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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s iconic neon signs glow again in Bovey Boneyard: ‘These are fun places attached to our memory’

Nostalgic neon from Spokane’s past glows by dusk each night in the yard of Chris and Liz Bovey’s West Plains home.

The original signs once adorned favorite haunts – most gone now – like White Elephant, Azars, Dempsey’s Brass Rail and Luigi’s. The Italian Kitchen still serves dinners, but its neon chef now resides with the Boveys. He can flip his pan again.

With Vintage Print & Neon in the Garland District, Chris Bovey is known for his art of local iconic sites. It seems a natural fit to have 16 historic signs near his home – mostly with neon.

“Most of these signs are pretty nostalgic,” Chris Bovey said. “These are fun places attached to our memory.”

But what’s nicknamed Bovey Boneyard didn’t start out intentionally.

The lights first came on three years ago, when he was offered a sign from Wolffy’s, originally at the Monroe and Francis site of the 1950s-style hamburger joint.

“Someone reached out to me because of Vintage Print and said, ‘I have this Wolffy’s sign, would you be interested?’ So me and a buddy drove out to Mead,” Chris Bovey said.

“I still didn’t know what I was going to do with it, so I hired somebody to concrete it into the ground, then get the neon restored, and it went from there.”

The couple now hopes to share neon nostalgia at least once a year with one-night events. The first one is at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23, with tickets at $10 a carload. An earlier date was cancelled because of wildfires, and they’ll collect donations for Gray fire victims at the rescheduled events.

That fire that swept through Medical Lake drew alarmingly close to their property.

“We’ve never had a fire that close to our house, and it was terrifying,” Chris Bovey said. “Both Liz and I were at the shop, then got a call from my mother-in-law to get home right now. From our vantage point, it was just a few miles away, so we were just holding our breath the entire time, hoping the wind didn’t change, but nothing happened. Thankfully, we didn’t have to evacuate.

“So many of our friends in Medical Lake, in the city, actually lost their houses, so we were just heartbroken for them, and we’re hoping to raise some money to help them.”

On that inaugural Saturday, Chris Bovey plans to host a tour of the signs at 8:30 p.m. The night also will have a country band, snacks and a Vintage Print setup that offers newly designed boneyard shirts.

Whenever he posts online about the signs, people share about bygone times.

“These signs might have otherwise ended up in a scrap heap,” Chris Bovey said. He’s paid for most of them, typically between $600 and $1,500. “I thought they were cool, to have a piece of Spokane history on my property.”

Across the U.S., neon signs were widely popular heading into the 1950s. By the 1970s, they fell out of favor – in part because they became associated with “tackier things,” like adult bookstores, theaters and tattoo parlors, Chris Bovey said. Cheaper, box-shaped, lighted signs took over.

But the glamorous side of neon kept its appeal, and it’s coming back, he said. A “National Geographic” article quoted Chris Bovey in September 2022 about neon’s revival and ties to Americana. He stands by that.

“Neon stirs these nostalgic memories in us,” he said. “You look at Route 66 and the classic neon that’s still there. It harkens back to a simpler time in our history and just reminds you of burgers, fries, drive-ins, roller-skating rinks.”

The Boveys also admire the artistry behind neon. They hope eventually to open a shop for making neon together.

Bending glass into shapes for the neon involves an open flame, rolling the glass back and forth. It turns into a spaghetti-like consistency to bend, Chris Bovey said. Getting it into a shape must happen fast, before it hardens.

Contained in glass tubes, there are two types of gases for signs – argon and neon, Chris Bovey said. Heat removes any impurities and then, with functional neon, “you hook it up to a transformer and it comes alive. The gas gets excited by the electricity and lights up.”

Near the chef sign, Chris Bovey leaned into a buzz and hum, then a flasher unit’s click-click-click.

“There is something almost tactile about it,” he said

With some tools, Chris Bovey has taught himself enough to wire and tinker in fixing some of their signs, or in creating new magic. For the lights of Luigi’s, once atop the longtime downtown Italian restaurant, he recently figured out the use of a speller unit. Now, one letter after another flashes on sequentially to spell out the name.

Other displays include Cyrus O’Leary’s, Rocky Rococo, Geno’s Pub, the Blackbird and Bud’s Big Burgers Drive In from St. Maries, Idaho. Chris Bovey bought a shipping container to hang some. The Steam Plant eatery still operates, but Bovey said he was offered a neon logo from there.

After getting the Wolffy’s sign, Chris Bovey heard about a motel relic from workers at Ramsay Signs, a company that in 2021 helped restore the vintage neon sign for the Ming Wah Restaurant. For the eatery’s owners, Chris Bovey arranged a GoFundMe that raised $15,000 toward restoration costs.

Soon after, he was asked about another display stored in Ramsay’s yard: Holiday Motel, formerly in Coeur d’Alene.

With an unusual teal neon, two lanterns aglow and flashing, “No Vacancy,” the sign now sits near the end of their driveway. It’s confused delivery drivers.

While the hotel sign is Liz Bovey’s favorite for its color, Chris Bovey picks one he enjoyed from childhood, the chef. The display often didn’t work in the past.

“I always admired it,” he said. “This is one sign that I hounded the owners for, for a couple of years. They finally got sick of repairing all the neon, and it never worked, so they gave in and sold that to me.”

After tinkering, the artist got the flip back, an illusion created by three pans lighting in succession upward.

“I had to basically gut him and figure out how he could flip his pan again. I got it to flip for the first time in years. I taught myself the wiring with a flasher unit.”

Other restoration projects involved research. From the White Elephant on Division Street, he got only a bare metal can once part of a neon sign for the store, which closed in July 2020 after 74 years.

“It went bad and hadn’t worked for a while,” Chris Bovey said. “I had to do some detective work, looking at old photographs and paint chips to find out what it looked like.”

In a black-and-white photo, Chris Bovey spotted a small neon white elephant that once sat atop, but it was long gone. He worked about two years ago with a neon craftsman to recreate that elephant.

“He’s about 20 inches tall,” he said. “I saw these two holes right there, kind of reverse-engineered this and figured that must have been the way it was done. We had to redo all the neon.”

From the store’s family operators, he also bought a White Elephant billboard now in their yard and a parking sign, housed at the Garland shop.

The same craftsman, who’s since moved away, helped Chris Bovey create neon to adorn an old Expo parking sign and some small neon art of the Garbage Goat sculpture in Riverfront Park. A few pieces of neon have sold in his shop.

He isn’t looking to add to the Bovey Boneyard, but rather to help keep alive any at-risk regional neon. Chris Bovey tried to find the sign for the Shack, a longtime Third Avenue restaurant, but learned it got scattered in pieces.

“For a lot of people, it held a lot of memories, and it had a really cool sign.”

Bovey can list area neon still going strong, including for Brown Derby Tavern, Dick’s Hamburgers, Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle, Garland Theater and of course, Ming Wah. Then there’s the Sunset Hill, with classic motel signs no longer aglow, such as a West Wynn Motel vintage piece.

“I’d like to restore them and let the public enjoy them,” he said. “It doesn’t have to come back to my property. I just want them to be preserved.”