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Pueblo's Neon Alley Lights Up the Night — and Illuminates the Past

Joseph Koncilja is a longtime preservationist who's working to save historic structures in Pueblo. His interest in the vintage built environment extends to neon signs, which he has been collecting for years. Because of a preservation ordinance in the southern Colorado town, neon signs aren't allowed on buildings facing the street. To circumvent that rule, Koncilja started installing his neon collection in an alley in downtown Pueblo. Made up of both refurbished vintage signs and brand-new creations, Koncilja's Neon Alley is a free, outdoor museum open year-round. Westword caught up with the collector to find out more about his neon love affair and the origins of the dozens of signs he's acquired over the years.

Westword: What got you interested in neon signs?

Joseph Koncilja: When I was seven or eight years old, there was a paint store here in Pueblo that had a huge Native American sign on the top of it. As I recall — probably none of this is accurate because when you remember back that far, you tend to romanticize it — there were different color feathers on the Native American headdress and they would alternately light up. The sign promoted a certain type of paint. It wasn't on all the time, so we were always excited when it was on. My brother and I would always encourage our father to drive us by that thing so we could see it. For whatever reason, I've always been fascinated by neon — it's just one of those things. There's something captivating about it.

As I got older, my brother and I started to develop the Historic District of Pueblo. A couple of things happened — in order to prevent some properties from being torn down, there was a preservation ordinance adopted. But the preservation ordinance set certain standards on signs and things of that nature. Most of the neon down here were lost or never replaced, and it became very difficult to get it put back on.  So I started collecting signs. I decided that at some point, I wanted to display the signs. Because the city had enacted these ordinances that prevented the signs from going on the street, I decided to display them in the alley.

I have a fascination with alleys as well — I think they're more interesting than streets. They're a little more mysterious. That's how I came up with Neon Alley. When I was coming up with a name, I thought about the "neon forest" or the "neon garden," but I settled on Neon Alley and began to move the signs into the alley. By that time I was collecting signs from all over the United States. 
What's the process for collecting? Do you seek out signage you have your eye on? Do people contact you?

It's all done exclusively on the Internet — eBay periodically has vintage neon signs. That in itself is captivating — finding the sign, negotiating the deal and then trying to get it back to Pueblo. It's amazing what you go through and the ingenuity that it takes — not just on my end, but also with the people who are selling them — to be able to do this with the stroke of a keyboard. Bringing the signs back here to Pueblo has almost been as much fun as assembling and putting them in place.

When you talk about assembling a neon sign, are these signs intact or are they damaged and need work?

It's almost impossible to get a sign back here and not have it be damaged. I was fascinated by Corky's (Scholl, a photographer and videographer behind the Denver group Save the Signs) experience moving a thirteen-foot sign. You have to understand that you're just going to break a bunch of the neon, so you have to find a bender, which is a glass bender — those people are becoming increasingly rare. Once you get a sign to a location, you make a template and the bender puts it together. Then there's the assembler, who puts together the sign's transformers. Then there's the installer who can put the signs on the building or the poles or whatever you're doing with it. The science behind neon is interesting and the guys who can work with it are amazing. They can get an elaborate sign done in a day or a day and a half. Everyone involved with neon is really into it. They are real artists.
Looking at prospective pieces for your collection, what do you look for in a sign?

Originally, it was just to get the profusion of light. That's really what I was interested in. As a collector of anything, your taste becomes a little more sophisticated as you get into something. I have a number of reproductions in my collection — I was originally just looking for the profusion of color and imagery, so there are a lot of reproductions out there. When Corky came down to talk to me, he immediately identified the really artistic signs and the vintage ones. I was a little embarrassed by the fact that I had done the easy thing and had some reproductions in my collection.

I'm not a purist — so when you ask what I'm attracted to in a sign, you may see some (in my collection) that are real works of art. The Tommy's Burgers sign I got from Los Angeles on Wilshire Boulevard, you can see the way that they made the bun, the lettuce, the pickles — it really was an outstanding sign. Corky immediately gravitated to the ones that had more artistic, stylized circumstances.

On the other side of that equation, I fabricated some from scratch. We would have an idea and between my brother, my boys and me, we would make the signs. I didn't think Corky was terribly impressed by those — for instance, the pencil we have on display. Quite frankly, I thought it was neat because it was an idea we had and then had it made. Invariably, when people look at it, they like the pencil the most. I have a three-dimensional cigar and it has that same quality. The same guy who did the pencil, a real craftsman, was able to take the metal and create a really perfect, ten-foot cigar. Then, in collaboration with the bender and an artist I was working with, they came up with the way the neon should look on the cigar.

There was a cafe here in Pueblo called Blue Slipper Cafe and I took the license of having one of my sons make a three-dimensional high-heel slipper. Then the bender and the artist made the neon to go on it — it's a very interesting piece.

It's interesting that you say you're not a purist — I think that might actually make you more open to different kinds if signage.

There are people who collect something specific — I kind of collect everything. I've never been one of these people who feel that something I collect has to be just so. Collecting signs can come from various perspectives — like, what is the overall feel or the experience you have with a piece? For everyone that comes down to see Neon Alley, I think there will be a different experience. I think most people will be affected by the overall experience. Then there will be people like Corky, who understand the intricate details of each piece.

You've recently introduced some new signs to Neon Alley.

I got a cigar from a cigar store in LA — it's from a place called Wally's Cigars. I bought the sign from the daughter of the owner of Wally's and frankly, I'm always amazing when someone will let something like that go. If you look on the Internet, you can see that it was an icon in LA. I feel like there must be millions of people in LA that remember that sign and now it lives in an alley in Pueblo, Colorado.

I'm 35, so missed much of neon's heyday. Still, I'm undeniably attracted to the glow whenever I come across it.

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You know, the alley is directly adjacent to our law office — we're in the historic district. Every night when I leave, I either walk down the alley or drive it. I'm just fascinated by it. Every night that I go down that alley, there are these twenty- and thirtysomething hipster-types taking pictures. There's something really multi-generational about neon. If you experienced it at my age, you can have a certain nostalgic feeling about it — then at your age, still have that feeling, even if it isn't nostalgic.

Absolutely. For me, it is very much about the pure ambiance that neon can create in a space. It's something you don't get from other light sources.

I give credit when I talk to someone like you who really gets it — there's an illumination that it gives that LEDs don't do. I think people really enjoy the experience of walking down the alley and seeing that. Ultimately, I'd like to put little stages under the neon and a dock where you could put in your own music and dance with your lover. I'd love for people to experience neon in that way.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies

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