Monday, September 8, 2014

Harold's Neon No More

Helvetica, that most generic of boring fonts, has struck again, and its latest neon casualty is a loss dearly felt.  Last Monday, following up on an ugly rumor, I went out to see what had become of the "Harold's for Prescriptions" sign on Avenue U in Gravesend, Brooklyn.  As the following before-and-after photos will attest, the truth is not pretty.  

Harold's before-and-after.  2272 McDonald Ave., Brooklyn.  (T. Rinaldi)

In an odd twist, this very sign had been the subject of a dedicated homage on this blog just weeks ago.  The sign's fate was sealed even before that post went live.  Rising maintenance costs spelled its end, the drug store's management told me over the phone.  The sign needed a dozen or more transformers replaced, which meant a few thousand dollars worth of repairs. The owners decided to put that money toward a new sign instead.

(T. Rinaldi)

Whereas the old sign featured three especially appealing letterforms on its wraparound sign faces, the new sign uses just one - Helvetica, the "un-font," a typeface whose oppressive ubiquitousness made it the subject of its own documentary in 2007.  In the neon book, I discuss how Helvetica epitomized a kind of anti-neon aesthetic beginning in the 1960s and 70s, its rational, standardized appeal deployed en-masse as an answer to the fussy, one-off fonts typically used for neon signs of the 1950s and before.  

(T. Rinaldi)

Eventually Helvetica became so overused (big corporate logos etc)  that old signs, especially neon, grew to become widely admired largely for the unique quality of those pre-Helvetica fonts.    As previously discussed on this blog, a new generation of designers today has rejected the tyranny of Helvetica, using almost any other font or letterform in its place.  Once the darling of highbrow designers, Helvetica now has trickled down to the lowest depths of generic slop.

(T. Rinaldi)

It's especially sad in this case, because Harold's old sign exhibited some of the best pre-Helvetica letterforms of any old neon sign in New York.  In its day, the sign probably cost the equivalent of a new Cadillac to install.  Its appearance dated to the mid-to-late 1950s, when Harold Friedman had an earlier sign reconfigured after taking over the corner drugstore at this location.   

The good news is that the business itself is still there, and Harold's name still comes aglow each night on Avenue U, even if it is now rendered in LEDs instead of neon.  And beneath those LEDs, the store's management confirms that the original neon lays entombed beneath the new sign.  But this is cold comfort for admirers of that old sign.  On my way back from Gravesend, I broke the news to Mr. Friedman's daughter, whose e-mail to me had prompted the somewhat ill-timed story I posted in July.  "Not ill timed at all," she replied:  "a prophetic foreshadowing and goodbye."  

(T. Rinaldi)

• Via Paul Shaw, check out the Letterform Archive, a project to collect and document unique and historic fonts and letterforms as "inspirational analog artifacts."

• Good news, for now: a stay of execution for the Subway Inn.
 Save room on your bookshelf for a new volume on San Francisco neon. 
• From the west side, Debra Jane reports from San Jose and San Francisco.
• As forecast here, Warby Parker has re-lettered the old Lascoff's Drugs sign on the Upper East Side.  More to come.
• Via Jeremiah, a bad prognosis for Arthur's Tavern in Greenwich Village, whose neon has been in place since 1937.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Subway Struggle

As previously reported, the Subway Inn (at 60th and Lex in Manhattan) is set to close later this month.  The entire corner is to be cleared to make way for redevelopment, reportedly a luxury residential tower.  But the bar isn't going without a fight:  Its owners have launched a petition and are taking donations for legal expenses in a last ditch attempt to survive.  Follow this link to learn more about how you can support the Subway Inn.

The Subway Inn, 143 E60th Street, Manhattan.  (T. Rinaldi) 

Background: the Subway Inn is a blue-collar watering hole that has been around for nearly 80 years.  The pair of neon signs over its storefront dates to the 1940s-50s.  Uniquely appealing among the few such signs that survive in New York today, they mark this as an establishment where little has changed over the years. 

(T. Rinaldi) 

In the face of the aforementioned megadevelopment slated for this corner, the future appears very bleak indeed for the bar and its signs.  The management could attempt to relocate, but taking the signs with them is a costly proposition.   Perhaps a better alternative would be for the bar's landlord to reserve a spot for it in whatever new building takes shape here (at an affordable rent), though this would require the business to close or relocate for a prolonged period before moving back in, something that has been tried and failed before (read Mars Bar).  

143 E60th Street, Manhattan.  February, 2006. (T. Rinaldi) 

On a personal note, the Subway Inn was a point of entry and a favorite hangout when I first moved to New York a decade ago.  Even then, it stood out as a relic of a time when Manhattan was more accessible to what we now call the 99-percent, when a middle income family could plausibly live within walking distance of 60th and Lex - something essentially unthinkable now.  I loved rounding the corner from Park or Madison onto 60th Street, high rent district all around, and seeing that neon BAR sign still aglow down the street. 

(T. Rinaldi)

Neon storefronts like this were once a dime a dozen in New York.  We celebrate the few that survive today because change has rendered them unique.  We bemoan their loss not just because they're old, but because their disappearance signals New York's transition into a city whose center is growing ever farther beyond the economic reach of the working class.

 Support the Subway Inn by purchasing prints over at Project Neon.

 There are still a few slots open for my Neon Walking Tour of the East Village this Friday!  The tour starts at 7pm this Friday, Aug. 15.  Reservations required; you can book here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Harold's for Prescriptions

The best part about maintaining this blog is when e-mails come in from people with real connections to the signs I've sought out and photographed for the neon book.  The latest of these comes from Amy Radin, whose father, Harold Friedman, is known to admirers of New York's old neon signs for the "Harold's for PRESCRIPTIONS" sign, on McDonald Avenue in Gravesend, Brooklyn.   

Harold's for Prescriptions, 2272 McDonald Ave., Brooklyn.  (T. Rinaldi)

As is often the case, there is a story behind the neon here, one that the sign does not speak to.  "He was the first Jewish merchant in a solidly blue collar Italian part of Brooklyn," Ms. Radin recalls of her father:  "Apparently it was not easy at first."

(T. Rinaldi)

"My dad, Harold Friedman, was born September 9, 1929 and grew up on the edge of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. His parents owned Chiffon Bakery, a kosher bakery on Coney Island Avenue near Avenue J which was around at least into the 1990s.  Oriented by his parents towards a career in retail, he went to St. Johns College of Pharmacy (I think he really wanted to be a doctor)," writes Ms. Radin.  "In 1955, around the time that my parents had their first child, he struck a deal to buy Barrata's Pharmacy," an Italian-owned corner drug store in the shadow of the Culver Viaduct at Avenue U and McDonald in Gravesend.  

(T. Rinaldi)

"There was a 'buy Italian' message circulating around the neighborhood," writes Ms. Radin.  Wary of making waves, Harold Friedman waited a few years before re-naming the business and updating the sign.  "Harold eventually overcame whatever these attitudes were and became a real neighborhood fixture.  When he got comfortable that he was sufficiently established (probably around 1957) he updated the sign to its current wording.  He kept the original style - the script lettering - of the Barrata's Pharmacy sign, according to my mom."  

(T. Rinaldi)

"I can remember hearing customers call him 'Signor Farmacista' and seeking his advice on health issues - so he definitely got to a point of acceptance and friendship with members of the community as time passed."  

(T. Rinaldi)

Ms. Radin's story is corroborated by records at the Buildings Department, which indicate a 1945-installation date for the sign, though its appearance seems more in keeping with signs of the following decade.  The sign wears the makers mark of Super Neon Lights of Bensonhurst, an Italian-American-owned shop that has been in the same family since the 1940s and is still one of the most active sign companies in this part of Brooklyn.  

(T. Rinaldi)

Sadly, Harold Friedman's tenure in Gravesend was cut short by illness in 1980, just over 20 years after his name went up in lights over Avenue U.  "He died at 51 of heart disease and I still recall the large community turnout at his funeral," recalls his daughter.  More than thirty years later, Harold's name still brightens the shadows under the old Culver viaduct, a favorite among enthusiasts of New York's old signs and storefronts.  "My dad was extremely proud of the appearance of his store," writes Ms. Radin: "no doubt he would have been smiling his characteristic big smile at the artistic impression the sign now creates."

(T. Rinaldi)


 Harold's at Ephemeral NY, Project Neon and the Lost City blog
 Harold's and other sights on Forgotten New York's grand tour of Gravesend.

• Upstate, Newburgh's historic Ritz Theatre is getting a new marquee.
• Some North Carolina Neon at Shorpy.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Talkin' East Village Neon (and Other Neon News)

If you missed my last neon walking tour, I'm happy to report that I'll be leading another one on Friday evening, August 15th.  This tour will be led under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.  Tickets are $20 ($15 for MAS members).  Click here to save a spot.  

Katz's, Gringer's, and Russ & Daughters will be stops on my August 15th Neon Walking Tour.

We'll wind our way through the East Village, home to a dense concentration of great old signs including Block Drugs, Veniero Pasticceria, DeRobertis Pastry Shop, Russ & Daughters, Gringer Appliances, the Orpheum Theatre (one of the oldest neon signs anywhere), and of course Katz's Delicatessen.  I will rattle off some observations on the origins and significance of the signs as we pause to admire them.  Attendees will wow their friends for the rest of the summer with a newfound breadth of cocktail party trivia.


 "Neon Signs Are Dying, But Our Appreciation Isn't" - a story by Christina Zdanowicz at CNN Online, featuring quotes from yours truly. 


First, the Bad News: 

 Jack's 99-cent World has finally ditched the old Willoughby's Camera sign on West 32nd Street.  For about 20 years after Willoughby's moved out, this was one of my favorite relics in Midtown.  A massive new LED sign has taken its place.

 Via Paul Signs' Instagram feed: in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, another great neon relic has bit the dust - no more Liquor Store neon at DeKalb and Adelphi.  DNA info reports that the storefront's current occupant, restaurant Colonia Verde, is looking to have the sign restored.  Buildings Department records suggest it had been in place since 1939.

Colonia Verde's lost relic sign at 219 DeKalb Ave. in Brooklyn. (Paul Signs / Instagram)

 From JVNY and Project Neon (and a million other places): Third Avenue in Manhattan is now a little less colorful with the loss of Rodeo Bar and its lovely retro vertical sign.  

 "Took care o'that" - Here's what's left of Kentile:

Kentile Stump. (T. Rinaldi)

 And, in East Midtown, the bell has finally tolled for the Subway Inn, a survivor no more.  A closing date has been set at August 15th, but if experience is any teacher, I wouldn't wait around to pay my last respects.  Write-ups in Grub Street, Gothamist and the New York Times.

143 E60th Street, Manhattan, February 2006.  Vertical sign installed 1950; Fascia sign c. 1955, probably by Serota Sign Corp.  (T. Rinaldi)

Next, the Weird News: 

 Via James and Karla Murray, eyeglass retailer Warby Parker has taken over the former Lascoff's Pharmacy space on the Upper East Side.  The building and the storefront have been fairly heavily manhandled, but Lascoff's neon sign, in place since 1931, is still there, bizarrely denuded of some of its lettering since Lascoff's abruptly shuttered two years ago.  Could Warby Parker perhaps cleverly re-letter the sign and make it look a little less weird?  Please? 

(James and Karla Murray)

Moving on to the Good News: 

 Let There Be Neon has completed its latest neon restoration, for the Tepee - a spectacular roadside relic in Cherry Valley, NY.
 And finally, for your viewing pleasure, a scene from Dallas' neon heyday, via Shorpy.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Subway Inn

143 E60th Street, Manhattan, February 2006.  Vertical sign installed 1950; Fascia sign c. 1955, probably by Serota Sign Corp.  (T. Rinaldi)

"Here in the shadow of Bloomingdale's lies a place
sheltered from the whims of fashion, a comfortable outpost
for those ill at ease amid the pretensions of Manhattan's well-to-do Upper East Side. The bar takes its name from the underground junction of the IRT and BMT subways almost directly beneath the jukebox by the door. Originally opened around 1934, the bar's ownership passed to Charlie Akerman after World War II, who commissioned the existing signs a few years later. Mr. Akerman ran the bar for nearly sixty years until his death at ninety-seven. A partnership of longtime bartenders took up the management thereafter."  (New York Neon)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Long Gone Neon, Part 2

In this second installment of miscellaneous neon signs spotted while browsing the NYPL's amazing collection of "Photographic Views of New York City," we get another time port into the streetscapes of midcentury New York.  Before restrictive zoning ordinances really kicked in, before economic stagnation lent the landscape that air of grit and decay that characterized the city by the 1970s, New York's commercial strips were literally abuzz with commercial activity, much of which expressed itself in one common medium: neon. 

"Pinto's Dining and Dancing" ~ 3rd St., looking west from Thompson, Manhattan.  P.L. Sperr, May 19, 1939.  Then and Now.

These photos are reminders that the small handful of old neon signs that survive today are just the tiniest sliver of the many thousands that once existed.  Today, the signs are preserved only in these old photos, which the NYPL had the foresight to commission back in the 1930s and 40s, specifically to create a visual record of the fast changing city. 

"Monte Carlo Spaghetti Restaurant" ~ 14th Street, south side looking east from 3rd Ave., P.L. Sperr, Aug. 11, 1936.  Then and Now.

In recent years, the Library has done a brilliant job of digitizing this and other collections in its graphic holdings (all of these images are available for purchase at its online digital gallery).  Sadly, the NYPL lacks the resources to commission such photographs today; one wonders whether today's Google StreetView images will be preserved to become tomorrow's backward glance. 

"Thomas Beauty Salon" ~ 14th St., north side, looking east from Third Ave.  P.L. Sperr, Aug. 11, 1936.  Then and Now.

The Old Beekman Bar ~ Beekman Pl. at East 51st St., Beecher Ogden Roosevelt, Dec. 27, 1944. Then and Now.

"Ming Studio Neon Signs" ~ Southwest corner of Canal and Mott Sts., P.L. Sperr, Sept. 25, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Conovitz Optician" ~ Main St., Flushing, Queens, west side looking south from 37th Ave.  P.L. Sperr, July 10, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Flushing Dept. Store."  Main Street, West Side, looking South from 37th Ave, Flushing, Queens.  P.L. Sperr, July 10, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Jacobs Electric Gifts" ~ Main St., Flushing, Queens, east side looking north from 39th Ave.  P.L. Sperr, Aug. 21, 1935.  Then and Now.

"Drake Secretarial Courses" (and "Weeks Bakery") ~ Main Street, east side looking north from 39th Ave., Flushing, Queens.  P.L. Sperr, Aug. 21, 1935.  Then and Now.

"Hirsh's Delicatessen" ~ SE Corner of 13th Ave. and 39th St., Brooklyn; P.L. Sperr, Oct. 10, 1933.  Then and Now.

"Manny's Bar" ~ N.E. Corner of Delancey and Suffolk Sts, Manhattan; P.L. Sperr, Sept. 25, 1936.  Then and Now.

 Long Gone Neon, Part 1.

 From CNN, a short video piece on the decline of neon in Hong Kong. Thanks to Christina Zdanowicz for this link.
 And: a very nicely curated homage to Hong Kong neon.
 "35 of America's Most Majestic Vintage Neon Signs," from Flavorwire. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hudes Broadway Delicatessen

The latest discovery of a neon relic unearthed by the removal of newer signage caused a bit of a stir on Manhattan's Upper West Side last week.  Plastic signage advertising a defunct bodega came down sometime in June, revealing an especially handsome sign left behind by a long-vanished delicatessen.  The old sign's neon tubes are completely gone, but the porcelain enamel sign face remains in place.  The sign features intensely likable streamlined letterforms cast in blue porcelain on a white background.  In keeping with an ever popular formula among sign painters, the owner's name is rendered in script and the generic copy (DELICATESSEN) in block letters.

The Broadway-ex-Hudes Delicatessen, at Broadway and 103rd Street on the Upper West Side. (T. Rinaldi)

Curiously, the business name at left had been painted over at some point, with a new name applied over the original, making this sign something of a palimpsest within a palimpsest.  The paint is mostly gone now, leaving both names essentially unintelligible.  A quick check of old telephone directories reveals that the sign must have been installed for B. Hudes and Sons Delicatessen, which operated at this address in the 1930s and 40s.  The blog Eating in Translation last week revealed a link between Hudes and the famous Carnegie Deli in midtown, which of course still exists with some great vintage neon of its own.  Max Hudes, possibly one of B. Hudes' sons, took over the Carnegie in 1942.  "With two partners," reports EIT, "Hudes operated the Carnegie Deli until 1976."  

Classic script-versus-block letter juxtaposition, C-shaped E's, "escalator" S's, lower-case-upper-case N's, round-bottomed W.  (T. Rinaldi)

By the late 1940s, the yellow pages listed Hudes as the "Broadway Delcatsen Inc" (same phone number).  The Broadway Deli eventually folded.  Its storefront was merged with the one next door and the lease signed over to the Olympia Superette, which appears in the city's early-1980s tax photo.  The space served as a small grocery store until it closed recently.

2703 Broadway before the bodega signs came down. (Google StreetView)

As for the sign itself: Buildings Department records show several filings for illuminated signs here in the late 1930s; one of these likely corresponds to the Hudes sign, making it approximately 75 years old.  The neon, now lost, likely would have glowed a bright blue to match the color of the porcelain lettering behind it.  A maker's mark emblazoned into the porcelain at bottom center tells us that the sign is the work of the evocatively-named (and long gone) Neonette Display Co. of 881 Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn. 

"Neonette."  (T. Rinaldi)

Trace remnants of Neonette's "Union Made" decal.  (T. Rinaldi)

What comes next remains to be seen.  Will this relic be entombed again beneath a layer of newer signage?  Rescued for posterity?  Or, like so many others, simply scrapped?  

 More old neon signs hidden in layers of commercial archeology around town.
 Write-ups on the Hudes sign in the West Side Rag, Eating in Translation, ForgottenNY, and Pix11 News.

SPECIAL THANKS to David Freeland for clueing me into this and Paul Shaw for digging up some background on Neonette.

 Some Leadville, Colorado neon from Shorpy. 
 Peripherally related: an exploration of San Francisco's noir landscape, at the NY Times.