This is the first in a series of stories I intend to post under the title “Hotel Neon.” These posts will explore the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche.
Each night as I came up out of the Seventh Avenue Subway, feeling worn and weary after long days at grad school, the Chelsea Hotel's big neon sign greeted me like a beacon of civilization, brightening the last leg of my trip home. Then, one night last summer, the old sign went dark and didn't come on again. It is still there, but has remained dim as the hotel undergoes its controversial renovation. Last week, as scaffolding began to rise across the building's façade, I realized the time had come to take a good look at this especially significant sign, an icon among icons, and to petition the new management to treat it with due care as an important part of the historic building whose place it marks.
Looking west down 23rd Street at dusk. (T. Rinaldi)
Like many prominent signs, surprisingly little is known of the Chelsea Hotel's three-story neon figurehead. Old photographs suggest that it was at least the third illuminated sign to hang from the building's facade, having been preceded by two earlier "opal glass" incandescent signs. The existing sign arrived in 1949. My best efforts have thus far failed to identify its maker: records at the Buildings Department yielded an approximate installation date, but no fabricator. My contact at Spectrum Signs, who oversaw the sign's maintenance for many years, couldn't tell me who made it, nor could Jerry Weinstein, the hotel's resident historian, or even Stanley Bard, who managed the hotel for decades.
Before the neon sign went up in 1949, the Chelsea Hotel had these "opal" or "opalescent" glass signs, which were internally lit by incandescent bulbs. The big vertical sign (above) was older, having been replaced by the more modest projecting sign (below) in 1931. (P.L. Sperr / NYPL; Berenice Abbott / NYPL)
Since about 2006 the sign has been painted black, but before that, its original stainless steel channel letters and trim and maroon porcelain enamel panels remained exposed. For whatever reason, maroon or burgundy porcelain was a favorite among New York signmakers of the '30s, '40s and '50s (the signs of the P&G Bar and the Brite Food Shop were prominent examples, and others can still be found at the Old Town Bar, Hinsch's Confectionary, Uptown Liquors, the M&M Pharmacy, and the defunct Wu Han Chinese Restaurant, to name just a few). Three stainless steel bands over the "H" in HOTEL add a touch of streamlined class. The lettering is matter-of-fact, HOTEL illuminated in understated white, CHELSEA in fluorescent pink, with a classic round-topped "A".
The old sign's maroon-colored porcelain and stainless steel accents remain beneath a coat of black paint. Note the stainless steel trim over the "H" in HOTEL. (allvoices.com)
When this installation first appeared here, big neon hotel signs like the Chelsea's could be found all over town. As the years wore on, mainstream hotels did away with signs like these, leaving them to become associated with less reputable establishments that eventually devolved into flop joints, drug dens and whorehouses. In the 1980s and 90s, the few neon hotel signs that remained in New York began to disappear as the old dives either spruced up or shut down. By the time I began to survey New York's historic neon signs in 2006, only about a dozen authentic examples remained, and about half of these have disappeared since then.
Rainy night in Chelsea: looking east down 23rd Street from the Chelsea Hotel. (Ross Savedge)
The Chelsea Hotel never suffered the rough and tumble fate of many other hotels in New York. Instead, as old hotel signs grew scarce, the Chelsea's stood out as a relic that embodied the spirit of the hotel's legendary inhabitants, whose ghosts seemed to be alive up there within those flickering neon tubes. And, seasoned by the usual noirish connotations of seediness associated with other old neon hotel signs, the Chelsea's sign took on a multi-faceted appeal to a greater degree, perhaps, than any other sign in the city. "It was there before I was," Stanley Bard told me of the old sign last year: "it was so iconic a sign, everyone knew it, so all I did was keep it there and not make any changes, just make sure it was safe and sound."
The Chelsea's management featured the old sign on the hotel's business card until it closed last year. (Chelsea Hotel; T. Rinaldi).
And so it was especially painful to see the sign go dark last year. Likewise, it is especially important that it get the right treatment. Yes, the building is landmarked, so the Landmarks Commission would, in theory, review any proposed work on the sign. But signs have slipped through the LPC's review process before. It would be a shame to see the scaffolding come down to reveal a squeeky clean new aluminum facsimile of the old sign, its 60 years of hard earned patina lost forever, something to point out cynically as a simulacrum of the overcleaning of the city around it. Better would be for the old sign to emerge looking cleaned and repaired, but not replaced outright. Maybe take it apart, clean the old porcelain and stainless finishes and put them back together again over a refurbished steel structure, afforded the same level of care one might give an old Cadillac of the same vintage, whose voluptuous tail fins might have swept beneath this old sign when it first came aglow on a New York night more than six decades ago.
Above: Outtakes from photoshoots at the Chelsea, 2008-2011. (T. Rinaldi)
IN OTHER NEON NEWS:
• The latest installment on the Beatrice Inn sign restoration, from JVNY.