ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — They were just a bunch of old business records belonging to New Mexico’s oldest and largest sign-making shop, the last of the manufacturers from neon’s midcentury heyday.
No longer needed and deemed a fire hazard, the file drawers were moved outside and placed on pallets under a tree.
Ellen Babcock spotted them during one of her many visits to Zeon Signs as part of her interest in sign-making and the installation of public artwork on unused signs in Albuquerque.
Thanks to her curiosity, she was about to strike gold.
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The University of New Mexico sculpture professor found hundreds of yellowing envelopes containing folded drawings of some of the memorable neon signs on Route 66, one of the first roads in the U.S. highway system. It spanned more than 2,400 miles, from Chicago to the West Coast.
The sketches detailed signage for gas stations, motels, burger joints, bowling alleys, dry cleaners and coffee shops. In some cases, they were the only records left of the beacons that lit the famous highway from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“Finely drawn and just gorgeous,” Babcock said of the first drawing she unfolded.
It was for the marque of a movie theater in the town of Grants, west of Albuquerque.
Aside from the sketches, the files included material lists, purchase orders and other correspondence between the designers and business owners who were looking to attract customers.
Babcock and Mark Childs, an associate dean and professor at the University of New Mexico’s school of architecture, turned the find into a book in 2016. New Mexico preservation officials last week honored them for their work to salvage the historic drawings.
The professors say the designs marked the beginnings of what would become touchstones for travelers and people who lived along the historic highway, which crossed eight states.
“They were meant to be memorable…