Nick Vedros and the Lumi Neon Museum’s quest to preserve Kansas City’s vintage signs

Nick Vedros was 16 years old when he bought his first camera: a 1969 Nikon F, from Crick Camera. Nearly 50 years later, Vedros — a professional photographer whose client list includes Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Capital One, among others — recently found himself at Crick once again, though under very different circumstances. It was late 2017, and the store was going out of business — a victim of photography’s transition to digital. A friend told Vedros that the store’s classic mint-green neon sign was about to be sold for $100. 

“I thought, Oh, god,” Vedros recalls, still baffled at the lowball offer. 

Vedros quickly contacted Crick co-owner Dana Crick and shortly thereafter became the proud owner of the ten-foot vintage neon sign.  

Collecting is not new to Vedros. His home, which looks like something out of an architectural magazine, features collections of rare vintage photography, cameras, and art deco era microphones. But the Crick sign, as well as the sudden knowledge that others like it are rapidly disappearing from Kansas City’s urban landscape, sparked a new drive in Vedros. 

“I started thinking we could take an outdoor space — maybe an alley in the Crossroads District — and completely neon it out,” he says. “People could walk through the alley or drive through the alley, and it’d be a strong part of First Fridays.” 

Vedros was quickly talked out of that idea. Friends like neon expert Curtis Shaddox explained that the signs were likely to be stolen, and if they escaped that fate, they risked damage from the elements and would require restoration every ten years. Also, neon signs tend to be a lot larger than they seem when illuminated in the night sky — too big to be appreciated in a small public space like an alley. 

But the alley idea ultimately was the seed for a bigger dream. Over the past several months, Vedros has assembled a group of friends and entrepreneurs into a board of directors for a vintage neon museum in Kansas City. In addition to the Crick sign, Vedros has purchased or otherwise acquired 16 more vintage Kansas City signs, with plans in the works to pick up many more. 

Vedros’s vision is for the Lumi Neon Museum, as he’s calling it, to be housed in a downtown or Crossroads space with a big enough footprint — and tall enough ceilings — that visitors will be able to view the museum’s collection from the distance required to fully appreciate them. He thinks ceilings 40 feet or higher will be necessary. The Fun House Pizza sign from Independence that Vedros and Shaddox recently acquired is 30 feet tall. The 1961 Firestone sign that used to adorn the shop at 75th Street and Wornall Road is nearly as large: each letter is about three feet tall and two feet across, meaning the sign alone requires 75 square feet of space for proper display. 

The collection has come together in a piecemeal way, owing largely to Vedros’s mix of charm, persistence, and passion for the project. He’s made contact with sign owners by walking into their businesses, making a phone call, or, in the event the business has closed, hand-writing a letter to whatever address the owner has listed with the state. 

Vedros plans to continue hunting for signs while working to get an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation. Nonprofit status, Vedros explains, is critical for the museum. Once it’s in place, sign owners can donate their property to the Lumi in exchange for a tax credit. The Bob Smith Motor Company sign at 63rd and Wornall, for example, was recently put up for sale at a price of $9,500. Smith could donate the sign for its full appraised value of $12,000 and write that amount off of his taxes as a donation. Smith gets the money, his sign is preserved, and the Lumi gets the sign. In Vedros’s eyes, at least, everybody wins. 

Vedros requested that the Pitch not publish a detailed list of all of the Lumi’s acquisitions, though he acknowledged a few of the icons in his collection so far, including the Stephenson’s Restaurant sign (Independence) and the Crest drugstore sign (Belton). Vedros likewise didn’t want to reveal anything about storage while the museum is being planned. Individual signs can fetch prices anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000 (sometimes more) apiece and are thus frequent targets for theft — despite the fact that substantial equipment like cranes are often required to move them. Vedros also wanted to leave off the record the name of a potential partner museum, one whose own collection would nicely complement a collection of neon signs. He says that the for-now-unnamed partner has reached out to the city with the belief land might be donated for the project.  

Vedros’s dream acquisition? That would be the Katz Drugstore sign — a big, black cat with “Katz” in cursive lettering. One of these once hung like a beacon near Westport Road and Main Street, in Midtown. Vedros isn’t aware of anyone who owns one besides Katz descendant Ward Katz. If Vedros can’t find one, he says that he would like to have a replica built (and Katz, he says, is enthusiastic about the idea). 

Vedros hopes to have the Lumi open with two years, though he does add a caveat:

“Keep in mind: I’m a hopeless optimist.”

Vedros has started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for the museum project. Funds raised would offset the cost of transporting signs (renting cranes), repair and restoration, as well as costs associated with setting up the museum. The campaign can be found here

Below, some of our nominees for KC-area signs worth saving.