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Philadelphia collector inches closer to establishing neon sign museum

Maybe it has something to do with living in a city weighed down by three centuries of stuff, but Philadelphia has produced a long line of single-minded collectors and sorters. William Wagner and his trays of birds and fossils. Jules Mastbaum and his set of Rodin bronzes. Albert C. Barnes and his house full of impressionists.

You can now add Len Davidson's name to the list. Davidson's obsession is neon signs, and he has spent the better part of four decades rescuing burned-out advertising relics and coaxing them back to glowing life. By his count, he owns 150 signs, some as tall as rowhouses. Because so many pieces originally beckoned from local stores, they collectively tell the story of the region's lost commercial past. Fashioned in small sign-making workshops that once dotted Philadelphia's neighborhood commercial districts, the intricate creations are an underappreciated form of folk art.

Unfortunately, Davidson's extraordinary collection has been out of public view for the last several years, stowed away in warehouses around the city. For the next few months, you will be able to experience a sampling at Drexel University, where Davidson has just installed 29 neon signs in the former Firestone tire store at 32nd and Market. The university now owns the building.

Remember Samuel Sanders Smoked Meats in Strawberry Mansion? Central Penn National Bank in Frankford? Rocketships and Accessories on South Street? If not -- no matter. Those places return vividly to life when dusk falls and their colorful glass tubes light up in Firestone's windows. Text panels should go up next week, explaining the history of each sign and its artistic merits. The show is scheduled to run through September.

The question is what happens next. Parts of Davidson's collection have been on display before, at places like the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. But after the shows end, Davidson has to send them back to storage.

Now 70, Davidson told me he is eager to find a permanent home for his collection. Other cities, most notably Las Vegas, have established sign museums that have become major attractions. Given how fast this town's oddball features are being smoothed over by new construction and global culture, we could really use a museum devoted to our old peculiarities.

A Philadelphia neon museum wouldn't have to be fancy; in fact, the grittier the better, Davidson believes. One reason he jumped at the chance to display his signs at Firestone is that the vacant one-story building remains an island of roadside culture in the midst of a homogenizing high-rise neighborhood.

Davidson is in discussions with several property owners, two private and one public, about setting up a museum. An ideal location would be Pier 9, the former shipping warehouse owned by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. The agency is planning to convert the long cavernous shed near Race Street into a sort of maker's mall lined with shipping containers that can house artist studios, vice president Joe Forkin told me. He hopes to have the funding pinned down by the end of the year and to start the $4 million construction project with ISA and Groundswell Design in early 2018.

Davidson's biggest pieces, like the 40-foot-wide Bookbinders sign from 15th Street and the big Levis hotdog from its original shop on Sixth Street, could easily hang from Pier 9's ceilings without interfering with the goings-on below, said Forkin. The other advantage of the venue is that it would be free to the public.

But because nothing is certain, Davidson is also negotiating with Tomas Sanchez about housing his collection in Kensington's former Fluehr's Furniture showroom on Front Street, next to the Market-Frankford El near the York-Dauphin stop. Sanchez, who is married to Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, is trying to turn the 11,000-square-foot building into an arts center, with a gallery and cafe.

Fluehr's 18-foot ceilings could accommodate some of Davidson's larger signs. But Sanchez said he would also love to see some pieces hung in the second-floor windows on the block, so that El riders would see the colorful signs as the trains whooshed by. In its own way, it would make the city a living museum of neon advertising once again.

Davidson is considering a third offer to install a small portion of his collection at Philadelphia Distilling, a spirits-themed restaurant in the Fillmore complex in Fishtown. Though the space has high ceilings and big windows, it's much less accessible to the public, and much less likely to offer a curatorially serious museum experience.

If anyone approaches the history of neon signs with academic rigor, it's Davidson. After earning a doctorate in sociology and teaching at the University of Florida, he befriended an old sign maker in Gainesville, who taught him how to design the fanciful curving shapes that distinguish the best neon signs. After returning to his native Philadelphia in 1979, he interviewed dozens of local sign makers and collected his findings in a book, Vintage Neon. Like so much material culture, the evolution of the designs tracks our changing tastes.

As Davidson's business conserving old signs took off, his awe for the creativity of some of the masters grew. He distinguishes between the engineers who produced massive, animated signs for Times Square, known as spectaculars, and local sign makers who worked for small businesses. They were artisans in the tradition of medieval craftsmen, Davidson believes.

Davidson, who recently supervised the repair of the Boot & Saddle sign on the South Broad music spot, deeply admires the economy of design employed by its maker, Angelo Colavita, who fused the map of Italy with the outline of a boot.

The one large piece in the Drexel show is by Joe Feldman. It was created for the roof of Pat's Steaks at 33rd and Ridge. Painted with colored enamel, and ringed with neon, it could be spotted by passing planes, Davidson said. Before television dazzled consumers with a different kind of light, that was entertainment.

Though Davidson's collecting forebears made Philadelphia a richer place, they mostly brought in treasures from elsewhere. Davidson has preserved our collective past. After all those years, those flickering signs still call for our attention.