If one were to poll admirers of New York neon, the great Kentile sign in Brooklyn might well emerge as the city's best-liked heirloom sign. Yet at the outset of my quest to document New York's historic neon signs, this magnificent relic proved a trifle difficult to categorize: I often describe my scope as limited to "storefront" signs, as opposed to the big Times Square spectaculars that have already been covered at length and that typically do not survive more than a few years anyway.
Kentile, however, is hardly a storefront sign. Thus, it would be more correct to characterize the subject of my study as "on-premise" signs. In advertising parlance, this term denotes signs that announce goods or services procurable in the immediate proximity of the actual sign (as storefront signs typically do), as opposed to "off-premise" signs (like billboards or some painted wall signs) that remind us to buy things like Coke or Kleenex at the next opportunity.
Spectacular! A 1954 advertisement for Time-O-Matic switch equipment featuring Brooklyn's newly built Kentile spectacular. Among other things, Time-O-Matic made "flashers" that allowed signs to come alight in animated sequence, which leads one to wonder - did the Kentile sign once perform such stunts? (Signs of the Times, March 1954, used with permission)
Kentile is therefore what might properly be called an "on premise spectacular". It is one of a small handful of these giant antiques that survive around town, most of them perched over old hotels or factories. I have recently added this family of signs to the database over at nyneon.org, for your enjoyment and/or edification, and will periodically chose one to profile here at the New York Neon blog.
A 1944 advertisement for Kentile from the Architectural Forum. (Architectural Forum)
For all its prominence, details on the big Kentile sign are elusive. It likely appeared here in 1953 or 1954 to advertise a now-defunct maker of floor tiles. The sign has a nearly identical twin over a former Kentile facility in Chicago. The Brooklyn sign (and probably the one in Chicago, too) is the work of the White Way Neon Sign Company, which also produced the nearby Eagle Clothes spectacular at around the same time. Both of these signs were positioned to distract travelers on the nearby viaducts of the Gowanus Expressway and the IND Subway.
For true Kentile afficianadoes, Live Poultry Industrial Clothing offers t-shirts featuring the sign in a range of colors. (Live Poultry Industrial Clothing)
The wealth of photographic tributes to the sign on flickr testifies to Kentile's intense appeal. (flickr.com)
The Municipal Art Society some years ago added the Kentile sign to its honorary list of "Places that Matter". An even greater measure of its popularity can be found at flickr.com, where a quick search produces an almost unbelievable volume of photographic love letters to this big old sign that hasn't come alight in many moons. There is something about Kentile that turns us into compulsive photographers. Is it the sign itself? Its ruinous state? Or perhaps its urban industrial context? In the end, it's probably some mixture of these things that makes us lift our lenses to this landmark of reliquary neon.
Detail from a 1944 Kentile advertisement. (Architectural Forum)
IN OTHER NEON NEWS:
• Over at Project Neon, a real heartbreak - Maiman's Pharmacy is gone, along with one of my favorite signs in the city.