Ready for another great artist’s house tour? Today we’ll meet Philadelphian Len Davidson, owner of Davidson Neon, and his wife Judy.
Len is a neon artist and restorer, writer, collector, 20th-century cultural observer, and co-founder of the Philadelphia Dumpster Divers, that merry band of artists who have played, exhibited and produced witty, found-object art together since 1992.
(Always up for fun: Judy and Len Davidson)
Judy Davidson, his partner in adventure for 50 years, is a retired counselor familiar to 35 years of students at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Their Victorian row house in Philadelphia’s Spring Garden/Fairmount section is a happy mix of 20th century cultural touchstones – like vintage neon signs and local soda collectibles – and works by the self-taught, visionary artists they’ve visited on their travels.
(The sunlit view from the second floor balcony. A previous owner removed part of the second floor, creating the perfect space for parties and art.
WHEN JUDY MET LENNY
Their story sounds like the plot of a mid-century musical: They met as teenagers working at Camp Shangri-La in the Catskills, and conducted a long-distance, Philadelphia-to-Queens romance before marrying in 1969.
After graduate school in Boston, they moved to Florida, where Len and a friend got distracted from university teaching by such pursuits as their national “Papier Mache Giants of America Discovery Contest”, a pre-Internet search for oversized roadside figures like dinosaurs and muffler men.
Before long, they were designing The Gamery, a short-lived tavern with an “American Dream” theme. They packed it with board games, Lionel trains, antique pinball displays, superhero figures, Hollywood nostalgia, and neon – lots and lots of vintage neon that Len collected.
(And, yes, Len is still collecting vintage Americana, now with a Philadelphia twist,
whether it be the painted-label soda bottles and beverage signs above,
or local beer bottles, beer trays, and neon signs.)
Realizing that full-time academia was not for him, the couple filled a moving van and their 1959 Chevy convertible with their son, cat, belongings, and Len’s burgeoning neon collection, and moved to Philadelphia in 1979.
Len taught and did management consulting part-time, but spent his spare hours learning the neon trade from Philadelphia’s old-time masters.
(Len takes found-object art to a new level with “Roots and Culture”, his neon social commentary pitting babies, bowlers, laborers and cave men. Photo by Len Davidson)
By 1983, the neon won: He retired his briefcase and opened Davidson Neon full-time.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY
Len’s original neon designs have illuminated everything from the Trolley Car Diner, to Zipperhead’s iconic punk storefront, to the Packard Building lobby, with its 16-foot neon Packard sedans.
(Back in the saddle again: Len recently researched and designed the restoration of Philadelphia’s iconic Boot & Saddle sign at 1131 S. Broad Street.)
Ever the serious collector, he is seeking a permanent home for the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, his fabulous 130-piece vintage sign collection.
(This familiar 1950s image of Buster Brown and Tige once hung outside Philadelphia’s City Shoes at South and 4th. When a new owner removed it in 1984, Len rescued and restored it.)
DR. DAVIDSON IS IN….
And, yes, Len actually did put his PhD sociology training to good use, interviewing neon sign makers, shop owners and preservationists for his richly illustrated book, Vintage Neon.
(Len’s Schiffer Publishing book, Vintage Neon, is available from Amazon.)
He has also written widely about the many self-taught, visionary artists that he and Judy seek out on their travels.
(Among the self-taught artists that Len has written about are Jamaican Leonard Daley, left, and Philadelphian Ida May Sydnor, right. Daley’s two-sided painting features this portrait of Len. Sydnor spent much of her life in homes and institutions before finding her artistic voice.)
Ever the Philadelphia cultural connoisseur, Len also organizes friends to revive the games of his youth: stickball, halfies, chink, wall-ball, dead box, box-ball and more.
And, yes, it definitely helps that Judy has a sense of humor, as well as a sense of adventure.
THE TOUR STARTS HERE
So click here to start our website tour of Judy and Len’s home.
Once you arrive there, you can click on any thumbnail image to see a much larger photo. (You can scroll through the large photos using the arrows at the bottom of the screen.) Each large photo also comes with a scrollable caption that shows only on non-mobile devices like laptops or desktop computers.
(Len gets behind one his childhood icons:
Manny from Philadelphia’s Pep Boys Auto Supplies.)
Feel free to drop us a line anytime — Enjoy!
Kate & Dave