Blue Angel uproar signals a clash between preservation and development

Bad paint job?: The recently altered Blue Angel signage.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

File photo of the Blue Angel prior to the new paint job advertising the nightclub.

During the middle of the 20th century, East Fremont Street amassed an astounding collection of Mid-Century modern and themed signage and architecture for fantastic little motels, each lighting up at night on the main thoroughfare, a quaint response to the developing resorts on the Strip.

The motels gave the area its distinctive character, but as the years went by and the buildings deteriorated (in lockstep with the neighborhood), sign poachers came calling, seeking vintage neon for their personal collections, while new owners of the buildings simply removed the signs or painted over them in less fanciful font.

But when it happened at the Blue Angel recently, there was a small uproar—the sculptural letters spelling “Blue Angel” on the arches were replaced with the words “night club,” and the blue-and-white Googie-style sign spelling the word “motel” was replaced in black and yellow paint with the neighboring nightclub’s address.

Blue Angel Motel

The community outrage prompted the Historic Preservation Commission to address the issue of the Blue Angel at its August meeting and broaden the conversation to all of Fremont East.

“Fremont Street is really a historic scenic byway that needs to be preserved,” says commission member Bob Stoldal. “This is a pressing matter. This is one of the more active streets in regard to change.”

But historic preservation and private property rights are not the best bedfellows, and it’s not as if the city can step in and assert preservation. Even if a building or landmark is designated as historic, the city has no authority, often to the chagrin of the community, which takes the perspective of “our neighborhood, our history and our personal stories.”

The commissioners tossed around different ideas that include collecting data for the area through a new survey of East Fremont (the last historic survey that included the Blue Angel was in 2002) and creating awareness among building owners, as well as financial incentives.

“What we’d like to do is be able to make a case where we can educate,” says commission member Jack LeVine, mentioning cities like Wildwood, New Jersey, Cocoa Beach, Florida, and Palm Springs, California, as ideal models for preservation. “I hope to see greater sensitivity by the owners of the property toward architecture and signage.”

But Arnold Stalk, planning and development consultant for the owners of the fenced-in Blue Angel at 2100 Fremont St., says the Blue Angel, built in 1956 and eligible for historic preservation designation, still has a long haul ahead. “The area is too green right now to market and develop the property,” he says. “The site has not attracted investors. We have to come up with thousands of dollars to tear the building down, but the plan is to restore the signs.”

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