Vegas' graveyard of neon to open new museum in 2011

LAS VEGAS — The stack of giant neon letters just beyond the gates of the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas are unlit. Flecks of turquoise, ruby and jade paint chips dot the gravel field. There are rusted metal beams, twisted tubes, cracked light bulbs and 40-foot-tall skeletons plucked from the rubble of imploded casinos.

Miles from the blinking marquees of the Las Vegas Strip, this is where neon signs go to die.

In a city that hums of impulse and overstimulation, where investors flock to what's hot and new and visitors empty their wallets at the promise of instant entertainment, the 3-acre lot that displays relics from classic Las Vegas buildings offers a rare opportunity for retrospection.

Now, after years as a hidden memorial open only to a few, the 15-year-old collection has announced plans to open a fully operating museum in 2011 and an adjacent public park later this month.

As Las Vegas casinos increasingly adopt LED and LCD screens, the expanded Neon Boneyard will allow visitors to regularly tour a unique tribute to a city known for periodically bulldozing its past.

The remote yard features signs from historic wedding chapels, used-car lots and prohibition speakeasies. An oversized billiards player clad in bellbottoms stands near a massive skull that recently haunted tourists at the Treasure Island casino and hotel. A few steps away, the looping, 40-foot moniker from the Moulin Rouge is all that remains of Las Vegas' first integrated casino. A mishmash of neon stars and futuristic letters similarly acknowledge the now imploded Stardust hotel and casino, whose cosmic sign was once synonymous with Las Vegas glitz.

For Elvis Presley fans, a gold lamp is a rare artifact from the extinct Aladdin casino, where Presley and Priscilla Ann Wagner married in 1967.

"It's uniquely American," said Susan Shaw, a 50-year-old New York artist who stops by the Neon Boneyard whenever she is in Las Vegas. "There is something about this shady, shameless self-promotion. It's like, 'Here we are, we are open for business.' "

Neon signs were introduced to the United States at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. But no city embraced the luminous tube lights quite like Las Vegas, where gambling moguls, mob bosses and even mom-and-pop storefronts covered the desert in enough neon to outshine New York's Times Square.

Acclaimed architect Robert Venturi's ode to Las Vegas in 1977 captured it well: "What was Rome to the pilgrim, Las Vegas is now for the gambler. In Rome they could walk from church to church, the Obelisks and Piazzas were guiding them. In Las Vegas we can go from casino to casino, guided by the signs and symbols."

His tome helped spark the preservationist movement.

Volunteers became urban detectives, sniffing out demolition projects and rushing to construction sites to beg for doomed signs.

Developers and signmakers eager to preserve a piece of their work gradually began donating the signs to the collection. The Neon Boneyard opened in 1996.