ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — 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.
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 in people’s minds,” Babcock said of the old signs. “They were shared icons, these shared images that bind a community.”
Some of the signs created by Electrical Products of New Mexico — now Zeon Signs — are still standing in Albuquerque, home to the largest uninterrupted segment of Route 66 left in an urban area. A few have been rehabilitated; many more are dilapidated and have long been dark.
Finding the sketches was a matter of serendipity, Childs said.
“They’re beautiful pieces, both for their original artwork and their sense of history, and I think they also represent from an urban design viewpoint a couple of different things,” he said. “One of them is this idea that there can be playfulness, which in some times and some eras we don’t allow ourselves to think of that.”
Babcock and Childs spent a summer combing through the dusty files.
More recently, archivists at the university’s Center for Southwest Research finished cataloging the collection and placing the sketches in protective sleeves. Plans call for the collection to be scanned and made available online.
Babcock got to see the results of the library’s preservation work last week, acknowledging the sketches could have been lost forever had Zeon Signs decided to trash them after the fire marshal’s visit.
“I’m so glad I did this. It was just out of whim, an impulse,” she said of opening that file drawer behind the old Zeon building.
In researching the sketches, the professors talked with people who worked on the original signs. Babcock likened it to a sport in which workers would scale tall buildings and balance on cranes to install neon, change lightbulbs or solve engineering problems in an effort to create the most outrageous signs.
“That kind of competition fostered a certain craft and advancing of the material to see just how far you could take neon and aluminum and how wild you could get with these designs and how intricate you could make the shapes and how you could make the neon bend in these amazing ways,” she said.
“It was really just an era of high craft and intricate design.”