Philly native Len Davidson has had the same dream for decades. When he retired, he’d pack up his things and move to rural Pennsylvania. He’d buy a barn, and sit on the porch in a rocking chair.
Inside, there’d be hundreds of neon signs that he’s restored over the course of his career. In his dream, folks from all over would roll up the driveway and pay Davidson a dollar to see his collection. He’d flip a switch, and suddenly vibrant hues would flood the farmhouse.
Davidson’s dream is becoming a reality — but not in farm country. The 72-year-old career neon designer will show off his life’s work from a redeveloped building at the intersection of North American and Berks streets.
The Olde Kensington warehouse at 1800 N. American St. used to house a wholesale Asian food distributor. That is, until the building was acquired last year by NextFab. The makerspace organization is revamping the 21,000-square-foot property now, expecting to move in a network of artisan shops and restaurants by the end of the year.
Davidson’s future Neon Museum of Philadelphia is among them. He’s long searched for a venue to host his brilliant artworks — some of which are on display at the former Firestone building at 32nd and Market, owned by Drexel.
By spring 2020, he said he’ll be displaying hundreds of luminous city artifacts in North Philly — all available for the public to view for cheap.
“The kinds of museums that I like the most are what are called personal museums, and they’re usually run by very strange, obsessed people,” Davidson said. “That sort of obsessive weirdness makes for a lot of fun.”
Every year, more neon
How does one become a neon designer exactly? As many often do, Davidson fell into his lifelong passion by accident.
He started his career in academia, working as a sociologist at the University of Florida in the 1970s. One day, he and a colleague started reminiscing about roadside signs they remembered fondly from their childhood. For Davidson, it was the old Pep Boys’ logo showing cartoon likeness of the founders Manny, Moe and Jack.
Then, the two got an idea. Davidson decided to crowdsource people’s favorite road signs and logos, then open a restaurant that used them all as decoration. The duo opened a place called The Gamery in 1973 — but the three-floor bar and restaurant didn’t exactly take off.
“We knew nothing about the restaurant business,” Davidson said. “And we went bankrupt.”
Davidson’s restaurant failed in just five months, but it ignited a permanent passion for neon. He tracked down a neon shop in Gainesville, Florida and became an apprentice — working for free just to learn the craft.
He moved back to Philadelphia in 1979, and continued to moonlight as a neon hobbyist.
“Every year I would do more neon and less academia,” Davidson said, until in 1983 he quit the school gigs altogether and opened a neon shop out of his Fairmount garage.
Since then, Davidson has scored some pretty high-profile jobs: signs at Boot and Saddle and Frankie Bradley’s, the OG crown from the old Pat’s King of Steaks at 33rd and Ridge. He estimates he’s restored 25 shining emblems inside Reading Terminal Market, including the outside logo for the market itself.
It’s a long time coming for Davidson’s prolific collection, which has been stored mostly out of sight in warehouses for years. He’s always wanted to open a more permanent, museum-type space.
Davidson scored a win two years ago when Drexel accepted 29 neons to display in the old Firestone tire store at 32nd and Market. That was meant to be a temporary exhibit, but two years later, he said he just renewed the contract again with Drexel — and the collection will stay for the time being.
To him, this work isn’t all that far off from his first professional love: sociology.
“I really see the neon as a window into understanding Philadelphia history,” Davidson said. “When you used to have more mom and pop stores, when you used to have more shopping streets, when people were on the streets more.”
The museum’s mission? To share all that rich, incandescent history.
‘Nooks and crannies of the city’
Davidson snagged a pretty sweet spot at the under-construction Olde Kensington warehouse. It’s three stories tall, with a 1,500-square-foot floor plan. He’s allowed to hang signs all the way up to the ceiling.
That’s a whole lot of neon.
“When you come in, the thing that will hit you over the head is perhaps the 50 neon signs in one space,” Davidson said. “If you’re from Philadelphia, or even if you’re not, some of them will be recognizable.”
He estimates he’ll have at least 100 pieces on display — 150, if he can fit them all. Included in the collection are signs from Pat’s King of Steaks and Jeweller’s Row, also the now-closed Stephen Starr restaurant Route 6 and Samuel Sandler Smoked Meats. He also envisions interactive screens around the space, displaying videos of old neon restorations.
And of course, like any museum worth anything, this one will have a gift shop. On sale: Davidson’s book, naturally, plus t-shirts, postcards, pictures and mini-neon signs.
“It’s really a love of Philadelphia sociology that’s motivating this thing,” he said. “I’ve got lots of signs that are classic Philadelphia.”
The cost of entry? Probably free, Davidson said, or at most $1 per person.
“I’m hoping I can afford to just lose money for a couple years,” Davidson said. “I don’t view this as a business. It’s not really being set up with the purpose of maximizing profit.”
Instead of running on admission fees, Davidson is hoping to set up external revenue streams, like membership, sponsorship and donations — all for the good of illuminating Philly history.
“For me, what is wondrous about neon is getting to roam around Philadelphia,” he added. “I got to nooks and crannies of the city, which was really satisfying.”