Paul Swedlund must have suffered some funny looks years ago as he drove around Rapid City in his little El Camino — a cross between a car and a pickup — with big neon signs protruding from the back.
He probably didn’t notice the stares, because he was on a mission to save a vanishing part of Rapid City’s history one sign at a time.
There was the day, for example, that he got a tip about the taking down of the Plaza Sands Motel sign.
Swedlund saved it and got it restored. It's now a literal sign of its times, an unmistakably 1950s-era behemoth with a towering, neon-lit palm tree and Miami-inspired pastel colors and lettering. Those lucky enough to view it in all its restored glory get to peer back through six decades at a piece of the past as it really was.
But it could easily have been discarded instead of restored.
“None of this stuff happens by accident,” Swedlund said.
He’s proof of that. Because of his commitment and forethought, seven of the grandest neon signs ever to grace the city’s business district have been saved and restored by Rosenbaum’s Signs.
And now the signs need a new home.
For years, Swedlund stored much of his collection in the downtown building that most recently housed the Sports Rock restaurant and bar at 321 Seventh St. Two of the biggest signs once hung from the ceilings there, and others were stored out of sight. But the bar closed, and the building’s owner, Bob Fuchs, has put it up for sale.
Another sign has been stored and displayed at the Canyon Lake Chophouse, but that business has also closed, and owners Mike and Carmen Derby hope to renovate the building into a reunion cabin.
“Those placements, which were really good placements at one time, are not proving to be enduring for the safety of the collection,” said Swedlund, an attorney who has since moved to Pierre.
He hopes to donate the signs to a new home where they can be preserved and appreciated. One possibility is the city-owned Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, where city officials are considering hanging the signs in the corridor that includes the food court, said Civic Center Board Chairman Jeff Bailie.
“Those signs are really treasures of our past,” Bailie said. “We’ve just got to make sure we can give them the proper home that they need.”
Some of the signs, when placed upright on the ground, tower over people. Besides the Plaza Sands Motel sign, another such example is the Tip Top Motel sign with its angular, red-and-white design and proudly arching arm holding up a star. Beyond those two, there are five additional neon signs in the collection from the Davis Motel, Howard’s Body Shop, Canyon Lake Club, Martha’s Beauty Shop and the Horseshoe Motel, plus a vacuum-molded plastic Woolworth’s Luncheonette sign.
Swedlund found one of the signs in the junkyard. Others he asked permission to take after getting a tip or seeing them being removed. The big ones had to be hauled in pieces during multiple trips with the El Camino.
Such television shows as “American Pickers” have since highlighted a modern revival of interest in nostalgic signage, and vintage signs like Swedlund’s can be worth significant sums. But when he was saving them beginning in the 1990s, nobody asked for payment, he said. They just wanted to get rid of the rusting relics, which dated from about the 1940s through the 1960s.
Those dates correspond with the last 20 years of the neon sign industry’s heyday in the United States. The novelty of neon wore off as more energy-efficient, easier-to-fabricate signage took its place.
Swedlund grew up a military kid in Europe, where he learned to appreciate wrought-iron signs that were hundreds of years old. Like most art forms, those signs probably went through a cycle of popularity, decline and nostalgic resurgence, Swedlund said. He figured there must have been people who saved Europe’s wrought-iron signs during their less-popular years, and he saw that Rapid City’s neon needed a savior.
“Somebody has to be there at that point in time for something to last,” Swedlund said. “Fortunately, neon has gotten to that point that it’s old enough now for people to start coming back to it.”
While building his collection, Swedlund discovered that most or all of the signs were designed and built by the late Walt Rosenbaum, who owned Rosenbaum’s Signs. That knowledge took Swedlund to Eric Farrar, who owns the business today.
With the help of grants and Farrar’s generosity, the signs got restored. Longtime Rosenbaum’s employee Jim Jackson, who learned the craft of “tube bending” in the 1970s from Walt Rosenbaum himself, did much of the work. Besides restoring Swedlund’s collection, Rosenbaum’s has participated in notable neon projects including the restoration of the iconic South Dakota Stockgrowers Association sign in downtown Rapid City, which was re-lit in 2000 after being dark for more than 20 years.
An appreciation for Walt Rosenbaum’s legacy is a major motivator for Swedlund and the crew at Rosenbaum’s Signs. Swedlund called the late Rosenbaum a “neon artist.”
“A lot of folk artists don’t think of themselves as artists until history catches up and understands that what they’re doing is unique and requires a certain talent and perspective,” Swedlund said.
That talent and perspective is still evident at Rosenbaum’s Signs, where Jackson works amid boxes of glass tubes, torches, gauges and other accoutrements of the trade. Tubes are still bent by hand.
“It’s almost getting to be a lost art,” Jackson said.
But he has noticed some renewed interest in neon, a term he’s quick to point out is a misnomer. Neon is an element that gives off a red color when its atoms are excited by electricity inside a glass tube. Other colors of “neon” are actually created with argon and phosphorescent powder coating inside the tubes.
The science of neon can still inspire wide-eyed wonder. When that’s paired with an appreciation for neon-sign craftsmanship and the baby boomers' nostalgia for the neon glow of the 1950s, it’s easy to see why neon is enjoying a comeback.
Since neon signs are now appreciated less for their utility and more for their art, some of their resurgence is likely to be indoors where they’re less susceptible to damage from the weather.
That’s OK with Swedlund. It’s part of the natural cycle of old things becoming new and being put to different uses, much like his El Camino.
“It’s completely restored,” he said of his old sign-hauler, “and it’s too nice to be loading any more signs in it.”