Pueblo’s Neon Revival: It’s a Gas!
Neon signs have intrigued Pueblo native Joe Koncilja since his boyhood when neon signs lined business thoroughfares in cities large and small throughout the Pikes Peak region. Such signage fell slowly out of fashion during the 1960s and 1970s as urban planners and historic preservationists came to associate neon-lit streets with biker hangouts, pool halls, run-down motels, and strip bars and pushed for regulations that banned new neon signs. As businesses closed or were sold, their neon signs were often thrown away.
Once a mecca for neon sign enthusiasts, Colorado Springs is now a virtual neon desert— but not Pueblo, thanks to Joe Koncilja and his brother Jim. The brothers managed to save and acquire neon signs not only in Pueblo but throughout the United States. Historic preservation ordinances banned neon along commercial streets so the Konciljas could not light up the street side of buildings they owned, but the alley was no problem—and Pueblo’s Neon Alley was born. Dozens of gleaming signs light up the night, including an iconic Wally’s Cigars sign from Los Angeles and a newly created sign advertising Pueblo’s long-vanished Blue Slipper Café. The signs have transformed a once dreary alley into a radiant nightscape, now home to thriving businesses such as the Neon Alley Bistro.
Introduced in 1923 when a Los Angeles Packard dealer bought two signs for the extravagant price of $23,000, neon quickly captivated the American public. Bathing cities with light so intense and brilliant that it was first called “liquid fire,” neon transformed the American night. The Pikes Peak region was no exception. As burgeoning demand lowered prices, neon signs blossomed in Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Cañon City, Buena Vista, and Pueblo.
By the 1950s, hundreds of such signs advertised motels, bars, nightclubs, movie theaters, pawnshops, and small businesses of all kinds. The signs, although labor intensive, were durable and reliable—and their glowing, friendly light attracted customers.
Not everyone loved the transformed nightscape. Some found neon signs vulgar, irritating, or intrinsically offensive and supported local ordinances that banned or restricted such signage.
Since then, times have changed; a new generation of preservationists has launched programs to protect and restore the historic neon signs that their predecessors scorned.
If you ever wonder why the Konciljas have worked so hard to preserve neon, go to Neon Alley. You’ll see a warm,
luminous, and cheerful light, one utterly unlike today’s bright, hard-edged LED displays. In Las Vegas, where exuberant neon signs have dazzled generations of visitors, local conservationists launched an ambitious program 30 years ago to save the city’s landmark signs. That effort has resulted in the preservation of more than 200 historic signs and the birth of the Neon Museum.
As Portland real estate agent Alyssa Starelli told us a few years ago, “[The preservation movement] isn’t merely about saving crappy signs on crappy motels. It’s about keeping a part of… history alive. They are just really incredibly awesome signs. They are such a part of our American culture.”
BEHIND THE SCENES:
Joe Koncilja, Neon Alley’s genius, and benefactor is committed to building Neon Alley and considers it a work in progress. Joe appreciates neon as few others do—not only had he been collecting for a long time before he graced Pueblo with his collection, but he has an additional 40 pieces ready to go up… and he has big plans for the alley, including outdoor patios and sound systems. Joe is driven by both a love for neon and a desire to create a unique area that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Whatever your event, Neon Alley offers a fun space to share. Joe doesn’t own the alley, so he must ask permission to use the public right of way like anyone else. In September, he hosted the Scorpion Festival—a public street fair with a flair for the eclectic and uncommon—and he’s always ready to encourage and help potential party makers. He’s especially favorable to progressive efforts, in keeping with the art (a Mona Lisa gallery supporting a liberal candidate) he displays. Political posters aside, the alley caters to many types rather than one particular theme. Vintage movie posters, like Tarzan and King Kong, hang opposite the works of graphic artist Mo Valdez.
In addition to the hundred people who visit the alley every night, Joe’s been contacted about weddings and high school reunions, and people regularly ask if they can throw parties—the alley has taken on a life of its own! If you’re interested in using the alley, reach out to Joe through the Neon Alley’s Facebook page; he’ll likely help in the process for a special event permit from the city. Whether you’re looking to remember a time past or discover neon for the first time, Neon Alley has a little bit of something for everyone.