Visiting the Neon Museum of Philadelphia: A Look at the City’s Colorful Commercial Past

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The commercial history of the city comes to life in dazzling color and lights at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. In its home in Olde Kensington, this unique museum showcases the signs of locally and nationally recognized businesses, telling their stories as part of the fabric of the city.

Colorful neon signs on a wall, including an image of Elvis, a painters' palette, and "School House Rock Live!"

On one wall, Elvis swivels his hips. Nearby, a skateboarder is airborne, and a goat jumps in its sign from Goat Hollow, a favorite Mount Airy restaurant for two decades. Each sign draws visitors in—some with color, some with motion, and many with nostalgia. 

The collection of signs that makes up the Neon Museum is the work of Len Davidson, a neon designer and preservationist. He amassed the works over decades and now displays 120 of them in the museum’s 3-story-high space in the NextFab building.

Together, the signs are an echo of Philadelphia before chain stores dominated—when every few blocks there was a shopping street filled with local businesses trying to attract customers with their fabulous signs. Descriptions throughout the museum tell the story of the works—the significance of the businesses as part of Philadelphia history and their importance on a personal level to the people who owned or made them.

What to see

The signs at the Neon Museum are triggered by motion sensors, so they come on in brilliant color on demand. It’s a fun way to see the displays and to focus on each section individually. All the signs are worth seeing, but there are some particular standouts. 

Lit up neon signs on a wall, including "McGillin's Old Ale House, Est. 1860," the outline of a shoe, and a man's face advertising Hair Replacement Center

The crown from Pat’s King of Steaks location (now closed) in Strawberry Mansion is cool to see, no matter which side you’re on in the great cheesesteak debate. Another Philadelphia classic is the 1950s sign from McGillin’s Old Ale House, the city’s oldest bar. Also impossible to miss is the Howard Johnson’s Lamplighter—a huge work depicting the Lamplighter and Simple Simon figures that were used to advertise the chain’s specialties.

We particularly enjoyed the animated signs, including the dancing Elvis and the scuttling crab, which was used for a short-lived Stephen Starr seafood restaurant in 2011. One of the best is certainly an amusing Hair Replacement Center sign from the 1960s that shows a customer before and after the services.

In addition to the permanent pieces, the museum hosts short-term exhibits on different related topics. One exhibit highlighted the resurgence of South Street and another focused on photography of the city’s ghost signs—ads painted on brick buildings that have faded over the years. They’re complemented by videos, posters, maps, and other memorabilia that help tell the story.

In addition to the pieces in the museum space, about 25 more works light up throughout the building. Take a stroll to the restroom or explore the common areas to see them.

Is it worth visiting?

Large red neon sign showing a man lighting a street lamp beside a young boy

We love advertising, media, and history, so visiting the Neon Museum was on the top of our list when it opened. Seeing the signs is fun, but it’s learning their backstories that really gives visitors an appreciation of their importance. While the Museum’s works are displayed primarily in one large room, lovers of the neon craft, art, and advertising will find this a fascinating place to see.

Visitors who can’t get enough of the unique neon works can find about 30 more pieces displayed at the Neon Museum’s “satellite annex” in the Firestone Building of Drexel University at 32nd and Market.

Information

The Neon Museum of Philadelphia is located inside the NextFab building at 1800 N. American St. The sprawling incubator space is the home of workshops, creators, and restaurants, so there is a lot to experience here. There’s also tons of on-site parking, which makes a visit here easy.

Due to the nature of the works in the Neon Museum, children must be aged 7 or older to visit. Visitors younger than 16 must be accompanied by an adult. 

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