Len Davidson has been passionate about creating and preserving neon signs for more than 40 years. And during the dark days of the pandemic, he created a shiny new attraction for the city -- the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. The museum, which is located in the NextFab building in Olde Kensington, is home to120 of his150-piece neon collection, including vintage commercial signs, animated signs and one-of-a-kind artworks.
Long-time Philadelphians and road trippers are likely to grow nostalgic when they spot the 13-foot Levis Hot Dog, Howard Johnson’s Lamplighter sign, and an elaborate neon crown from atop Pat’s Steaks in Strawberry Mansion. All three date back to the 1950s.
The museum is dedicated to preserving historic signage as an important part of the city and country’s heritage, as well as promoting neon art and appreciation of the 20th century American roadside.
The walls are covered in signs accompanied by descriptive cards telling the history and cultural context of each sign, including:
Historic Philadelphia commercial signs from iconic Philadelphia businesses, such as the 1960s sign from Bookbinder’s on 15th Street and the neon sign from McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the city’s oldest continuously operating tavern, and much more.
National commercial signs, such as a Buster Brown sign that was hung in Philadelphia in the 1950s.
Animated signs including a leg-shaking Elvis and a sign sporting a before and after neon toupee.
Window signs and point of purchase displays used by businesses to advertise everything from ice cream to cold cuts to paint.
Neon clocks primarily made by two Ohio companies which were hung throughout the U.S from the 1930s to 1950s.
Neon art, folk art and found object pieces created by fine artists and tube benders for display or amusement.
There is also a video archive and daily viewings are planned. Moveable walls allow for a changing selection of art shows. The initial show is comprised of intriguing drawings and descriptions of a fantasy city created by Philly Artist Mason Carter, a self-taught futurist and urbanist.
And, in an effort to capture a taste of pre-internet life in Philadephia, the museum has set up an area to play Deadbox, a street game played in Philadelphia in bygone days. There’s also a library and lounge area to encourage lingering, and a gift shop selling both custom and pre-made neon signs, and an appealing array of retro roadside books, games, postcards and more.
Most programs are virtual for now but patrons can view tours and lectures that are publicized on the museum’s website and its Instagram account. Admission will be $10 (but can be waived for those in need). Museum memberships are available with special benefits for founding members including an in-person tour of the museum.
Additional pieces in the collection can be spotted throughout the NextFab building and in a satellite annex at Drexel University’s Firestone Building at 32nd and Market streets.
For more information, visit www.NeonMuseumofPhiladelphia.com.
Bonus content: Another museum opened during the pandemic, this one virtual. The Daring Diagonal Virtual Museum is not temporarily virtual but permanently. The museum delves into how artists and designers have used diagonal shapes and angular relationships to transform architecture, art and science and to influence urban design, fashion, jewelry, fine arts, product design and popular culture. Philadelphia Architect Joel Levinson created this quasi-fictitious museum online and filled 33 virtual galleries with visual treats and fascinating documentation, which will be especially intriguing to art, architecture and design enthusiasts.
The motif is still alive and vital today and there are many striking examples of diagonality in Philadelphia -- from the way the Benjamin Franklin Parkway cuts a diagonal through William Penn’s symmetrical gridiron for the city’s street layout to the sculptures of people on tightrope in the lobby of the Comcast Center (look up to spot them in the original Comcast building) and throughout the remarkable Wharton Esherick Museum in Malvern. Esherick eschewed parallel lines and right angles, because they’re not found in nature. The home/studio he designed has a whimsical feel with a sloped roof, rounded walls and a floating spiral staircase with cantilevered steps. Diagonality can also be seen in Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in artwork at all of Philadelphia’s art museums.
Visit the virtual museum at https://ddvm.org.
By Irene Levy Baker, author, 100 Things To Do In Philadelphia and Unique Eats & Eateries of Philadelphia. Both books are full of tips. For even more tips, visit www.100ThingsToDoInPhiladelphia.com. Planning a staycation? Need gifts? Go to the website for signed copies of books. For free shipping, use promo code TheCityPulse.
Click here for more blog postings by Irene Levy Baker including where to get soup, and everything you need to know about the Philadelphia Flower Show and museums re-opening.