With the hum of transformer and a fusion of electricity and gas, logos and language ignite into a frenzy of identity in the evening sky. Neon signs attract patrons to extravagant apartments, hotels and theaters, beacons of a vibrant nightlife and social climate.
Through the twenties and thirties, visitors and residents of Los Angeles, the newest and most glamorous of America's port cities, found their way to the restaurants, entertainment and lodging with the guidance of brilliant "stars" of neon light. Set atop roofs or on "blades" and marquee signs, neon appeared on many of the beautiful art deco buildings along the Wilshire Corridor, and throughout Los Angeles.
Over the years, as neighborhoods and economic centers shifted, many of these signs and the buildings that hosted them have changed ownership and occupancy. The once iconic apartments, hotels and theaters of that era faded and the L. A. neon signs were finally turned off during the blackouts of World War II. However, neon has continued to thrive culturally as a resilient art form. Today, the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department has relit and restored the Historic Wilshire Neon Corridor. Los Angeles is now "home" to LUMENS, a Living Urban Museum of Electric & Neon Signs, the most concentrated area of original Art Deco neon signs in the world, numbering 150 throughout the Wilshire Corridor, Hollywood District and Downtown.
Neon is an art form which is both delightfully kitsch and contemporary. Almost seventy-five years after its invention in France, and historic "entry" into America - the first neon signs were imported by businessman Earle C. Anthony - neon has become a popular medium for post-modern artists recognized in America's finest contemporary museums and galleries.
On the surface of the glass tubes, illuminated by charged neon gas, Angelenos recognize a reflection of our past in the district which once flourished as our Champs Elysees, the great Wilshire Corridor. Now, we can access this historic part of our city with public transportation via a modern rail system. The Metro Red Line runs between Union Station and the corner of Western and Wilshire and stops conveniently at the epicenters of neon restoration. Whether by bus, car or on foot, we invite you to make an extra stop and enjoy the diverse businesses and cultural sights of these neighborhoods and look at the bright neon lights of our city. Adolfo V. Nodal, General Manager, LA Cultural Affairs Department.
Lights in the Night Along Wilshire
by Michael Webb
If streets could speak, Wilshire Boulevard would give the best account of how Los Angeles grew, from downtown to the ocean, linking scattered settlements and paving over the fields between. The path that the Yang-Na Indians followed, from their settlement in the Elysian Hills to the La Brea tar pits, became the main street of a burgeoning metropolis, lined with the finest places of worship, department stores, hotels and homes. In the 1920's, Wilshire Boulevard was the place to be. Bullocks Wilshire (now reborn as the Southwest University School of Law) lured shoppers from downtown by offering them a rear parking lot and a porte cochere where the affluent could await their chauffeurs. Movie stars frequented the pool at the Ambassador Hotel and danced at the famed Coconut Grove. The green terracotta tower of the Wiltern Theater, which anchors the intersection of Wilshire and Western Avenue, provided palatial decor to all for the price of a movie ticket. If you were lucky enough to live in one of the new apartment blocks, as did Marion Davies, who adorned a luxurious second floor apartment in Crenshaw and Wilshire's Los Altos, furnished specifically for her by her paramour William Randolph Hearst, it was all on your doorstep.
Flying into LAX on a clear day, the boulevard stands out as a ridge of high-rise buildings amid a gridded expanse of houses; a sixteen-mile axis traversed by buses, automobiles, and now a section of the rapid transit Metro Red Line. At night, you can enjoy the vintage neon signs that beckoned our grandparents from the roofs of hotels, theaters, and apartments. Single names blaze forth like heraldic crests: Ansonia and Asbury, DuBarry and Normandie, Olympic and Windwor. The show took a break during the second World War, and then enjoyed a brief encore. Veteran sign maker Nathan Prusan, who moved to LA in 1946, remembers looking down from the hills and marveling at the expanse of colored lights. In 1949, Raymond Chandler wrote in The Little Sister,"I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights."Within a decade, they began to blink out as building owners changed, old signs fell into disrepair, and newfangled plastic displaced neon.
The lights that contemporaries called "glow worms in the sky" and "ribbons of living flame" were a distant memory when Adolfo Nodal arrived in town. In Washington DC he had commissioned contemporary artists to install neon art works downtown. Moving on to New Orleans, he had supervised the restoration of Charles Moore's exuberant Piazza d'Italia with its neon-outlined arches and fountains. As General Manager of LA's Cultural Affairs Department, he embarked on a nine-year campaign to raise funds and cajole owners to restore and relight their rooftop signs.
Like Wilshire Boulevard, they are an essential part of LA history. In 1923, automotive pioneer Earle C. Anthony put up the first neon sign in America to advertise his Packard showroom at 7th and Flower, and a second in San Francisco. He ordered them in Paris, and soon after that the French inventor, Georges Claude, licensed American companies to use his patented non-corroding electrodes. Neon was three times brighter than incandescent bulbs of equal power, costless to run, and lasted much longer. It had swept Europe, and now it took America by storm. Los Angeles led the way. Everyone was on the move, and in an expansive, low-rise city, a tall neon sign could attract motorists from miles away. By the late 1920's, rival companies were promoting neon as the ideal sales tool. It also became a symbol of glamour and progress - a way of showing the world you were up to date.
Most of the mid-Wilshire signs went up in the 1930s. Neon was a perfect fit for streamline moderne - the new architectural craze for sweeping curves, glass walls, and chrome flourishes. Despite the Depression, the movies and a few other industries continued to thrive, and car ownership increased. In 1934, Wilshire cut through Westlake (now MacArthur) Park and that stretch of the boulevard enjoyed a renewed prosperity as the essential, pre-freeway link between downtown, Hancock Park, and the Westside. Miracle Mile became the newly fashionable office and shopping strip; later, attention would shift to Beverly Hills.
Ray Neal, a 27-year veteran of Standard Electrical Services in Sun Valley, supervised the city-sponsored restoration of the rooftop neon sings' scaffolding, tubes, and timers. More than forty signs have been relit, with several more to come. Nodal has now set his sights on the rooftop heritage of Hollywood, downtown, and other districts to create a living, city-wide museum of original neon and electric signs.
(Michael Webb writes on architecture and design, and authored the Magic of Neon and Liquid Fire.)