Unsolved mysteries meet American Pickers: The story of Yucca Fountain

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Yucca Fountain is a 1950’s gallery restoration of a diner located in UNC's Campus Commons. Photo courtesy of Sophie Deutschman.

Helen Popinchalk was exploring the dusty dunes of Nevada when she discovered Yucca Fountain. About three years ago on a road trip with her husband, she pulled off the side of the road to a souvenir shop. While in the shop she gravitated towards a charming hand-painted sign that read, “Yucca Fountain: Hot snacks, cold licks.” As an avid antique collector, Helen had to have that sign, but she also wanted to know what it meant.

“Where’s Yucca Fountain?” she asked the shop-keeper. “I’d love to grab a cold drink, it’s super hot down here.”

He stared at her for a bit and then laughed and said “If you want to know the real story of Yucca Fountain you should talk to Burt.”

Yucca Fountain is a 1950’s gallery restoration of a diner located in the Campus Commons at the University of Northern Colorado. Boston based artists, Andrew Bablo and Helen Popinchalk, recreated the diner through research and scanned evidence.

They also recreated the diner to pay homage to Burt. The shopkeeper on Popinchalk’s road trip had given her a helpful source to understand Yucca Fountain.

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Burt Tuttle was a loyal patron of the diner. He believed in conspiracy theories about the diner and its demise, involving ideas about atomic bombs and nuclear warfare. He wrote about his musings in journals that Popinchalk and Bablo recreated in their gallery.

“One thing that the artists did learn from reading through Burt’s journals is that Yucca Fountain was fairly close to several nuclear test sites where the United States was testing the fallout and implications of launching nuclear bombs and explosives,” said Pamela Meadows, director of galleries at UNC.  “So there’s a lot written in Burt’s journal that sort of talks about getting a cold drink and watching the explosions of mushroom plumes from a distance.”

The exhibit replicates Tuttle’s trailer and includes some of his thoughts and theories about the disappearance of the diner.

The exact location of the diner is still unknown. It’s said to have been near the Amargosa Valley in Nevada, near atomic bomb sites. 

Because the diner itself was destroyed and no one knows exactly what happened, conspiracy theories like the ones in Tuttle’s journals surround the site.

 “The artists don’t like to talk a ton about the conspiracy theories outright, for them that’s the role of the viewer, to enter the space and really explore the site,” Meadows said.

The exhibit is different from a traditional gallery space. It isn’t just a walk-through where people can appreciate the art from afar. The artists recreated a diner and made it interactive and open to the audience. 

The exhibit has a gift shop, booths, a kitchen, neon signs and a bunch of interactive pieces in a recreation of Tuttle’s trailer. The artists recreated the space to pay their respects to Tuttle, but also to let guests interpret the exhibit on their own. 

The Yucca Fountain exhibit has a gift shop, booths, a kitchen, and several neon signs, including this soda sign. Photo courtesy of Sophie Deutschman.

It may also be very personal to people who grew up in the atomic era, but it’s also a unique experience that draws in all generations.

“The artists will say that this show is very much like unsolved mysteries meets American pickers because there’s just enough evidence and objects that they could bring the site back to life so to speak or restore it,” Meadows said. “But also enough about it isn’t fully known, which allowed them to insert their creative license in recreating the space.”

Yucca Fountain remains open at the University of Northern Colorado until March 14, 2020. The exhibit runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m every Monday through Friday. It’s also open on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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