When it comes to electricity, Philadelphia is more associated with colonial lightning rods than contemporary incandescence, but according to local artist and sign restorer Len Davidson, the City of Brotherly Love has a long tradition of pictorial neon. It was especially big during the 1930sto the ’50s, a golden age for cartoony aesthetics expressed in the glowing forms of flying horses, sprinting greyhounds and liberty bells. “Businesses had a sense of permanence at that time,” Davidson says, “and owners invested heavily in their stores.”
Davidson recently proposed a neon corridor — a multi-block display of classic signs from Philly history — starting at the city’s newly expanded downtown Convention Center. In the meantime, the nearby Philadelphia Center for Architecture showcases more than a dozen signs, most from the city’s neon heyday, on loan from Davidson’s own collection. www.philadelphiacfa.org, www.davidsonneon.com
FAMOUS NEON > Three of Philly’s most renowned signs:
Pat’s Steaks (above left)
Boasting a 9-by-12-foot five-point neon crown, this is one of the city’s most iconic signs. Davidson is working on an exact replica for Pat’s Passyunk Avenue location; the original crown — sans neon — is on display at Jack’s Firehouse restaurant.
Giles & Ransome bulldozer (above center)
Formerly atop the Caterpillar dealership’s downtown facility, this double-sided, animated piece featured rotating tracks and shifting gears. Restored by Davidson in 1999, it’s been relocated to the company’s Bensalem headquarters.
Trolley Car Diner (above right)
An instant photo landmark when it was erected in 2000, Davidson’s massive 42-foot-long neon extravaganza boasts turning wheels, a changing traffic signal and doors that open to reveal a driver and a passenger.
ALSO PRESERVING THEIR GLOWING PAST
Nearly 150 of the city’s neon signs have been restored and relit over the past two decades. To view them, hop aboard one of the popular neon bus cruises run by the Museum of Neon Art, which also hosts rotating exhibits in a dedicated space.
In 2008, the city proposed a Neon District along the 1950s tourism corridor Interstate Avenue, providing incentive for businesses to preserve neon signs. Drivers get to take in stunners from the likes of the Westerner Motel and the sparkling Alibi.
Canada’s third largest city once boasted more than 18,000 neon signs. A small number of them are on display at the Museum of Vancouver, including a 5-foot 4-inch, 800-pound Smilin’ Buddha, which was rescued from its legendary namesake nightclub .