Sep 19, 2023 - News

Seattle's disappearing neon history

A neon sign owned by collector John Bennett is on the side of a building at 6014 12th Avenue South in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. Photo: Matt Hucke

Seattle is believed to have one of the best collections of historic and contemporary neon signs in the country but that heritage is fast disappearing.

Why it matters: While Seattle's not known for neon the way cities like Singapore and Las Vegas are, the city's collection is recognized as important due in part to the influence of early neon artist Bea Haverfield.

Driving the news: For his book "Seattle Neon," local author Matt Hucke researched and photographed hundreds of familiar and obscure signs from Aurora Avenue to White Center and Rainier Valley.

  • He catalogs them by neighborhood and street in a way that makes it easy to do a self-guided tour.

What they're saying: Technological advancements in the form of much cheaper LED lights and plastic tubing are largely responsible for neon's disappearance, Hucke told Axios. But there are still unique, handcrafted pieces around.

  • "It's history that's in plain sight but is largely overlooked," he said.
A neon sign in Seattle's International District says "Taitung Chop Suey".
Tai Tung Chinese Restaurant in the International District was Bruce Lee's favorite restaurant. Photo: Matt Hucke

Between the lines: Many Pacific Northwest companies replaced their neon signs during the '70s and '80s following campaigns to ban them because they were considered "tacky" and "garish," said collector John Bennett of John Bennett Properties.

Be smart: In addition to its iconic outdoor sign, Pike Place Market has dozens of indoor examples you can see in less than an hour, said Hucke.

  • Market Street in Ballard, Broadway on Capitol Hill, Fremont and the International District, where you can find neon signs with Chinese characters, are worth a visit, too, he said.

Hucke's must-see list includes the landmark Pink Elephant Car Wash signs, the smaller of which was restored by Amazon and mounted at 7th Avenue and Blanchard Street.

  • Aside from the Elephant signs, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Globe on Elliott Avenue West is the only other neon sign designated as a city landmark, Sarah Sodt, Seattle's historic preservation officer, told Axios.

1 fun thing: The founders of Capitol Hill-born Top Pot Doughnuts named their business after buying a "Top Spot" sign that was missing the middle "S", said Hucke. They added a coffee pot and called it good, he said.

What we're watching: Fletcher Blazek with Seattle-based Western Neon says neon is enjoying a resurgence.

  • The Bar at Bombo, The Bar at Chihuly Garden and Glass, Post Pike Bar & Cafe and Skillet Diner @ Post Alley all have new neon, Blazek said.
  • And in the coming weeks, installations will be unveiled at The Victor Tavern on 6th Ave., Cole's Tavern on the Mukilteo Speedway and Pike Brewing at the Seattle Convention Center.

Through Sept. 30, Axios readers can use "NEONLOVE10" for $10 off every copy of "Seattle Neon."

Photo of the neon sign in front of the Jupiter Bar in Seattle.
The sign in front of the Jupiter Bar on 2nd Avenue in Seattle. Photo: Matt Hucke
A neon favorite from the now-closed Buckaroo Tavern is on display at the Seattle Tavern and Pool Room in Georgetown. Photo: Matt Hucke
A neon sign with pink, orange and turquoise lights.
A new neon sign by Western Neon was recently installed in front of Post Pike Bar & Cafe. The Seattle-based company says the art form is enjoying a renaissance. Photo: Courtesy of Western Neon

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