Going Dark: Rescuing Nevada's Neon Signs

Apr 17, 2019

Motels are coming down in Reno, and with that, their signs - works of art and advertising from the automobile revolution - have been lost. While Reno redevelops, bits of roadside history are being discarded. A few dedicated folks are working to recognize and also preserve these icons. KUNR’s Holly Hutchings learned more and has this report.

We’re standing on East Fourth Street in Reno, near 395, as drivers cruise by on their morning commute. Cindy Ainsworth is president of the local chapter of The Lincoln Highway Association and she’s pointing up at a 40-foot towering antique sign.

“This has got to be the best representation of one of the motel signs, I think, in the US," she said. "This is what it used to be; all across the US you'd see these neon beacons for people traveling.”

The Sandman sign has been weathered by the elements. It has descending orange and blue letters that spell “motel.” They are lined in what used to be flashing neon but are now dark. A faded two-toned car sits high on top the once eye-catching sign.

"The wheels, as you see, there's neon around the tires, it looks like it's animated, the tires are going--really neat. This one needs some work; some of the neon is missing."

Ainsworth calls herself a history hobbyist and used to lead walking and bus tours of Fourth Street. They went all over, traversing Reno’s historical hotspots and showing off the architecture and signage. Douglas Alley, back when it shined with signs, is another old neon haven of Ainsworth's.

We’re here outside the Sandman because she loves this sign and is glad it’s still around, but other stops on her tours have now disappeared, and the idea of losing her favorite treasure has crossed Ainsworth’s mind.

"I'd be very, very sad. I tell ya..."

Ainsworth wants people to recall the heyday of these signs, which may look dilapidated now. After WWII, she says a travel boom brought visitors en masse across the desert who would stop in Reno for the night.

“You can imagine coming through here because every single one of these motels had fantastic neon signs," she said. "By the late '30s into the '40s and definitely in the '50s, everybody had their neon and one of my favorites is west of here, the Sutro Motel. It has a sweet little script, just says Sutro on it. There's small and there's beautiful large signs like this Sandman, so it must have been something coming in town.”

The Sandman is not in any danger, but many beloved signs have come down. A lot of them are located in what is now Ward 1, overseen by City Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus.

“It's been particularly sad to see all of this demolition and displacement, loss of history without building permits for new development coming forward,” Brekhus said.

Private property owners have the right to do what they deem best for their business, even if that means bringing buildings and their signs down. They could underestimate the significance that their signs hold or discarding them could be better for their bottom line.

Like some other motels in Reno, Mardi Gras Motel was recently demolished.
Credit Holly Hutchings

Four permits have been pulled for something called a “Reno Neon Line” for West Fourth Street. Jacobs Entertainment is responsible for much of the redevelopment there, and a representative says that plans are forthcoming, although the details are vague right now. The arts community speculates these pads will be used for art installations, presumably the resurrecting of some of the motel signs that were once there.

Brekhus just hopes those who want to build here will see the value in the city’s history and architecture.

“There's only so much we can do public policy-wise, and our resources are thin," she said. "And there are so many examples in so many communities that have done a great job with a retooling of their motoring lodges, from Boise to Tucson to Austin, Texas. It's been a sad thing to not get over the hump and see one of those restored yet, and we just haven't.”

Although private properties may not always be on board for keeping the signs, collector Will Durham certainly wants them all. On a breezy spring day, he unlocks a huge, white metal roll-up door in a row of non-descript storage units, and what’s inside is the biggest treasure chest I’ve ever seen.

“I normally don’t show off where these are stored because this is not the picture of them when they're in their real glory," Durham said. "This is backstage. This is before the showgirls put on their makeup and costumes and giant plumes. This is the real aspect of this.”

He wants the signs to dazzle spectators again and hopes they will if his dreams of opening a museum in Reno are realized. But for now, they’re here.

A pile of defunct signs that once hung high now lays on the ground outside one of Will Durham's storage units.
Credit Holly Hutchings

As we walked around the storage unit, I asked Durham to point out some of his favorite signs, and he happily gave me the tour.

“That's the crate for the Mapes cowboys," he noted. "We have signs from John Ascuaga's Nugget, the Roof Garden Motel, Arroyo Grill that was in the Aces Ballpark. We have our host sign that was the host at the Nevada Museum of Art. He's right behind there. Let's see, what else is in here? We also have the Park Motel Bellman. We have signs from the Wolf Den up at UNR. Signs from the Silver Spur Motel in Reno. But there's a lot of color. If you look up here and see the Peppermill letters you can kind of envision how they looked in that beautiful rainbow pattern that they had.”

Neon sign preservationist Will Durham hoists a huge metal bellman that once stood on the defunct Park Motel. It now rests in one of his storage facilities awaiting a new life in a future neon museum Durham is planning.
Credit Holly Hutchings

If he doesn’t intervene, a lot of these pieces are just garbage.

“We've gotten some of these things out of construction areas. I've gotten things out of dumpsters, out of trailers that are on their way to the dump," he said. "This isn’t the glamorous part.”

After a sign is rescued, it will end up in a unit like this; he has multiple, plus trailers full; temporary housing for nearly 100 vestiges of old Nevada.

“The removal process is always a big deal," he said. "It's always difficult. It's scary because you know renting cranes and working with the sign companies - they're always fair with us, but it still an expensive process.”

Durham doesn’t like being called a “collector.” Although he certainly has amassed a collection of neon, the word connotes someone who may gather items to observe at a distance, like your grandma’s spoons. His goal is not to hoard but to hold safely until they can be shared and enjoyed once again. Durham makes his living as a school teacher. He gets some signs donated to him, but the expenses - buying them, hiring sign companies for the takedown, transportation, storage and refurbishing - all hit his personal pocketbook. And the costs don’t stop there.

“I'm always involved, and I'm always bleeding and invariably at the end of each one I always ask myself, 'Why am I doing this? I don’t want to do this anymore. It's too hard,' he said. "Because you have to recruit friends to help move, and things always take longer. So, you're really asking for favors, and it's just a really difficult process.”

But when he gets a little distance, he knows that he is saving Nevada landmarks and that that’s important.

Images and video for this story were created by digital reporters Lauren Bain and Jana Sayson. See all of our work from the whole series, Sparked: Northern Nevada’s Neon, here.