Book Review: Good Old Neon

Stars Motel sign

Photo by Nick Freeman.

While the Hollywood Park neighborhood on the North Side didn’t offer much in the way of Culture when I was growing up, a few blocks over on Lincoln Avenue what may have been one of the largest and best collections of neon signs in Chicago was always on display.

I frequently saw this cluster of fantastical motel signs from the back seat of my mother’s car as she drove between our neighborhood and somewhere else. For several long blocks, the signs lit up both sides of the street. Some with flashing bulbs, some with burnt out bulbs, and each with a distinctive look and message. They marked our progress to or away from home and I saw them as both familiar and strange.

Patio Motel sign

Photo by Nick Freeman.

It made no sense that a street minutes from our house was lined with so many motels and their hard-to-miss neon signs. I knew motels from family vacations, where they were on toll roads going from one state to another. What was the point of motels in the middle of the city? My mother once explained that Lincoln Avenue had been a major road into the city, and the area where we lived was at the edge of the city, where it was cheaper to stay. What she didn’t say was rooms in some of these motels went by the hour.

good old neon

My recollections of the now-vanishing neon motel signs on Lincoln Avenue were inspired by Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago, a book of photographs by Nick Freeman. [Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.] Freeman has spent years photographing neon, so he has photographed signs that no longer exist as well as ones still around to charm us.  The majority of the photographs were shot in Chicago and the suburbs with a handful from smaller Midwest towns like Beloit and Belvidere.

In his introduction to the section on lodging, Freeman notes that “recent signs of gentrification in the area [on Lincoln Avenue] may indicate that the ‘sin strip’s’ days are numbered” and “the more enticing the sign, the less attractive the prospect of an overnight stay.” But there was a time when not all Lincoln Avenue motels were rundown and identified with illegal activities.

One of them, the Acres Motel, was wholesome enough for a family reunion in the late 1960s. On the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah, our relatives from across the country came to Chicago and stayed at the Acres. I remember us all–aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather–seated around the outdoor pool at the Acres on the day after my big event, having a ball.

The Acres Motel, I just learned last week in a comment to a post, was once owned by cousins of one of my classmates at Peterson School. I never cease to be amazed how much the Hollywood Park neighborhood was more like a small town than I ever imagined–everyone was related to somebody nearby.

North Side Neon Classics

Freeman doesn’t include every great neon sign I recall from my childhood–missing is my all-time fave, Nicky (backwards K) Chevrolet in Skokie–but many are here, like the gorgeous image of the Heart “o” Chicago Motel sign on the book’s cover, the Tip Top Motel and Superdawg, which is owned, as anyone who reads this blog surely knows, by two Von Steuben alums, Maurie and Flaurie Berman. Other North Side classics included in the book are Jubilee Gas For Less; Cole’s Appliances; Charcoal Oven and Par King Golf.

I haven’t given much thought to neon signs over the years, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Good Old Neon, revisiting signs I remember so well and discovering ones I hadn’t seen before, like Horwath’s Good Food on Harlem and Hotel Roosevelt on South Wabash. With simple images that surprise and delight, neon signs create vivid memories strongly associated with a specific place. They may be out of fashion and even outlawed by some municipalities that strive to maintain a classy commercial district, but years from now, we can be fairly certain, the kids of today won’t look back and reminisce about the many distinctive commercial signs of their childhood.

Title: Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago

Author: Nick Freeman

Price: $17.95 – Now $15 when your order from the publisher, Lake Claremont Press.

Page Count: 140 pp.

Pub Date: November 2014

Format: Trade paperback, 7″ x 7″

Features: 135 photos, location index

Read more

For a look at the mid-century modern architecture of the motels on Lincoln Avenue, see A Chicago Sojourn, Seed & Sin: Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row.

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16 Responses to Book Review: Good Old Neon

  1. Alan Shapiro December 5, 2014 at 8:07 am #

    Always a pleasure to read your blog. We lived on Central Park between Lawrence and Montrose so as a child that was my world. I don’t know what major street was on the west, but Kimball bordered our world on the east. I would love to see pictures of Albany Park in the late 40’s and early fifties.

  2. Terri Lynn December 5, 2014 at 8:34 am #

    I remember many of these signs. And as for the Heart of Chicago, we still stay there on occasion. Love their continental breakfast–doughnuts and coffee!

  3. Linda December 5, 2014 at 12:38 pm #

    Interestingly, the same day I saw this post, there was also a story linked to from about the Z-Frank Chevrolet sign:

  4. Howard Korengold December 5, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    Frances, I wonder whether the “Neon”book has pictures of my father’s motel, the Rio. The Rio was Chicago’s first motel and I worked their part time while going to law school and beyond so my father could have some time off and go on vacation.

  5. Frances Archer December 5, 2014 at 1:30 pm #

    Howard, what a coincidence. No there isn’t a photograph of the Rio sign in the book, but I sure remember it. This is another good story!

  6. Frances Archer December 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Hi, Linda! Grat to hear from you. I was just thinking of you the other day and will be send an email soon. I saw that about new item about Z Frank. I think we got a least one Chevy at Z Frank, and probably more.

  7. Frances Archer December 5, 2014 at 1:32 pm #

    Hi, Terry. That Heart of Chicago is such an inviting sign, though it’s really quite far from the “heart” of the city.

  8. Frances Archer December 5, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    Alan, thanks for stopping by. I always enjoy hearing from readers who enjoy my blog — it’s part of the fun of doing it. And I welcome contributions from anyone with historic photographs of Albany Park, North Park, Hollywood Park and Peterson Park.

  9. Marty Marcus December 5, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    Hi Frances. What Howie Korengold did not tell you about his father, Morrie’s, motel, the “Rio” is this:
    When I asked him. “Mr. Korengold, why did you choose this name and not something fancier like, say, the “Regency” or even the “Hollywood?” He answered “At a hundred dollars a letter, I like the “Rio.”

    I actually mentioned this incident in my memoir “Alien in Adland,” which although never published can now be read in manuscript at the Chicago History Museum.

  10. Jan Kodner December 5, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    Frances, as a loyal Seminole Day camper for 4 years, I remember the Acres Motel very well. Every morning the bus would take us to the Acres, where we would swim and frolic in their pool for a couple hours. Then on to the LaBagh Forest Preserve for lunch, softball and ghost stories by Camp Director, Norm Silber. Good times. Thanks for the memory jolt!

  11. Frances Archer December 5, 2014 at 8:44 pm #

    Great story, Marty! Howard is on my list to interview. I’ll check out your manuscript next time doing research at the CHM. I happened to be there yesterday looking up Von Steuben among other topics. Nice to hear from you.

  12. Frances Archer December 5, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    I forgot about Seminole! I knew kids–can’t remember who now–attending that camp and I was soooo jealous they got to go the Acres pool everyday. We went to the Bernard Horwich JCC and that was an indoor pool and it was not a fun pool.

  13. Marty Marcus December 6, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    Big mistake, Frances. The anecdote about Mr. Korengold is not in my memoir but appears in my book “The Power of Yiddish Thinking.” If any of your readers has the patience to try to locate that book, they will find many another good story of that kind. I think Howie Korengold would be an excellent interviewee by the way.

  14. Frances Archer December 7, 2014 at 10:42 pm #

    Thanks Marty. I bet a library has the book.

  15. Frances Archer April 3, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    For some reason I don’t have as vivid a memory of that sign as some of the others. But it looks right.

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