Cincinnati's American Sign Museum Restores and Showcases Rare, Historic Holiday Inn Sign

The sign, which includes 836 feet of neon, was restored to its original glory and is on display at the Camp Washington museum.

May 17, 2023 at 4:57 pm
click to enlarge The complete Holiday Inn Great Sign. - Photo: Provided by the American Sign Museum
Photo: Provided by the American Sign Museum
The complete Holiday Inn Great Sign.
Back when neon signs weren’t reserved for the Las Vegas strip, they littered highways, byways and towns across the U.S. Bright, blinking lights lured travelers to nearby attractions like diners, hotels or casinos. And one iconic sign stood out among the lot.

In the ’50s, The Holiday Inn Great Sign was an icon of the American road trip. A giant, neon arrow framed green, cursive words reading Holiday Inn. A small marquee was outlined in more neon color while a monumental star topped it off with chasing lightbulb illumination. In 1982, the company rebranded and opted for cheaper, plastic signs with more manageable upkeep; most of the neon landmarks were destroyed.

But one, if not the last in existence, is here in Cincinnati.

The American Sign Museum acquired the historic sign in 2002 from the Young Electric Sign Company of Las Vegas. But the Great Sign had seen better days. It only had two of three sections, the base and body were intact but the grand star had been missing for years, according to a press release by the American Sign Museum.

Museum owner, Tod Swormstedt, dreamed of restoring the sign to its former glory, but it was a delicate, involved and expensive project to undertake. In 2019, Mike Conway — the executive vice president of business development & acquisitions at Pyramid Global Hospitality and former Holiday Inn franchisee — launched a GoFundMe campaign to commission sign restoration.

“I wanted to see the Holiday Inn Great Sign restored to honor its heritage and to save an American Icon,” Conway said in the press release. “I also wanted to highlight one of the most striking utilizations of neon and incandescent lighting which welcomed millions of travelers throughout its history.”

According to the fundraising page, $6,880 was raised out of a $10,000 goal. More than 30 individuals across the country donated.

The American Sign Museum preserves and exhibits the history of American signage. A visit to the museum in Camp Washington covers more than 100 years of history and boasts over 700 artifacts; its collection now includes the fully restored, original Holiday Inn Great Sign.

“The Museum’s Great Sign is likely the only remaining authentic, full-sized exterior sign. Replicas of this classic sign can be found at the Henry Ford Museum and the Pink Palace in Memphis, but no others are known to exist,” according to the press release.

The rare, retro Great Sign required 836 feet of neon, 31 transformers, 450 light bulbs and weighs about 14,000 pounds, according to the release. Plans for the star redevelopment were based on designs by the original manufacturer of the Great Sign, Cummings & Co., the release says.

The star’s frame and metal base were created by Allen Industries of Toledo, Ohio. The wiring and neon tubing were done by Neonworks of Cincinnati and the completed section was installed by Atlantic Sign Company.

Swormstedt founded the museum in 1999 under the name National Signs of the Times Museum. In 2005 it was renamed as the American Sign Museum and soon after acquired a property large enough (about 20,000 square feet) to display signs like the Great Sign and the McDonald’s sign at their full heights.

The American Sign Museum’s collection is continually growing and represents pre-electric signs, the earliest signs to use electric, art-deco neon versions, modern and plastic-faced signs and more from the 1800s to the ’70s. It spans sign history and requires at least an hour of exploration, according to its website. In-depth, guided tours are offered every Saturday and Sunday.

The American Sign Museum is located at 1330 Monmouth Ave., Camp Washington. More info:

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