Bob Swartz was a businessman, historian, and expert photographer. In 1952 he commissioned the 82” tall double sided camera to advertise his photo shop on Lancaster Avenue (the Lincoln Highway). It featured a four point animated aperture and was built by Kunda Signs, still active since 1946.
Shortly before Len Davidson bought the sign in 1998, Swartz reminisced about its history and difficulty in maintaining it: “The animation went into the center and back again. People used to love it. The only problem was the constant flashing off and on bothered the people who lived upstairs.
“A lot of the tubes were knocked out by Hurricane Hazel in 1956 and now it’s much too expensive to have it refurbished. Someone recently bought the property and may tear down the building anyway… The township doesn’t allow overhead signs like that anymore…”
The sign was restored and loaned to a friend’s photo studio in 2000 but it’s now back in the Museum, casting a mesmerizing glow as the camera aperture opens and closes.
One of the greatest ever made in Philly, the Boot and Saddle sign was created by Angelo Colavita and his brothers, Domenic and Anthony, for a bar owner with an affinity for Western garb. When Len Davidson researched the restoration, Angelo — an Italian immigrant with a 6th grade education — was in his 90s. He told Len he designed the sign on his kitchen table in South Philly.
Len subbed out the fabrication work to Urban Neon who did a beautiful job. The Boot’s out-of-scale components and almost cubist details (part of the boot’s front is depicted in side view), make this 20’ tall sign a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
After the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, four of these 6’ diameter clocks were placed above Philadelphia jewelry stores. Three were intact when Len Davidson returned to Philly in 1979; one disappeared from 11th and Market and a Lancaster Avenue model was scooped up by a collector. That left one unassailable-looking clock at Broad and Germantown that Len had eyed for years.
Then, in 2014, Len received a surprise call from Bob Beaty, an architectural salvager and friend. Bob had hired a skilled rigger to attempt the clock removal and the clock was down! It was beat up after 75 years overlooking Philly’s busiest street but Len jumped at the chance to own it.
Alden Cole, a skilled painter and fellow Dumpster Diver, was hired to strip the finish and repaint the clock, while Len went to work on the clock mechanism, neon, and transformers. To his surprise, most of the original tubes still lit.
The restored Bulova clock is one of the gems of the Museum’s collection.
In 2016, Drexel took over a vacant Firestone store at 32nd and Market Streets with thoughts of developing the property into a student center. They contacted Len Davidson about putting a single sign in a window to give life to the vacant building. A broader plan was developed and in spring 2017 an exhibit called See the Light was opened with technical assistance from Jeremy Tenenbaum at VSBA Architects & Planners.
After landscaping and tables were added to the adjacent parking lot, the neon display became a campus hangout. It has served as backdrop for photo shoots and been featured on TV and the city’s promotional newscasts. Local and national organizations have visited the site including the Society for Commercial Archaeology and the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists.
The exhibit now serves as a campus landmark and gateway to West Philadelphia. It has been expanded yearly. In September 2019, this free show of 30+ neon pieces was renewed for another year.
“Philadelphia Inquirer: Neon Museum ‘See The Light’ show opens at Drexel University”
“See The Light” Press Release
[link locally, not on Davidson Neon]
“Drexel News Blog: Vintage Neon Signs Light Up At Drexel”