Still Standing

Whether you call it art, Americana, or simply kitsch, the old Moon Winx Lodge sign, a local landmark, is still standing on State Route 215 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in all its neon glory.

The sign was installed in 1957, during a decade that saw the rise of a new motor-driven culture—when Route 66 became a fixture in the American imagination. Better-designed roads and faster, more affordable cars begot moto-architecture: motels, motor courts and motor lodges. Other amenities, such as diners, roadside cabins and campsites sprang up alongside the fledging autobahn. These new roadside attractions took advantage of neon as a medium to advertise their wares, with great effect, to passing automobiles.

The Moon Winx sign designer, Alabama artist Glenn House Sr., now seventy-two, used whatever methods he could to flag down the passing motorists. The commission was an opportunity to experiment with an exotic new material in creating a representation for the clients: Day-Glo paint. “They had bright, brilliant colors—two colors of red, one a sort of an orange-red and the other a little bit purple-red," reminisces House, “There was a bright yellow and a bright green, and I think those were the four Day-Glo colors. I don’t think they ever had Day-Glo blue or brown or grays or any of those colors. These colors would fluoresce in ultraviolet light…and it looked, on black illustration board, like a neon sign, in full flash in the dark of night. Pretty soon after that, the sign was blinking away out on a major highway.”

By the 1970s, urban sprawl—requiring freeway corridors, highway overpasses, city loops and bypasses—had all but removed the motor architecture and motel signs of the 1950s from view. The on-ramps and off-ramps of the interstate system offered only the codified signage of mass-marketed motel chains. The neon-crafted cowboys, bright and blinking sleepwalking bears, and the luminous high-diving ladies of the roadside motel signs disappeared. These neon icons became hidden alongside secondary routes, beside minor highways, and jumbled among declining urban centers.

But the Moon Winx sign stands much as it did in 1957. The rooms of the lodge are still open for rent, but the restaurant that was known in its time to serve travelers a good steak has long closed. The once wooded areas around the Moon Winx have given way to more houses and concrete. But the sign’s winking eye still flirts with drivers as they pass by, a reminder of simpler times, flickering in fading neon.