Philly’s Neon Museum to close less than 2 years after it opened

Many of the items in the Neon Museum are restored signs from Philadelphia businesses. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Many of the items in the Neon Museum are restored signs from Philadelphia businesses. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Neon Museum of Philadelphia, which opened last year at 1800 North American Street in Kensington, will close in December.

“We’re seeking a new home for the collection that allows it to stay unified, local, and publicly accessible,” the museum said in announcements made on Instagram and Twitter.

Museum manager Alyssa Shea said the new organization was not able to generate the revenue needed to survive its first two years.

“Opening a museum during the pandemic, that was tough enough,” she said. “Then we realized that we need to become a nonprofit. Once we got that underway, it just became difficult for us to reach the next step.”

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Signs in the Neon Museum are turned on by motion sensors and stay lit for only a minute. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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Shea also said the location of the museum, in a warehouse with no street-facing frontage and very little foot traffic, made it difficult to attract visitors.

The museum in what is known as the NextFab building was a dream fulfilled for founder Len Davidson. The Philadelphia native has amassed a collection of about 160 neon signs since the 1970s when he caught what he called “the neon disease” while teaching sociology in Florida.

Len Davidson leads a tour of the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, housed in the NexFab Building in Kensington. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The collection and the museum specialize in commercial neon signage meant to be seen as public advertisements, ranging from large iconic businesses like the historic Horn and Hardart’s coffee shops, to small mom-and-pop businesses like ice cream and record stores.

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For Davidson, neon signs are a crucial aspect of street history. Neon was much more popular in midcentury America than it is now. There were once enough neon craftspeople in Philadelphia to sustain a local industry and keep prices low enough for even small businesses to afford.

“I hate the word nostalgia,” Davidson said in 2021 when the museum opened. “To me, it’s culture.”

More than 100 signs hang in the Neon Museum, many of them from old Philadelphia businesses. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Davidson is also a collector and chronicler of street games played by children, many of which are seldom if ever played anymore, with names like dead box, wireball, baby in the air, hose ball, and buck buck.

For many years Davidson put on temporary, pop-up exhibitions of his collection in various places around Philadelphia, including Drexel University and the American Institute of Architects on Arch Street.

During its 18 months in the NextFab building, the Neon Museum hosted nine temporary art exhibitions. That will continue in the final months before the museum vacates 1800 North American Street.

Shea said Davidson is not giving up on the Neon Museum. As a non-profit, the museum is seeking a new home elsewhere, perhaps as part of a larger institution.

“It would be ideal to keep the collection all together and have it presented to the public. It really is a Philly history museum,” she said. “Yes, we’re sad about it, but we don’t want that to be the overarching emotion right now. We would love to keep it celebratory, as a gem.”

The Philadelphia Neon Museum plans to close Dec. 11. Until then, it will be open to the public during regular hours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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