In 2002, Edmonton heritage planner David Holdsworth noticed an old neon sign on 97 Street in the process of being dismantled from a former commercial building.
The sign originally belonged to a local furniture exchange–once a common business in Edmonton. As the central town in a large agricultural region, Edmonton was bustling in the early 1900s. By the time the 1930s rolled around, the capital of Alberta had experienced its second population boom and businesses were capitalizing on the local culture of swapping and bartering for second-hand furniture. The Canadian Furniture Company sign averted the dump that day.
Today, the Canadian Furniture Company sign is one of 12 carefully restored intricate neon artifacts that make up Edmonton’s outdoor Neon Sign Museum. Located at the corner of 104 Street and 104 Avenue, the Neon Sign Museum occupies the entire face of an unadorned utility building, across from a construction site soon to become Rogers Place Arena. The restored neon signs are secured to a metal frame in a cascading composition stretching across the façade. At first glance, the illuminated advertisements are a glaring presence–and of course, that’s the point.
At the time that Holdsworth stumbled across the Canadian Furniture Company sign, he was working on revitalization plans for Edmonton’s warehouse district. Comprised of simple four-storey commercial Edwardian brick buildings, the downtown neighbourhood was the city’s central hub for retail goods and shipments during the 1920s and ’30s. Today, the warehouse district has gradually been revived as a new heart of downtown Edmonton with the introduction of a highly successful farmers’ market, new condo towers, and several independent shops and cafés.
Over the past decade, Holdsworth gradually amassed a collection of disused neon signs for the City Archives, and convinced the City to restore them for public display in the warehouse district. In all, the Museum is designed to accommodate up to 30 signs.
The oldest artifact in the collection–and Edmonton’s first-known neon sign–was designed for Darling’s Drug Store in 1928, only five years after neon signs first emerged in North America. It originally appeared on the corner of Jasper Avenue and Second Street.
Since the heyday of neon-sign advertising in the 1950s, neon signs have become primary metaphors in discussions about modernity, consumerism and stardom. The Museum emphasizes neon’s contribution to the collective memory of downtown Edmonton and safeguards these artifacts as valuable representations of local economic histories. CA
Jennifer Laforest is a planner and writer living in Edmonton.