In a city known for detonating buildings past their prime, Las Vegas' Neon Museum stands alone in its zeal for salvaging the blinking, glowing memories of Sin City's past.
The museum that once consisted of a dirt lot with a handful of retired motel and casino signs is stepping up to the big leagues, unveiling a visitors center Saturday and lighting up its large outdoor collection to allow night tours soon.
"I don't think there's another opportunity to experience the history of the city in such a unique way," said museum Executive Director Danielle Kelly. "It's a cultural experience as the signs being art, artifacts of innovative design."
The museum was founded in 1996 as a way to rescue old signs when buildings were demolished or remodeled. It has amassed some 160 signs, most housed in the Neon Boneyard just outside downtown on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip.
The hour-long guided tours that wind through the two-acre boneyard — and sell out weeks in advance — offer a visual history of Las Vegas. There's the museum's oldest sign: a 1930s relic that once marked a restaurant frequented by Boulder Dam construction workers. It's an entry point into the story of how that public works marvel shaped the southern Nevada economy, and how businesses relished the end of Prohibition.
Another — a vintage illuminated arrow, directing tourists to "Wedding Information" — tells how Las Vegas became ground zero for elopements.
And the giant sign once atop the Stardust casino — featuring a spacey, futuristic font — tells of the first casino to embrace Nevada's role as a test site for nuclear weapons.
"Our guided tours are really an oral history," Kelly said. "We touch on architecture, history and the social history of Las Vegas ... It really encompasses all the facets of our fascinating city."
While most of the signs aren't illuminated — Kelly explains that restoring them to working order is a long, expensive process — visitors will soon be able to tour the collection at night, thanks to newly installed flood lighting. Those tours are expected to start in November.
And guests will now meet for the tours inside the new visitors center, which is a piece of art and history itself. The center is the old La Concha Motel lobby, with its distinctive parabola architecture and 1960s feel. The structure was cut up, reassembled and restored at its new site further down the Strip.
Kelly said that with the changes and expanded tour capacity, the museum hopes to welcome 60,000 visitors this year — up from an average of 12,000.
That will ensure more people learn about Las Vegas' storied past, not just about the newest and shiniest attractions around town.
"What motivates us is preserving this history," Kelly said. "These signs are incredibly valuable for this community and to be involved in saving them is an honor."
Admission is $18 for adults and $12 for students, seniors, veterans, and Nevada residents. Children are free.