushion the rig's support jacks from marring or breaking the floor. "I used a lot of wood and built a special track for the rig to ride on," Kochan says. "We also used scaffolding and a special hoist to lift the signs exactly where we wanted them."

The final antique-sign collection is a great success, Sisco notes. "Its presence has transformed the elevator core from a mere functional elevator tower into an outdoor sign gallery. People gather every day to look at the signs and take pictures of them."

With the elevator tower centrally located in the interior courtyard, the neon sign collection provides maximum visibility for guests entering and leaving the elevator.

Signs of the times

Chronologically, the collection begins with a portion of the Strand Theater neon blade sign (installed in 1925 in Shreveport, LA). The word "Strand" is enclosed in red case letters that vertically descend the sign frame. Surrounding the letters, a vertical outline of chase lights tops off the sign with a crown of flower petals with spiraling chase lights imbedded within the petals.

The collection then jumps to the Smoking Pipe (installed in 1940 in Hollywood) and Fifth Street Liquor Store signs. Each puff of the Smoking Pipe sign touts a product -- tobaccos, cigars, lighters and pipes the store sold.

Designed by its original owner, the Fifth Street sign is the only example in the collection built (originally by YESCO) and operated within the Las Vegas community. The sign features a red background, the store's name and "Liquor" highlighted in white, with neon running through each painted word. A fully animated hand pours a drink into a martini glass. Due to its large size, the sign hangs on a side wall, rather than on the elevator tower.

Neonopolis' remaining sign collection depicts the '50s and '60s, with a split between text signage, such as the Perry's Supper Club projecting sign, and kitschy iconic signage featuring a walking chef carrying a steak-and-potato dinner. Another sign features a neon-outlined bowling ball and pin. A neon sign portraying a blonde Marilyn in a blue bathing suit was once used to woo diners to a popular adult-entertainment restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

Further, The Palomino Motel sign's bottom half identifies the motel, while its top half features a little horse, skidding to a stop when it hears "Whoa," a clue to passing drivers that this was the place to rest for an evening.

Frank Wheat, Neonopolis' general manager, notes how the venue's antique sign collection has exceeded the company's expectations. "We developed the collection as a conversation piece and an attraction, but there's also a nostalgic element that's working for us. Some older guests remember the signs from their original locations. Particularly, many older Las Vegas locals, who visit, remember the Fifth Street Liquor sign when it was an active street sign."

In some instances, Neonopolis guests misunderstand the collection, Wheat chuckles. "Some visitors thought the Huntington Lodge sign was an active lounge of Neonopolis and went looking for it throughout the building."

Sisco points out that Neonopolis' current antique sign collection is only the beginning and, in time, will expand to fill more of the inner courtyard. "The great thing about our antique neon-sign collection is that, when people walk into the courtyard and see it, they smile, Sisco says. "It's nostalgic, it's a piece of Americana, and it's fun."

A colorful garnish

In addition to antique signage, Neonopolis hosts a three-mile "garnish" of neon light (approximately 14,000 ft.) that completely surrounds the building as a border trim and, at different points, the center's ceiling. According to Wright, neon completely encircles the building's exterior in parallel horizontal bands.

Sisco describes the building's neon embrace as an "architectonic solution." The neon, designed and installed in exaggerated placements, highlights the curvaceous nature of the architecture, and it draws people toward and into the building.

Floor by floor, the bands penetrate the building and create a "wayfinding" system for visitors. Sisco explains, "To continue this neon placement, I designed neon triangular points on the ceiling that act as sort of a 'cosmic wayfinding system' to increase visitor circulation and inspire guests to move through the space."

The centerpiece of the interior neon placement, the food courtyard, features segments of colored neon hanging from the ceiling as if they were, according to Sisco, "strands of spaghetti thrown in space and frozen in time."

Taking a less poetic approach, Wright describes it as a series of unrelated compound, convex and concave radii. Each section of neon hangs at a different height. He says, "Various neon segments overlap and thread through each other at different distances from the ceiling. For example, one segment starts 9 ft. from grade, but its other side may be 11 ft. from grade, and so on."

Additionally, each of the food-court roof's columns is encircled with colorful neon. Neon colors such as ruby red, citrus orange, deep yellow, sky blue, super turquoise argon, magenta, purple and green create a Caribbean atmosphere.

Sisco says, "To emphasize the building lines, I installed horizontal neon bands on the sides of the building. On the top trellis on the side facing Fremont Street, neon undulates as a people magnet and becomes an attraction on its own."

The front-entrance gateway features a neon building sign, flashing sequenced ceiling lighting and streetside neon. Because the 14-screen multiplex serves as one of Neonopolis' anchors, the ticket box office is located on the ground floor (even though the theaters are on the third floor) and garnished with several neon elements. Atop the ticket booth, a neon sign announces the venue, and, on each side, flashing neon rings that overlap diagonally top off a 29-ft.-tall, polished aluminum capital column.

To create the ceiling neon fixtures, a channel was first bent to shape, and the neon was formed in the same shape to properly fit into its specific channel mount.

Kochan, project manager for all sign and fixture installations, notes that the team couldn't directly mate the neon channel to the exterior walls. He explains, "When placing the neon onto the walls, we had to be very careful because of a building-application, weather-proofing process called EFIS [Exterior Insulation and Finish System]. To maintain the integrity of an EFIS surface, we weren't allowed to attach anything to a wall." Instead, attachments were mounted at least 1/4 to 1/2 inch off the wall. So Sisco's team created "off-wall" anchor points that penetrated the walls, covered them with EFIS and mounted the neon fixtures to the anchor points.

A glowing attraction

The opening of Neonopolis is part of the city's expansion plan to make downtown a more prominent and vital part of Las Vegas. Wright concludes, "It's become an art piece. It's a sign museum and an entertainment and retail center. It's definitely succeeded at becoming an attention-grabber." As a new attraction in a city known for glitz, Neonopolis will serve as a beacon that leads people its way.


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