New Mexico Neon on Route 66
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New Mexico Neon on Route 66

Sign makers are getting their kicks restoring vintage neon signs along New Mexico’s portion of Route 66.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Signs featuring cowboys and Indians dressed in neon garb are welcoming weary drivers to stop and rest a while at the roadside motels they promote.

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  • Brightly-lit sombreros and teepees are entertaining youngsters who are anxious to arrive at their destinations. And many other characters and critters that personify Route 66 are once again being lit up with pride.

    Ten signs along the New Mexico stretch of the historic highway have been restored to their original beauty thanks to the Route 66 Corridor Restoration Act of 1999 that designated $10 million in preservation funds to revamp this classic stretch of American asphalt.

    From Santa Rosa to Albuquerque and from Moriarty to Tucumcari, New Mexico is a glowing example of the benefits of investing in vintage neon.

    “The old neon signs are really pieces of folk art,” says Johnny V. Meier, president of the New Mexico Route 66 Association and manager of the restoration project. “When people recall memories of Route 66 the signs were so emblematic of the landmarks. These businesses take on their personalities as a result of the sign out front.”

    Tucumcari has long been recognized for its unique array of neon signs that beckon a passerby to stop and take photos. With three restorations in this territory the city is buzzing with tourists and professional photographers admiring these and other illuminated signs.

    A Top-Notch Teepee
    The East side of Tucumcari hosts the TePee Curio Shop. Its unique sign was erected sometime before 1948 but had not operated since 1987, according to TePee owner Mike Callens. That’s when a rancher pulling a horse trailer took a shortcut underneath the sign, got caught up on the back end, and tore the neon elements off the intricately designed teepee.

    “I repainted the sign a few years ago, and changed the zigzags to horizontal stripes,” says Callens. “But neither the rancher nor I could afford to fix the neon so it sat there looking sad until the grant money came in.”

    Since the grant required a cash or labor match on the part of the owner, Callens chose the latter. He painstakingly removed every chip of dead paint, replaced the horizontal stripes with the original zigzags to satisfy preservation requirements, and even individually painted the green cactus needles.

    Clovis Sign Company entered the picture to restore the sign’s neon elements. Clovis manager Brandon New says his team stripped out all the electrical elements and rebuilt them to modern code. That was no small job since the teepee featured a myriad of colorful and decorative neon, including an Indian face, a sun symbol, a three-armed cactus, and the actual teepee outline itself.

    While an old photo indicated that the cactus arms were not outlined in neon, electrical access panels on the arms suggested otherwise and the sign was restored to match the original design. A previous restoration had also exchanged a 66 shield for the original zia-like sun symbol in the center of the sign. Again, Clovis restored the original design, with minor modifications.

    “We moved the flashing sun symbol that tops the sign,” New explains. “The symbol was on the arm that spanned the center of the sign and was unstable. After all the time we invested to restore the neon we didn’t want it to break easily, so we just moved it up to the top of the pole.”

    The sign is now a top-notch teepee that any respectable neon Indian would be proud to call home and the street landscape is complete with the TePee, the Blue Swallow Motel and two other nearby neon-ordained properties that attract travelers to these businesses.

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    Lovely La Cita
    Heading west, drivers are drawn to La Cita restaurant by its newly restored neon sign, which was originally erected in 1961. La Cita’s claim to fame is its sombrero-shaped structure over the front door along with a matching sombrero-shaped rotating sign. Clovis depended on vintage postcards to get a glimpse of its former state.

    New says the sign was in remarkably good shape when they found it, with salvageable sheet metal and a repairable motor. “We took the sign down and sandblasted it, then we sprayed all the background colors and hand-lettered everything,” he says. “We also redid all the wiring inside the sign, fixed the motor, and installed all new neon.”

    The periphery of the sign is illuminated with chaser lights that provide animation. Restorers kept the original sockets and installed new bulbs. Some elements were altered, though. The color scheme of the outline on the letters in the “La Cita” portion of the sign is now black instead of white. The new sign also features a letter board on the lower portion of the pole that allows the restaurant to advertise specials.

    Meier says the sign stands at the busiest intersection in Tucumcari and its motion and flashing lights command the attention of passing motorists. “These signs are important in helping drive business toward these landmark properties,” he says. “In all of these cases the signs were deteriorated and weren’t reaching their potential for pulling customers into these businesses.”

    Neon in Paradise
    At the far West of Tucumcari is the restored Paradise Motel sign complete with its bathing beauty diving into a pool splash. This was the biggest surprise of the entire New Mexico restoration project, according to Meier.

    The un-restored sign included a lower section depicting portrait images of Tocom and Kari, characters from a tale of a tragic Indian couple from whom Tucumcari is believed to have received its name. The project was bid as a restoration based on its existing Tocom-Kari features. However, an earlier photo surfaced to reveal a very different sign that included a diving bathing beauty diving into a pool splash.

    “We spent a couple months debating whether or not we wanted to put the bathing beauty back on there,” says New. “The splash that she’s diving into had been changed to an Indian head. We finally took it off and moved it and then recreated the splash.”

    Specifically, the original “can” that included the two images was removed and installed on a pedestal in the vicinity of the sign while a new replica can consistent with the restoration was constructed. But that wasn’t the only obstacle. The old sign had also displayed “POOL” in neon, but the swimming pool had been filled in. Stakeholders decided to replace the word “POOL” with the word “OPEN” since the neon insulators supported four letters.

    Meier says the challenges with the Paradise Motel sign are representative of the world of neon restoration.

    “With old neon signs you just don’t know what you’ll find when you open them up,” he says. “Pigeons and birds like to move into these signs and dirty them. You may find corrosion. You may find that the electrical wiring is not up to code. You just never know.”

    What Meier does know, however, is that the neon restoration project will continue. The association is applying for additional grants and plans to keep on trucking down its stretch of Route 66 to give new life to ageless neon marquees.

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