The Neon Wilderness, Under Threat

If you want to see the endangered motel signs of Fremont Street, you’d better get there fast

Photos by Geoff Carter

Photos by Geoff Carter

The section of Fremont Street from Maryland Parkway to Charleston Boulevard is, to employ a euphemism, untamed wilderness. Here is where you’ll find Fremont as it once was: ramshackle motels, posters warning of the dangers of methamphetamine, and some of the most beautiful 1950s-vintage signs in this city, from the Sky Ranch to the Blue Angel. This stretch of Fremont is practically a historic district; I like to walk the wilderness and photograph its occasional treasures. And last week, I got two reminders of just how fragile ‘Old Fremont’ is.

The first and more benign instance was the repurposing of the Ambassador Motel sign by the Downtown Project. The Project owns a good deal of property on this part of Fremont, including several motels (Ferguson’s Motel and the Travelers Motel, among others). The Ambassador sign is an orphan—the motel it advertised has been gone for a while—so the Downtown Project probably felt justified in modifying the sign for Life Is Beautiful, adding a spiky script that declares, “Llamas stay for free!” (I have to believe that even Tony Hsieh is growing tired of his damned llama fixation.) And another sign owned by the Project, for the Downtowner Motel, was literally whitewashed.

It’s admirable that the Downtown Project is going to the trouble of preserving the signs, but by modifying them, they’re missing the whole point of the frontier.

“Members of the community have come to me with concerns,” says Danielle Kelly, executive director of the Neon Museum. She hopes the Downtown Project will partner with the museum on future restorations, but adds that the museum’s dealings with DTP, misunderstandings aside, have been positive.

“Their goal is still to save and restore all of the signs in their possession,” she says. “Thus far, I have been assured that is the plan.”

But the Downtown Project doesn’t own every motel on Fremont. That brings us to the second, more worrisome threat: that of the signs being sold to private collectors or, worse, simply destroyed, like the Safari Motel’s sign very nearly was in an October 20 fire. The blaze was contained to a pair of rooms (sadly killing someone’s dog, but no other residents), but the distance between the damaged area and the Safari’s wonderful sign is measured in feet, not yards. It could easily have been lost.

“The Safari—oh God, oh God. I take ‘spontaneous’ fires of that type to be the leading edge of tearing the place down,” says Bryan McCormick of Vegas Vernacular, a project that aims to document the vintage handmade signage of Las Vegas before they disappear. “Once you lose the grouping of signs and buildings, it kind of falls apart … as in, ‘Now that I’ve killed one, the others don’t look the same, so now we can tear them all down.’”

To reassure McCormick, I texted him a photo of the intact Safari sign. And while I was in the neighborhood I took photos of the Sky Ranch, the Travelers and the Gables, painted gold in the late afternoon sun.

But it felt a little too much like a goodbye.