Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Utah House

With all due apologies, this week's post is short on neon.  Neon diehards will find some neon news at bottom.  

The recent disappearance of my neighborhood bodega has opened a window into the ancient and somewhat sordid past of the corner of 25th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.  Last fall, when a 7-Eleven opened immediately next door to Kyung's Gourmet Foods at this corner, one couldn't help but wonder how long the family-owned deli-grocery would last.  Kyung's held-on for about six months before closing up and moving out this past March.  

Summer, 2012. (T. Rinaldi)

Placards heralding a new business appeared under Kyung's abandoned vinyl awning not long afterward.  The new tenant (remarkably not a bank or nail salon, but what looks to be an upscale version of its predecessor) soon set about gutting the space.  As workmen peeled away layers of old storefrontage outside, I eagerly tracked their progress, hoping (as sometimes happens) that they might unearth some long-lost neon relic of a previous occupant.

April, 2013.  Kyung's Gourmet Foods closed about six months after a Seven-Eleven opened next door. (T. Rinaldi)

Alas, no such luck.  Last week, the demo crew hit bedrock - actually brownstone, in this case, the old lintels that support the wall over the storefront.  "Too bad," I thought, and turned to cross the street last Wednesday night.  But wait - what was that?  Faded letters, painted on the masonry: old, flamboyantly-serifed letters, roused from somnolence like One-Eyed Willie's ghost ship after untold decades entombed beneath layers of sheetmetal, vinyl and fluorescent lights.  UTAH HOUSE, the sign said, where Kyung's had dispensed sixpacks and cigarettes until just a few weeks before. 

Utah House exposed, last Thursday (May 23, 2013). (T. Rinaldi)

Minutes later, back home, I punched the words into Google.  No dice - at least nothing salient (the Utah House of Representatives scrambled the returns).  Plan B:  This exercise, too, would have proved fruitless, but for the NYT's handy "sort by oldest first" feature.  From a series of old headlines, a sketch history of the Utah House emerged. 

UTAH. (T. Rinaldi)

The Utah House, it seems, was a watering hole, meeting hall and hotel that occupied the stout brick building at the northeasterly corner of 25th and Eighth for about seventy years, from the 1850s through 1910s.  A Times writer in 1880 described the premises: "Utah hall is a Masonic hall over the beer department of the Utah House."  Over the course of its long life, the Utah House hosted meetings of striking laborers, political parties, and fraternal organizations.  Some, like the American Legion and the Teamsters union, are still with us today.  Others, like the New York Hay Exchange and the "New-York Lodge of the Growlers," are clearly of a different era.

HOUSE. (T. Rinaldi)

What of the name?  In 1854, when the Utah House first crops up in the Times, the newly-minted Utah Territory was in the midst of a four-fold population boom (says Wikipedia), its numbers swelling from 10,000 to 50,000 in the span of just ten years.  A Times writer in 1880 speculated on a tie to the Latter Day Saints.  The goings-on at 25th and Eighth, however, tended to be a substantially less than saintly nature.  

At 2:30 on the morning of June 28, 1896, the Utah House witnessed the bloody end of one Thomas Thornton.  It seems that Tom had yielded to his mischievous instincts, robbing and assaulting a certain Charles Melander in the shadows of West 25th Street, after rendezvousing with his brother at the Utah's "beer department" earlier in the evening.  As luck would have it, the brothers Thornton quickly found themselves collared by New York's Finest.  Tom resisted arrest and got himself shot.  Said the Times: "he fell on his face dead. . . . 'Tom' Thornton was well known to the police.  He had been arrested several times for intoxication and three times of assault proffered by his wife."

The Illustrated London News' coverage of the 1871 Orange riots included this engraving, which shows the Utah House's painted sign in the same off-center configuration it bore last week. (Illustrated London News / Antiqua Print Gallery)

25 years earlier, the Utah House presided over one of the bloodiest episodes in the city's history.  The Orange Riots of 1871 left 60 dead after ugly confrontations between Protestant and Catholic factions of New York's Irish immigrant community.  As Catholic onlookers began hurling shoes, bottles, stones and bricks at a parade of Protestant "Orangemen" on Eighth Avenue, the police and national guardsmen opened fire. 

142 years later, all's quiet at 25th and 8th. (T. Rinaldi)

"The Utah House, on the north-east corner of Eighth-avenue and Twenty-fifth-street, is among the buildings which bear conspicuous evidence of having been chipped by the musket balls," reported the Times on July 13, 1871. "The scene was, in truth, a horrible one.  On the north-east corner of Eighth-avenue and Twenty-fourth-street, where the firing had been hottest, lay the bodies of eight persons who had been shot.  Four of them were apparently killed outright, two being shot through the breast, and one having the back and side of his head fearfully mutilated, as if several shots had struck him.  The other dead person was a woman, seemingly a servant, who had been drawn thither by the general excitement, and had not time to escape when the troops began to fire.  She had fallen on two dead bodies, and lay there with her hands stretched out and tightly clasped over her head, while from a rifle-wound in her forehead her life-blood was slowly oozing.  Of the wounded men, two had been struck in the legs, and another had his arm badly shattered, while one man was vainly trying to raise himself from the ground, whose whole face was covered in blood, while from a ghastly wound in his head his brain was protruding.  The sidewalk was drenched with blood, and the window-panes of the stores on either corner ... were shattered by the bullets."

Happily, the Utah House seems to have lived out the rest of its tenure in relative tranquility.  Its final appearance in the Times came under the headline "Chelsea Old-Timer Dead," on January 18, 1916.   "John S. Lockwood, 70 years old, a familiar figure in Chelsea Village since the civil war, was found dead in his room in the Utah House last night.  Death was due to natural causes.  In 1876 he was reputed to be worth more than $100,000.  Last night the 75 cents found among his effects in his room was believed to be all the money he had."  Lockwood, said the Times, was a Civil War veteran and one-time intimate of Tweed.  On hearing news of his death, a delegation of local political types "visited the hotel, identified the body, and said they would raise a fund to prevent Lockwood's burial in Potter's Field." 

The Former Utah House, c. 1980. (Municipal Archives)

What became of the Utah House after they carried old Lockwood off to the undertaker remains consigned to the shadowy depths of archival obscurity.  The window that brought this odd relic to light seems already to have closed: by Friday, a layer of fresh plywood already obscured the old sign from view once again.  With any luck it will remain there, safely entombed like so many other ghost signs in the strata of the city's commercial archeology, maybe one day to see the light of day once more.

• Frank Jump's Fading Ads of New York City (if you haven't already).


• In keeping with the theme of this week's post: a storefront remodeling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has unearthed an ancient neon sign that once advertised a Treadwell Shoes outlet.  And, says the owner, this could be yours.  The tubes are gone but the embossed sheet metal is all there.  Interested parties should e-mail me for the owner's contact info. 

(M. Zawacki)

• Good news, for once, from Brooklyn: two of the borough's best old neon signs are undergoing fine restorations.  Stay tuned for more on the relighting of Circo's Pasticceria in Bushwick and the Long Island Restaurant on Atlantic Ave.

(T. Rinaldi)

• Good news and bad news, via James and Karla Murray: Nathan's finally reopened, just in time for Memorial Day.  But we have sadly lost the Olympia Florist up on Broadway and 158th street.

• An upstate downer: the Northern Dutchess Pharmacy in Rhinebeck has closed up shop, taking with it one of the village's two grandfathered neon signs. 

RIP: Northern Dutchess Drugs in Rhinebeck.  (T. Rinaldi) 

• Flynn's Bar and Grill - some long-lost east side neon brought to us by

• Via the Lost City blog, a glimpse at the vanished neon storefront of the Hankow Chinese Restaurant. 


• June 19, 2013, for the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative at the Neighborhood Preservation Center.
• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Google Neon Decoded

Out of the overwhelming response to last week's name-that-sign-challenge, one winner has emerged:  congratulations to Mike Harrison of Manhattan for getting 8 out of 12.   

As it happens, Mike was also the only person to submit an entry, so it's especially lucky that he got the answers right. I myself could guess only 7 of the 12 letters.  

For those who missed last week's post, the challenge was to identify the original signs referenced in two new neon displays in the east and west lobbies of the Googleplex, housed in the old Port Authority building in Chelsea.  A few of these were driving me absolutely nuts, until Jose Troconis at GrahamHanson decoded them for me.  As suggested last week, some are long gone.  Most, however, are still here to be seen:


G / DOMINO SUGAR - Williamsburg, Brooklyn  

Artkraft Strauss installed the existing Domino sign in 1967-69, replacing an earlier neon roof sign that stood atop the older part of the now-abandoned sugar refinery.  The existing sign is slated for preservation, when and if the proposed Domino condo-conversion ever takes off.

O / COLONY RECORDS – formerly at 1619 Broadway, Manhattan  

This "O" comes from the third generation of neon signs that advertised the venerable Colony Records.  Installed around 2004, this sign hadn't reached its 10th birthday before the Colony closed its doors in the fall of 2012 after some 60 years in business.  

O / TOWER RECORDS – formerly at 1961 Broadway, Manhattan  

"O" number 2 is a reference to the Tower Records logo, a neon iteration of which formerly wrapped the corner of 1961 Broadway, just across W66th Street from Lincoln Center.  Something felt right about having a record store across the street from the Julliard.  Alas, Tower closed in the fall of 2006.  It's a Raymour and Flanagan now.

G / VILLAGE VANGUARD – 178 Seventh Avenue South, Manhattan   

Perhaps my favorite "G" on Earth, the original belongs to a set of equally attractive letters that hang over the Village Vanguard, in Greenwich Village.  The Vanguard's original sign seems to have appeared here sometime in the late 1940s.   The existing sign is a rather good facsimile that faithfully reproduced the lettering of its predecessor.

L / APOLLO THEATRE – 253 W125th Street, Manhattan  

Like the Village Vanguard sign, the Apollo's existing signs are faithful reproductions, whose installation was overseen by the city's Landmarks Commission.  The previous sign and marquee appeared in 1940, replacing highly eccentric incandescent bulb signs.

E / KATZ'S DELICATESSEN – 205 East Houston Street, Manhattan

One of New York's most distinctive "E"s, this geometric beauty comes almost full circle.  Happily, the original sign survives in situ and hopefully will for a long time to come.   Buildings Department records give an installation date of 1935.  Katz's itself is celebrating 125 years in business in 2013.


G / MADISON SQUARE GARDEN – Formerly on 8th Ave. between 49th and 50th Streets, Manhattan

A once prominent sign now lost to the depths of obscurity.   This "G" comes from the third Garden's second marquee – that is, the neon marquee installed sometime around 1940 over the main entrance of the 1925 iteration of Madison Square Garden.   Preceded and succeeded by incandescent and fluorescent marquees, respectively, this appears to have been the Garden's one neon incarnation. (Photo via WiredNewYork)

O / JUNIOR'S – 386 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn

Looks to me more like something borrowed from Coca Cola or Coors, but this "O" is meant to reference that of Junior's, the Flatbush flagship of downtown Brooklyn. (Photo via NYCwithJeff)

O / THE COTTON CLUB – Formerly at 656 W125th Street, Manhattan

The Cotton Club is/was sufficiently famed to earn its own Wikipedia page.  This "O" is borrowed from signs that advertised a latter-day, tourist-trapish incarnation that cropped up in way-western Harlem sometime around 1980.  The earlier Cotton Clubs had fairly robust neon displays of their own, but with less self-consciously "deco" lettering. (Photo via

G / LA GROCERIA – formerly at 333 6th Ave., Manhattan

Judging by some rather heartfelt online eulogizing, La Groceria seems to have been quite the hip, happenin' place in its day, which lasted from the early 1960s through the mid-'80s.  The West 4th Street Papaya Dog occupies the space now, a hip-happenin little place in its own right.  The JVNY blog tells us that changes are now afoot for Papaya and its neighbors.  (Photo via NYU)

L / PEPSI-COLA – Long Island City, Queens

Surely a contender for New York's best-liked sign.  Pepsi has marked the Long Island City waterfront since 1937.  The original sign has actually outlived the building atop which it once stood, a now-demolished Pepsi bottling plant that made way for a battery of highrise condo towers in 2005.   Another tribute can now be found way over across the borough at Citi Field.

E / CLOVER DELICATESSEN – 621 Second Ave., Manhattan

A truly phenomenal sign installed by the truly phenomenal Clover Deli in 1956.  The business itself is older, having opened over on Second Ave shortly after WWII.  The Clover is still alive and well today, under the management of the same family for nearly 70 years.

MANY THANKS to Jose Troconis at Graham Hanson design for decoding the Google Signs.


• June 19, 2013, for the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative at the Neighborhood Preservation Center.
• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Name Those Signs, Win Free Book

I recently had an almost unspeakable thrill over at the Googleplex, in the former Port Authority building in Chelsea.  There in the building's east and west lobbies, Google has rendered its six-letter moniker using letterforms borrowed from actual old signs found around NYC. Installed in October and December of 2012, the signs are the product of a collaboration between Graham Hanson Design and Manhattan Neon.  

Google Lobby Neon. (T. Rinaldi)

Do some of these letters look familiar?  As noted above, they're all sourced from actual signs that exist (or once existed) somewhere in the five boroughs.  Think you can name those signs?  The fine folks at Norton have offered one free copy of the neon book to the first person who can identify the original signs sampled for the Google displays.  Some ground rules:

1) Identify the original source for of any eight of the 12 letters used in the two signs.  

2) Submit your guesses via the "Post A Comment" box at the bottom of this post. (If you don't see the "comments" box, try clicking on the headline at the top and look again.)

3) As an alternate, you may submit your guesses by e-mailing me at the address on my CONTACT page.

4) Anyone with insider knowledge of the answers is hereby disqualified and not eligible to win. 

5) Please do not cheat by e-mailing or calling Graham Hanson or Manhattan Neon to ask for the answers!  This is also grounds for disqualification.

6) One book goes to the first correct answer.

Ready, set, name those signs!  Answers to be posted once we have a winner.  Good luck to you!


 Odd bits of the late great Lascoff's pharmacy have turned up for sale at eBay. Still no sign of the sign.  (Via JVNY and Mike H.)
 Also via the JVNY blog: some good NYNeon of yore, as depicted in the art of Richard Estes (scroll through).
 And still more via JVNY and Gotham Lost and Found: The haunting old pile once home to the Collins Bar is finally coming down, it seems.
 Some Paterson, NJ neon (Kartch's of Main Street) recently over at
• Good news, for once, maybe: a neon preservation initiative in Dallas, Texas.


• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch.