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History Lovers Want To Keep Bright Lights Of Colfax Burning

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DENVER (CBS4) – Colfax Avenue, Colorado’s longest main street, stretches 26 miles from Golden to Aurora. It’s a street lined with businesses, and many in Denver sport neon signs from a by-gone era.

Pete Contos and his wife Liz set up shop on Colfax in 1942, opening the doors to Pete’s Kitchen at Colfax and High Street.

“Colfax has been good to us,” Pete Contos said. “We have four restaurants in 10 blocks.”

And on the front of those buildings, the neon lights that help give Colfax its iconic flare.

“They’re history,” Liz Contos said. “I think that’s what most people look at.”

Contos’ signs are not alone, neon lines blocks and blocks of Colfax as well as countless other streets in the United States.

“The first users of neon in the 1920s or so is the Packard automobile company,” explained Randle Swan with the Colfax Business Improvement District. “That suddenly links neon to the automotive industry.”

But other businesses quickly saw the advantage of the eye-catching signs. Hotels and restaurants used neon to draw attention.

Now the signs spell romance to many.

“When the lights are coming down and you see a sunset, you’re standing east of that signpost, the elements that brings it into the people wandering down there is that this, that says 1940s, 1950s to them,” Swan said.

(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Jonny Barber is one of those entranced with neon lights and Colfax Avenue. He runs the website ColfaxAvenue.com, which is dedicated to preserving the culture of Colfax, including all that neon.

“They’re artifacts of our cultural heritage,” he said. “They capture a time, they have a uniqueness to them and an artistry you don’t see in a lot of modern advertising.”

His site is a meeting place for neon preservationists concerned the signs were being lost.

“People don’t keep the upkeep on them,” said Seth Totten with Acme Neon Signs. “They get so far to the point that it’s too expensive to repair them.”

Totten has a life-long love of neon. “Nothing beats the warm glow of neon” might just be his motto. He believes the cyclical nature of businesses is an obstacle to neon.

“Businesses these days don’t even stay open that long,” he said. “A sign these days might have a lifespan of 10 years.”

It’s that kind of turnover, combined with expense, that has many neon lights flickering out and not being replaced.

“If a developer comes in and says, ‘Raze it’ and there’s no one there to voice any kind of opposition or any concern for it, then it will probably … go the way of all earth,” said Barber.

But Totten is a bit more optimistic. He has found support from city planners who believe neon could capitalize on the power of nostalgia.

“Neon, in and of itself, is a wonderful feature,” Swan said. “Wonderful because it has an illuminating quality that goes beyond just adding photons of light.

“Most businesses along Colfax don’t want to cast their history aside. They want to know it’s there but they want to have a safe Colfax and a place that people feel good about.”

For Contos, it is that sense of history that is the cornerstone of all his business.

“It fits with Colfax,” he said. “There’s not very many left but we’d like to keep ours. Hang on to what we have.”

Additional Resources

To learn more about the signs on Colfax and other entries on this year’s Most Endangered Places list visit ColoradoPreservation.org.

Watch CBS4’s complete 2014 Colorado’s Most Endangered Places special.

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