Bright Lights, Big City, Great Books

Neon signs—they put the bright lights in our big city. Garish and brassy, they beckon with color and light and martinis and stars. Subtle they are not. But still, I love them.

Back in March, though, Preservation Chicago named neon signs one of the most endangered “architectural treasures” in Chicago. Since May is Preservation Month, it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of their peculiar charms.

Good Old Neon by Nick Freeman won me over with a sentimental favorite on the cover, the Heart O’ Chicago Motel sign. I’d watch for it as a child, gullibly believing that yes, we actually were in the heart of Chicago when I saw that big old heart rise up on Ridge Avenue.

This 2014 photography book encompasses the elegant (the Chicago and Biograph theaters), the gaudy (the Star-Lite Motel), the amusing (Smithereen Exterminators, with a giant, glowing red rat) and more. The eerie night shot of the West-Wind Motel sign, with its yellow arrow winding into darkness, is a standout worthy of its own horror movie, and so is the Brer Rabbit Motel sign, with its peculiarly sinister rabbit. (Unfortunately, the Brer Rabbit and KiddieLand signs, among others, have since been demolished.)

In contrast to Nick Freeman, Dan Zamudio used only black and white film for Chicago Neon Signs. The book features daytime and nighttime shots, plus “noir images,” in which he imitates 1940s and '50s noir films, which used overlapping neon signs to mimic the energy of city life. Zamudio uses this to sometimes striking effect, superimposing “Jesus Saves” and “Liquors" in one image.  Another features a “transients welcome” hotel sign, since taken down.

With their retro charm, stubbornly touting yesterday's luxuries--phone in room!--neon signs take you to another era. You can learn more about neon signs and Chicago preservation from Preservation Chicago.

What’s your favorite Chicagoland neon sign?

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