Editor’s Note: Philadelphia neon expert and collector Len Davidson has been restoring and displaying vintage pieces since 1976, when he owned a roadside bar in Florida. There are some 100 pieces in his collection worthy of display, many of them stored in a warehouse in North Philadelphia. For five years, a set of 13 iconic Philadelphia signs have been displayed at the Center for Architecture. Now, as Davidson and the Center are negotiating a new agreement with the potential to create activities and programming related to the signs, his ultimate hope is to place the entire collection in a single, publicly accessible place. But where? And who would fund it? Davidson is eager to find a suitor lest he be forced to sell the pieces off one by one. With that possibility looming, Nathaniel Popkin caught up with Davidson for an interview.
Nathaniel Popkin: You must hear from people all the time about the pieces at the Center for Architecture. Are they so loved because they remind people of their past–of the city they grew up in? Or because of the art? Or both?
Len Davidson: The Center has numerous meetings, parties, talks, art, and architecture exhibits in their gallery space, and I am told that in five years, only one group did not want the neon on during their program.
So we know the neon is liked, but we’ve never surveyed what they like specifically. I think the average person simply reacts to seeing 13 vintage signs in one place, and finds it an unusual, spectacular visual experience. “It blew me away,” is something I hear along those lines. Many older people talk along nostalgic lines. People of all ages who are artistically oriented see it as folk art, and that point of view is always increasing as these type of neon displays become more familiar in many types of art and other museums around the US.
What’s very interesting to me is that what you might call hipsters or younger people who didn’t grow up with neon, who didn’t even grow up in a city, are flocking to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Portland, Austin, and such. Neon seems to be a big part of this groups’ interest as something cool, handmade, artisanal, fifties–something representative of the values they are developing. It’s very much the same crowd that Hidden City seems to attract–young people who are interested in old industrial Philadelphia heritage, and the renewal and appreciation of that heritage.
For architects and designers who come there, reactions I’ve heard have more to do with seeing neon as an historic building and design element that they knew a bit about, but the display increases their interest or knowledge.
NP: You’d like to keep your collection together and in Philadelphia, perhaps in a museum-like setting. Are there any neon art collections that rival it for size? And what are the highlights?
LD: I think there are probably about a dozen other major collections in the US, probably more, since I don’t know everyone who collects. Collections are in both public and private settings. Of the dozen I know, about five are larger than mine. There’s also major differences in that some collectors focus on certain themes, places, size signs, one of a kinds, clocks, animation, figural signs, and other criteria, so its hard to compare collections because tastes vary.
For me the highlights are pieces that are large, porcelainized, have pictorial graphics, are animated, and are from this area. Such signs (eliminating the area criteria) are called “spectaculars” or “extravaganzas” among neon lovers.
Those are my major criteria, though few of my signs meet all the criteria. Some of the highlights of the collection are:
The 1950s Pats Steaks Crown which was displayed above The Pioneer & Originator of the Steak Sandwich sign in Strawberry Mansion. The Crown can be seen in Jack’s Firehouse with restored porcelain, but the neon is not yet restored. It’s an amazing sign made by Philly’s greatest, legendary sign maker, Joe Feldman, of Ajax signs. It had so much porcelain and neon that people said you could see it from airplanes.
Early 1950s Swartz Camera from Ardmore, a double sided animated camera in which the shutter opens and closes. It’s in my friend Jim Graham’s photo studio in Old City.
A 1939 Bulova neon clock that is six feet in diameter and came here from the NY World’s Fair with three others. Mine was at Broad and Germantown. None are still on the street.
A mint 1930s double sided Pittsburg Paints sign that was never hung outside.
A Howard Johnson’s Lamplighter sign, rare 1950s porcelain and neon figural logo that was used at a HoJo’s that had banquet rooms called Lamplighter Rooms. Most of the franchise’s signs were Simple Simon and the Pieman logos. The Lamplighter depicts a man lighting a lamp with a boy looking up at him.
Buster Brown Shoes winking eye sign from Fourth and South Streets. It’s restored and among the 13 signs at the Center for Architecture, as is an animated running Greyhound Dog.
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There are many more favorites iconic Philly signs like Levis Hot Dogs, Horn & Hardart Retail Shop, Sun Ray Drugs–I could go on and on.
NP: What’s your ideal outcome? Where would you like to see the collection kept? Or would you like to work with someone to open a museum dedicated to the collection, the neon art, the age when it came about, the manufacturers and designers of the signs?
LD: I’ve come close to my ideal outcome several times but it hasn’t happened. I find this frustrating personally and embarrassing for Philadelphia. What I am looking for is a public space to display the signs so people can appreciate this incredible craft and folk art. I’d like to put the signs in Philadelphia, in or near Center City, in a place with high ceilings; it could be a public space like a museum, university building, or government building, or private space like a hotel lobby, restaurant, shopping mall, etc.
It need not be its own space just dedicated to neon, as I don’t have the funds for that and I’m averse to bureaucracy: getting a board of directors, fund raising, and all that.
If it was going to be its own space, my fantasy is that I’d sell my house in Philly, buy a house in the country with a barn, display the signs in the barn, and develop a limp. Then I’d sit out in good weather on a rocking chair or in an enclosed porch in bad weather. You’d drive up and I’d limp out to meet you, you’d give me a dollar, and I’d flick on the lights in the barn. In other words, I’d love to create a roadside attraction, which I could afford to do, but it won’t happen as my wife is what we call “neon tolerant”–she won’t dedicate her life to it.
But having it as part of a building doesn’t have to limit the museum–in fact it would be so useful for so many buildings that its incredible that it hasn’t happened. I can create an instant local and national attraction to compliment a university building, restaurant, museum, or whatever. Almost every institution I’ve approached about this initially says, “What a great idea; that’s a no brainer.” The man on the street usually has the same reaction. But the problem is that I usually know someone mid-level in an organization who reacts that way. They have to then get the top people to buy in, which has proven difficult.
Other cities are either struggling to save their few remaining neon icons, or have already done museums and displays. But the powers that be in Philly have always shot the idea down, except at the Center for Architecture.
I’ve had offers to place the collection in Oregon, Oklahoma, the Jersey shore, and a South Jersey business near Delaware. Years ago, Bob Venturi was visionary enough to try to get Anne D’Harnoncourt to put the collection in the Art Museum, but that didn’t happen, though now the museum seems to be interested in folk art. Despite support from numerous Philly architects, preservationsts, tourism officials, historians, I can’t find Philly institutions to buy in.
It would be wonderful to have a component of the museum that focuses on the manufacturers and designers, and the age of great signs. The reason is that many if not most of the sign shops who made these signs were mom and pop enterprises, and many of the sign makers were characters. Neon people always trade stories about the old timers because they were so colorful–they were generally untrained in art so they were really folk artists. Who else could imagine the vernacular designs that were common–a trained artist would never think in the cartoonish way that the old timers did, and that’s what makes the old signs so charming.
My book, Vintage Neon, is full of stories about the signs and people who made them. When I moved back to Philly from Florida I became friendly with a number of old time sign men and women and I quoted them extensively in my book. Signs of 60 years ago were so much more imaginative than what is knocked out on computers today. I try to base my own designs of new signs on the esthetic ideas of the old timers. It has succeeded because I’m probably the only person left in Philly who just earns his living from neon.
NP: Were the signs manufactured here by and large? Any greats in neon design?
LD: 50 to 60 percent of my collection was manufactured here. But many national signs like Buster Brown (made in St Louis) were done at one or two shops and shipped nationally to dealers. The most famous designer in Philly was Ajax signs, which was a combination of Joe Feldman and Al Hopkins. I know little of Al except I’m told he was a terrific artist, but Joe came up with endless ideas and was known for putting “gingerbread” on his signs–that is, adding more neon, more porcelain colors, more everything. He had a cantankerous personality. I was told that Columbia Avenue had so many of his pieces that it was called “Ajax Row.” One of the legendary Columbia Avenue pieces was for a bar called the “Red Robin” in which a bird bobbed its head up and down into a cocktail glass. I’ve never seen it, but wonder if it really existed or has been amplified over the years.
I have at least three of Joe’s best signs: Pats Steaks, Levis Hot Dogs, and a Hair Replacement Center sign from Ridge Avenue in which a guy goes from bald to having hair via animated neon. Sign men say you couldn’t go down a major Philly Street without seeing at least one Ajax sin. Pats Steaks was his masterpiece.
NP: Neon was part of the landscape of the city you grew up in.
LD: I got into this by growing up in Philadelphia. The Levis Hot Dog was imprinted in my mind from going there with my dad after Warriors basketball games, as was the Harbison Milk Bottle, Pep Boys Figures, the Tacony Palmyra Tire Man and all the other wonderful roadside/neon objects that were part of my childhood. But they were common experiences and objects in certain ways, and I never brought them to heightened consciousness until I moved to Gainesville and taught at University of Florida from 1973-79. There I developed a best friend from Nashville and we started trading stories about roadside objects or what we called the “Papier Mache Giants” in our respective backgrounds. This may sound like a long story but you are getting a very abbreviated version.
If you grew up in Philly there was a pattern of things many people loved like these objects, but also row house sports (half ball, dead box and many more), Franks soda, Tastykakes, certain diners, and such. That’s why there are still people all over the country trying to recreate a bit of Philly in one way or another. I think everybody in Philly my age shares these interests to some extent, and we all have sacred space–be it Termini or the place you played wire ball or the Palestra or a thousand other places.
Anyway, my friend Jim and I started the Papier Mache Giants of America Discovery contest in 1980 and were quickly swamped with photo entries of roadside figures. We spent the next year fantasizing how we could set up a bar in which you could experience the Papier Mache Giants consciousness we hysterically enjoyed. A dress shop turned out to be for sale and we bought it and turned the fantasy into reality. Putting neon on the ceiling seemed like a great idea for a roadside themed bar, and that’s what we did.
That led me to apprentice with a neon shop and roam the South in search of old neon signs, much to the chagrin of my department chairman who of course denied me tenure and freed me from academia to pursue what turned into a very different life.
NP: You’re not alone in this passion and expertise.
LD: Any neon shop can repair vintage signs but most do it on a much more limited basis, and most don’t bother with all the research that it takes to restore an old sign properly–finding the right glass, making a correct pattern, how to deal with the metal, etc.
I’ve found that there is at least one neon person in virtually every American city that I visit who shares this passion, and its like meeting yourself when you find them. But most sign shops are there to make a buck and the love of neon is not in their minds.
NP: What does a restoration cost?
LD: I’ve done restorations for others that ran from $100 to $30,000. I was going to make a replica for Pats Steaks of the sign I own which would have cost about $100,000 using painted metal rather than porcelain, but that got nixed after four months of design. Porcelain enamel is hardly available as a sign material any more.
An average sign that I restore for my own collection might cost me about $500 in materials and 10 days of labor. Plus, I may get the sign by scavenging it or buying it, and I’ve paid more than I’d like to admit to acquire many of these signs. A key point is that I have a lot of large, important signs that I can’t restore now because I don’t have the space to put them and/or I can’t afford to restore them. That’s why having a dedicated public space is so important; at least I’d have a place to display some more that I restore, and ones I can’t afford to restore I’d raise money for that purpose.
NP: You made the new neon Benjamin Franklin busts inside the new museum, but what about the neon in the old museum?
LD: I was contacted by the firm that runs the gift shops for the Park Service to make seven Ben Franklin busts in neon, one big one for display and six to sell. No one ever mentioned the neon that had been there, and though I had been there years ago, I didn’t remember that they had a big neon display until I saw it mentioned by in a Hidden City article.
There had been a lot of neon but I never viewed it as important or historic, probably since I saw it as new neon made for that museum. It didn’t have the characteristics I’ve mentioned, although the fact that it came from a Philly Museum on Franklin does make it significant now that I think about it. I guess it was just something that never grabbed me, and if the Park Service had told me about it, I might have reacted differently. I spend so much time trying to save the few great old signs still on the street (Boot and Saddle, Globe Dye Works, Termini, etc.), and trying to get business owners to appreciate what they have that I can easily miss something more recent that was in a museum.
NP: You’d like to see some of those still in use properly restored–and you haven’t given up on finding an ultimate home for the collection.
LD: I’m still actively acquiring signs, but they are usually not of the caliber of the Boot and Saddle, whose lack of restoration I consider a terrible tragedy for the city, and major miscalculation of the bar. That sign has a national cult following in its present downtrodden shape, and if they restored it they would get so much publicity it would more than pay for the restoration.
I don’t want to imply in any of the prior comments that I’ve given up on Philadelphia as a site for my neon. I just am pointing out how difficult it has been, but I always have five or six venues I am actively interested in, and hope that your readers may have some additional ideas that could turn into a promising venue. I’ve spoken very little about programming because the first step is to get a site for the signs, but ideally, I’d like to do talks, tours, classes, demonstrations, show videos, and more if I find the venue for it. I’ve done all these things periodically over the years, but to have a site where I can schedule them on a regular basis would be wonderful.
About the author
Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
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