Urban Feature: "Neon in Nevada" and the virtual preservation of Nevada's fabulous historic signs

Nevada's classic neon signs to live on through a new database from UNR and UNLV

Urban Feature is a new series in The Usonian about architecture and design. This week, we take a look at the Neon in Nevada project, an initiative from the libraries of the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to form a digital archive of Nevada’s iconic neon signs before they disappear.

The name Las Vegas instantly conjures the image of the Strip at night, the city’s bright signs enticing the casual visitor and would-be gambler alike. Over the course of the last century, neon signs have formed a key aspect of that romanticized appeal in Las Vegas and its northern cousin, Reno, as well as countless motels and casinos across the Silver State.

But many of Nevada’s neon signs are disappearing. Gentrification and redevelopment have led to the demolition of many of Nevada’s historic (and aging) motels, their signs lost as Nevada adjusts to new economic avenues in the twenty-first century. While Las Vegas reimagines itself as a preeminent American metropolis with the addition of major sports franchises in the form of the Raiders and Golden Knights, the Reno metro area is eyeing the California tech boom, and is notably the home of Tesla’s “gigafactory” as well as several other Silicon Valley outposts. As a result of these and other changes, many of Nevada’s neon signs will soon go the way of the scrapheap.

Fortunately, the libraries of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), have teamed up to create a digital archive of Nevada’s neon signs for the use of researchers and casual neon enthusiasts alike. The archive, set to launch in August 2021, will incorporate photographs from earlier surveys as well as add new images of neon signs to capture as many examples of the art form before it’s too late.

Historic photograph of the sign for the former Stardust casino in Las Vegas. The Stardust casino’s history was the inspiration for the 1995 Nicholas Pileggi book, Casino, which in turn inspired the 1995 Martin Scorsese-directed film of the same name starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci. (Photo by Chelsea S. Miller, used with permission from Neon in Nevada)

Teresa Schultz, a librarian at the University of Nevada, Reno libraries who is one of the leaders of the Neon in Nevada initiative, explained that preserving neon signs is a difficult process, complicated by the fact that the signs themselves take up a lot of space. However, the Neon in Nevada database will make an extensive collection of Nevada neon images accessible to a broad audience in one place.

“We have a thorough collection of images and signs across Northern and Southern Nevada,” Schultz said, adding, “Whether you're a researcher who is studying neon topology, or you're an amateur enthusiast—anyone can access these images and explore the rich history of neon signs across Nevada.”

Neon lighting was invented by the French engineer Georges Claude in 1910, who devised a method of ionizing neon, an inert noble gas, in tubes to emit colored light. Neon signs soon took off around the world and found a particular use as casino and motel advertising signs in Reno and Las Vegas.

According to the Neon in Nevada website, the project started as an idea from Katherine Hepworth, a former journalism professor at UNR, and UNR history professor Chris Church, who together recruited UNR Art Librarian Amy Hunsaker, who had previously documented street art in Reno for a similar database project. In 2020, the Neon in Nevada project received a grant from the Library Services and Technology Act, a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services administered by the Nevada State Library, which made the project possible. The database, to be hosted on an UNLV repository, will feature about 2000 images. The UNR and UNLV libraries are also collaborating with the Nevada Historical Society and other neon experts.

“I'm not from Nevada; I've only been here for five years,” Schultz explained, “It's been really cool to learn more about my adopted state’s history [through this project].”

One of the most influential of these experts is Will Durham, an advocate and collector of neon signs as part of the Nevada Neon Project he founded, which ultimately seeks to establish its own neon museum. Notably, Durham helped his 5th and 6th grade students at Carson Montessori School lobby the Nevada state legislature to make neon the official state element of Nevada, a measure that Governor Sisolak signed into law in 2019.

For the Neon in Nevada project, Durham traveled across the state to take photos of contemporary signs to add to the database’s collection.

“The more that I’ve looked at [neon signs] and been around them, I started to realize how historically significant they were,” Will Durham was quoted in a 2019 article from KUNR, adding that, “These signs represent properties and businesses that were real pioneers in Nevada, that really shape our state. They really are part of our cultural heritage and collective history.”

Not sure what the “Merry Wink” Motel was going for, but it sure looks cool. (Photo by Sheila Swan and Peter Laufer, used with permission from Neon in Nevada)

The Neon in Nevada archive will not only include images of neon signs in Reno and Las Vegas, but from a wide array of smaller towns and cities in Nevada, including Elko, Tonopah, and Winnemucca.

“I'm not from Nevada; I've only been here for five years,” Schultz explained, “It's been really cool to learn more about my adopted state’s history [through this project].”

Though Neon in Nevada will launch in August 2021, the project will host virtual events on July 29, 2021, to coincide with Artown, a non-profit arts and music festival in Reno. One event will comprise of a panel of neon experts, including a representative from the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. In addition, three interactive neon sessions for children will be led by Durham the same day. (Scroll to the end of this article for registration links to these events).

Neon’s cultural influence on Nevada is sizable, and Schultz expressed enthusiasm that the project was able to proceed despite the pandemic.

“COVID has thrown us numerous wrenches,” Schultz said. “We're very excited this project can see the finish line.”

You can follow the Neon in Nevada Instagram page, spotlighting various neon images, here. Learn more about the goals of the project at their website.

You can also register for the virtual Neon in Nevada events on July 29, 2021 by clicking on the following links:

10 a.m. PDT. Fun with Neon for Kids session.

1 p.m. PDT. Fun with Neon for Kids session.

4 p.m. PDT. Fun with Neon for Kids session.

7 p.m. PDT. Neon in Nevada: Discussion Panel.

Special thanks to Max Stone for his help sourcing images for this blog post.