Tucson’s historic neon signs

tiki-motel.jpgWhile I’m in Arizona enjoying the summer monsoon season, one of my projects is go out at sunset and take pictures of signs …

I’m co-authoring a book with Carlos L., a local architecture enthusiast here in Tucson, about historical neon signs in Tucson.  Tucson’s stock of historical buildings is vastly depleted due to years of careless re-development.  Carlos runs a Yahoo group called “Vanishing Tucson” that tries to document places that are about to get torn down, and work with the community to save things when they can. Recently they were involved in the re-purposing of the massive handmade sculptures at Magic Carpet Golf.  (Many of the sculptures have been saved and a few are now permanently installed elsewhere.)

silver-saddle-steak-house.jpgWe still have a good stock of historical signage in Tucson, but it is severely endangered.   Most of the signs are neglected, dysfunctional, and non-conforming with current law.  Once they come down, they can’t come back.  And they can’t be fixed unless they come down!  Catch 22.  So activists in the city are working on a Historic Sign Amendment that will protect and grandfather those signs.

owl-lodge.jpgJust before sunset, when the desert heat is beginning to abate, we go out on photo safaris to find the signs and capture pictures of those that are lit.  On weekends, we make daytime trips to the signs that are no longer lit (which, sadly, is most of them).  Others are badly maintained and only partially lit, like the famous Tucson Inn sign pictured below.  I drive the car and jump out to take pictures, while Carlos rides shotgun with his laptop and updates his database of signs with details about their current condition.

tucson-inn.jpgBefore the Interstate, the main entrance to Tucson was a highway from Phoenix that became Tucson’s “Miracle Mile.”  Strung along it were scores of motels, restaurants, and other businesses, lit up with signs and beckoning the hot desert traveler with “Refrigerated Air,” swimming pools, and Color TV. The road continued down what is now Drachman Street, 6th Avenue, and out to Benson Highway.  Of course, the arrival of the Interstate changed all that, and now huge swaths of this formerly dramatic and bustling road are degraded, disregarded, and even disconnected from the former alignment.

abc-market.jpgStill, a lot of the historic signs have held on through the years, advertising apartments, “motor courts,” markets, and steakhouses. They are a largely under-appreciated resource of Tucson and many other cities, perhaps because old neon signs are associated with seedy parts of town.  But most of these signs are in front of thriving businesses.  If the Historic Sign Amendment can be passed, over 100 signs will be eligible for preservation. Hopefully then the owners will be able to take them down temporarily and have them refurbished to their former glory. I could even see this amendment spurring the founding of new local neon restoration businesses. There’s plenty of work to be done.

We’re doing this only because it is interesting to both of us, and it’s really needed.  We hope that the book will raise awareness and appreciation of historic signage, and perhaps provide inspiration for people in other cities that also have a historic sign resource worth preserving.  It’s a long term project with no specific completion date, but I hope we’ll be ready to publish in about a year.

Anyone who has old pictures of signs in Tucson as they appeared in their heydey, or information to share about signs, please get in touch with me by clicking here.  We’d welcome contributions and acknowledge them in the published book.


  1. says

    The Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation (THPF) acknowledges the importance of saving some of Tucson’s historic neon signs: “These wonderful examples of mid-20th century commercial art are an evocative night experience.”

    THPF states it is working with community partners to restore and reinstall three such signs. Hopefully, it will expand this project.


    San Diego’s Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) acknowledges that certain neon signs are historical and should be preserved to contribute “to the community identity, depth and character of our region.”


    Indeed, SOHO saved and now owns the historical 4-story tall neon sign depicting San Diego State University drum majorette.


  2. Zach Woods says

    Hi Rich –

    An important project – keep up the hard work. History shows that much of the architecture, signage, and other city fabric will often not be fully appreciated until after it is gone. This has occurred with nearly every historic design period (note that areas now famous for their Victorian structures were berated as awful and in need of being razed just 20 or 30 years before they gained the respect and appreciation from both academics and the public).

    Have you though of expanding your project to include the closely associated Googie structures? Often the building and sign were designed as complementary and in some cases integral to each other.


  3. says

    Zach, we are taking photos and making notes of associated architecture when it is significant. Unfortunately, in Tucson, surviving Googie structures are even more rare than the signs.

    Often the sign outlasts the building or the business it was made for. Last night I photographed a wonderful restored neon sign that used to sit atop a drug store; now it is on a Women’s Center. The “Henry Electric” sign off 4th Avenue is still in place, but the building is now apartments. Still, it’s better than having the signs gone entirely.

  4. Frank & Carol Colligan says

    Great sample of your project. I love the signs anywhere on the blue roads…especially at dusk. Good job.

  5. says


    I’ll bet Arizona is rich (pun intended) with neon signs just waiting to be documented, if not preserved. Here’s a link to a neat one in Old Town Cottonwood, AZ:


    Years and years ago when I was a Trustee of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, we tried to save a true landmark: the Lava Lamp sign/icon alongside the Kennedy Expressway on the way into Chicago. Alas, the owner demolished the factory and its impressive sign. Sigh. Landmarks preservation is a difficult chore but we are better for the efforts that good folk make. The successes and the failures are all notable.

    Best of luck in your work.