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August 29, 2014

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TAKE FIVE: THE NEW FRONTIER SIGN

It's never been sexy. It carried neither the glamour nor retro chic of its peers that flickered up and down the Strip and Fremont Street and now lie sleeping in the Neon Boneyard. Its Western theme was never as exotic as Arabian deserts.

But with Ponderosa-style letters, no computerized light shows and no computer gimmicks, the New Frontier sign has managed to survive since the 1960s despite being outdazzled and out blasted by slick graphic displays on neighboring signs.

Could it be its simple charm? The utilitarian attraction panel at the base of the otherwise decorative architecture hearkens strong hands and boom trucks, rather than "programming." Tiny yellow bulbs cling to its edges, encasing it like barnacles that light up at night. Little red bulbs light its stylized interior.

With the departure of one of the last old tanks, we say goodbye to a different era.

So what happens now?

Given its lack of allure, the hotel's sketchy history with the union and the size of this mammoth creation, it isn't met with the same open arms that fully embraced other neon- or bulb-encrusted celebrities, including the recently rescued Stardust sign.

The Neon Museum has expressed interest, even contacted the new owner about a possible donation. But the museum could handle only part of the steel monster. Possibly the "F" that rotated at the top.

In a nod to the three most valuable words of preservation in Las Vegas - relocation, relocation, relocation - there are other options.

1. Relocation

Macau? Probably not.

There is Sunset Park, which is home to one of the two 35-foot - tall tiki statues from Stardust's Aku Aku restaurant. But it doesn't really fit in with the pond and trees at Sunset .

There is Heritage Street at the Clark County Museum in Henderson, where old Las Vegas homes go to live out their years, but the sign might overwhelm the Mayberry feel flanking the little gravel road.

Lake Las Vegas, a new frontier of a different sort, could use something authentic.

2. Reintroduction

Plunk it down on lower Fremont Street, where signs are being poached and destroyed at what preservationists would call an alarming rate - similar to reintroducing animals to the wild. Though historically inaccurate, it could be glorious. There was a time when you'd head east on Fremont Street from the Strip and see these brilliant little iconographic signs dotting the landscape, stretching to the sky. The signs still welcome visitors who brave the seedy stretch of classic Las Vegas to see what they've read about in books or on the Internet. There is plenty of room at the Nevada Test Site for a roadside Strip relic. Or we could put it at Area 51 and light it up - a welcome to these visitors we keep hearing about.

3. Conservation

The Neon Museum limps along and grabs what it can in donations and signs. But maybe it takes a village. The Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens was once an elegant space offering a floral centerpiece to the hotel while celebrating nature's delicate gifts. But its recent transition to incorporating props - so large they could rival Disneyland attractions - to its floral display leaves the door open for possibility. Last summer the conservatory featured American landmarks via an impressively crafted journey across America that included replica s of the U.S. Capitol, Mount Rushmore and even the Bellagio. It has a Route 66 display with a 42-foot-tall Ferris wheel amid a "county fair setting." Why not vintage Vegas? Throw part of the Frontier in the main planter (next to the Stardust, of course) and fill the space with exotic flora. There could even be floral protesters and picket signs. Bring down some of the less delicate signs from the Boneyard to stock the planters for a trip down memory lane Las Vegas.

The rental fee for use of the signs could help the Neon Museum with its ambitious plans to build a structure to showcase its treasures that for now sit in the dirt on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard.

4. Interpretation

All that steel and hand-painted sheet metal have to go somewhere. Between the county's public art efforts and the city's Percent for Arts program, which uses 1 percent of all public projects to fund public art, it seems the scraps could be used for sculpture. Launch a contest even. It could add a sense of progressive urban thinking if sculptures from the sign were created for downtown's 61 acres.

A figurative of Sen. Carey Estes Kefauver, who tried to crack down on mob crime, could be built for the POST Modern, or even a more contemporary nod to the mob. Or maybe a little bit of good old-fashioned family-friendly folk art that reaches the mainstream more directly than, say, a Richard Serra in New York's Federal Plaza. The reuse aspect could help with some type of grant.

5. Sentimentalization

Maybe the New Frontier sign doesn't hold the most loving sentiment of Las Vegas hotels and signs, but it could still serve as an example for all elements of reuse. All the scraps could be made into bits of fine art jewelry, frames or postcards to be sold to raise funds for preservation of our historic landmarks. Sell them on eBay, Home Shopping Network or even a little souvenir shop to show that we're recycling. Las Vegas belongs to America, does it not? Make a donation, take a memento created by the city's artists and with the city's history.

The rest? Certainly Lonnie Hammargren has some space in his back and front yard depository of forgotten Las Vegas.

Rest in peace, New Frontier sign.

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