Five years after closing its Downtown L.A. location, the Museum of Neon Art (MONA) has reopened in a new space between the Americana at Brand and a public library branch in Downtown Glendale. The country’s only museum dedicated to neon, MONA will feature works by contemporary artists in rotating exhibitions as well as a permanent collection of the kinds of signifier-icons that distinguish Los Angeles’s vernacular architecture. Included, for instance, is the famous Brown Derby sign that was once a Hollywood beacon.
An 8,400 square foot renovation is joined by a new public space and, fittingly, neon-adorned signage that draws from the museum’s collection. Sited on one of
Glendale’s broad and highly trafficked boulevards, South Brand, MONA’s new facade embeds the museum in its cultural-commercial context, which includes landmarks such as the Alex Theatre’s famous marquee and more quotidian neighbors like BevMo.
A partnership between the Glendale Redevelopment Agency, the Department of City Planning, and Shimoda Design Group (SDG) generated the programmatic focus on public space and public programs. Using the powerful draw of the Americana complex, the designers and museum board hope to pull visitors from the mixed-use mall to the west, and, using the covered passage that bisects MONA and the generous open space around it, knit the Americana, the Glendale Central Library and Park, and the Museum together into one symbiotic, activated Downtown whole.
Shimoda’s adaptation of two existing buildings—a Rite Aid and a video arcade—reflects a thoughtful opportunism. The project was treated as “a surgical incision.” Since the structure and shell are largely preserved, the exuberance of the museum’s collection is allowed to play off of the patina of the buildings’ history. “It was important to use an existing building because the signs really thrive in a space that looks older,” Joey Shimoda, Principal of SDG, explained. Exposed ductwork and a restrained palette—brick, honed concrete, and white and black paint—further draw the art into focus. The project’s major architectural moves create or interact with public space: a double height lobby and broad, glazed entry face the street. Along with the neon inside, this creates “a lantern for the community.” The public paseo, created through strategic demolition, bisects the site and draws visitors across a landscaped deck to the park and library behind.
The museum, originally founded in 1981 by Lili Lakich and Richard Jenkins, has been guided by a celebration of Southern California’s built heritage—including the signs that have adorned its drugstore, diner, and gas station facades—and a respect for the craft of “neon bending.” Workshops will be held in MONA’s street-fronting
neon bending studio and visitors will be encouraged to experience Los Angeles’ neon in its proper context: nightly bus tours will highlight the newly renovated Clifton’s Cafeteria and other historic Downtown L.A. landmarks.