On a cold winter night, the glow of No. 4335 on the front of Jim Manning's house is a small beacon in a dark neighborhood.
"Doesn't it make you smile?" he asks, beaming at the neon house numbers before setting off on an evening walking tour of his neighborhood in Washington's American University Park section.
In the six months since Manning made and installed his glimmering address, four of his neighbors have ordered red, purple, green and white neon numbers for their houses. The enclave has become the talk of commuters hiking home at dusk from the Metro, as well as bemused dog walkers and curious kids in strollers.
"People are always knocking on my door and asking about it," he says. "There's something about neon that people just love."
Manning, 56, spent his career as a telecommunications consultant but always wanted to be a neon artist. "I remember growing up in Pittsfield, Mass., and going to my aunt's basement, where she had a bar with a couple of neon beer signs," he says. "I was mesmerized."
For his 40th birthday, Manning's family presented him with a custom neon sign. When it broke during a move, he went looking for a place to have it fixed. He discovered Marty King's neon studio, Light'n Up, and got hooked watching King work on her neon creations.
She suggested he sign up for classes from other local neon artists. Now retired, Manning spends a lot of time at the studio, crafting his own neon.
His projects are glowing all over his 1922 semidetached rowhouse. Blue, pink, yellow, red and green neon outlines the railing of the back porch; red and cobalt blue neon lights a faux fire in the fireplace. A toothpaste tube spews turquoise neon toothpaste on the bathroom wall.
Manning made his 6-inch-tall blue house numbers in June.
"I went looking for a new porch light, and I didn't like anything I saw out there," he says. "Then it came to me: I would do my house numbers in neon, and that would light up my porch."
The glowing address instantly attracted neighborhood attention.
"It hadn't been installed for an hour when my neighbor across the street, Sharon Gang, came over and said, 'I have to have it,' " he recalls.
Says Gang, "I wanted to do something to make my 1925 house my own." She asked Manning to create a neon address for her and figured the red numbers would be great for guests - or firefighters - trying to find her house.
"The neon numbers make it mine and different from whoever else lived here," she says.
Manning wasn't planning to go into the neon business, but when more neighbors developed number envy, he knew he had to come up with a pricing structure. He charges $600 for fabricating, installing and covering a neon house number with Plexiglas. A light sensor turns on the numbers in the evening and switches them off after sunrise.
Neighbor Sara Perez left Manning a note that she wanted to replace her small, old black house numbers with something more visible. She chose bright white to go with her all-white flower beds.
Now, Perez looks forward to seeing her numbers start to glow when the sun goes down.
"They're my new porch light," she says. "I'm in heaven."