Image: Neon Boneyard
Isaac Brekken  /  AP
Tourists navigate a maze of signs that once adorned Las Vegas casinos and business at the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas.
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updated 12/17/2010 10:42:40 AM ET 2010-12-17T15:42:40

The stack of giant neon letters just beyond the gates of the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas are unlit. Flecks of turquoise, ruby and jade paint chips dot the gravel field. There are rusted metal beams, twisted tubes, cracked light bulbs and 40 foot tall (12 meter tall) skeletons plucked from the rubble of imploded casinos.

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Miles from the blinking marquees of the Las Vegas Strip, this is where neon signs go to die.

In a city that hums of impulse and overstimulation, where investors flock to what's hot and new and visitors empty their wallets at the promise of instant entertainment, the three-acre lot that displays relics from classic Las Vegas buildings offers a rare opportunity for retrospection.

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Now, after years as a hidden memorial open only to a few, the 15-year-old collection has announced plans to open a fully operating museum in 2011 and an adjacent public park later this month.

As Las Vegas casinos increasingly adopt LED and LCD screens, the expanded Neon Boneyard will allow visitors to regularly tour a unique tribute to a city known for periodically bulldozing its past.

The remote yard features signs from historic wedding chapels, used car lots and prohibition speakeasies. An oversized billiards player clad in bellbottoms stands near a massive skull that recently haunted tourists at the Treasure Island casino and hotel. A few steps away, the looping, 40-foot moniker from the Moulin Rouge is all that remains of Las Vegas' first integrated casino. A mishmash of neon stars and futuristic letters similarly acknowledge the now imploded Stardust hotel and casino, whose cosmic sign was once synonymous with Las Vegas glitz.

For Elvis Presley fans, a gold lamp is a rare artifact from the extinct Aladdin casino, where Presley and Priscilla Ann Wagner married in 1967.

"It's uniquely American," said Susan Shaw, a 50-year-old New York artist who stops by the Neon Boneyard whenever she is in Las Vegas. "There is something about this shady, shameless self-promotion. It's like, 'Here we are, we are open for business.'"

Neon signs were introduced to the United State at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. But no city embraced the luminous tube lights quite like Las Vegas, where gambling moguls, mob bosses and even mom-and-pop storefronts covered the desert in enough neon to outshine New York's Times Square.

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"There was so much neon you could walk down the street reading a newspaper at night," said Bill Marion, the museum's board chairman.

Acclaimed architect Robert Venturi's ode to Las Vegas in 1977 captured it well: "What was Rome to the pilgrim, Las Vegas is now for the gambler. In Rome they could walk from church to church, the Obelisks and Piazzas were guiding them. In Las Vegas we can go from casino to casino, guided by the signs and symbols."

His tome helped spark the preservationist movement.

Volunteers became urban detectives, sniffing out demolition projects and rushing to construction sites to beg for doomed signs.

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Developers and signmakers eager to preserve a piece of their work gradually began donating the signs to the collection. The Neon Boneyard officially opened its doors in 1996.

"Really, we do implode and recreate ourselves all the time," said Nancy Deaner, a Boneyard founder and manager of the city's cultural affairs office. "People thought, 'why wouldn't we want to preserve our cultural icons, which are these signs?'"

Until the museum opens next December, volunteers offer twice-daily tours. But tickets, at $15 each, must be reserved at least two weeks in advance. Otherwise, the gates are locked.

The unusual shapes and forms of the yard have been splashed across Harper's BAZAAR magazine and a music video featuring The Killers. Hundreds of couples, engaged or newly married, pose for pictures there every year.

The collection also includes a historic building.

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The owner of the La Concha Motel on the Las Vegas Strip announced in 2003 that he was going to replace the 1960's hotel with a larger model, effectively condemning the landmark's shell-shaped lobby to a bulldozer. Preservationists intervened and in December 2006 the swooping structure was sliced into eight pieces and moved next to the Neon Boneyard to provide the seeds of the museum's expansion.

As a first step, the menagerie of dusty plexiglass, fluorescent bulbs and crunched steel was temporarily shuttered in February and its 150 vintage signs were arranged for the first time by era to create a chronological narrative. Some of the signs will eventually be lighted again.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Welcome to Vegas

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  1. Welcome to Las Vegas

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