Vintage neon signs, clocks and art pieces that once belonged to businesses in Philadelphia are back on display on Drexel University’s campus. The windows of the former Firestone building at 32nd and Market Streets — recently acquired by Drexel — are serving as a pop-up art gallery for 29 pieces from Len Davidson’s 150-piece collection of neon signs.
Davidson, a Philadelphia native, developed an interest in roadside American architecture and history while teaching at the University of Florida in the late seventies. Around that time, he returned to Philadelphia and opened a part-time neon business. By 1983, he was making new and collecting old neon pieces full-time.
Signs from Davidson’s collection — that showcase the history of Philadelphia’s commercial past—have occasionally been on display at various venues throughout the city but then head back to storage while Davidson searches for a permanent home that will serve as a neon sign museum.
The exhibit at Drexel includes a Sherwin-Williams Paints “Cover the Earth” sign dating back to the 1950s, a sign from Samuel Sanders Smoked Meats in Strawberry Mansion, a Central Penn National Bank sign and one from the space toy store Rocketships & Accessories that was located on South Street.
With the Firestone building currently vacant, Nancy Trainer, associate vice president of Planning and Design at Drexel, approached Davidson with the idea to lend some of his art for the building’s 19 windows.
“The site is an important gateway to Drexel’s campus, and we want to make it active and engaging, even while we evaluate its reuse,” said Trainer. “Len’s neon collection is pretty well-known in the Philadelphia design community. Inviting him to display it created a great opportunity to show off the collection while also lending some vibrancy to an important part of Drexel’s campus.”
The signs will be lit daily through September from 8 a.m. to midnight.