Friday, August 23, 2013

San Fran Neon

San Francisco doesn't strike one as a city teeming with lots of great old neon.  LA, sure.  Vegas, maybe in the boneyard.  Debra Jane Seltzer, perhaps the most avid enthusiast of old signs I know, once told me that Chicago is her favorite city of neon.  I haven't been to Chi-town in a while, but for my money, San Francisco has an enviable concentration of fine vintage neon that most other towns (especially NYC) can only dream of.

Illuminated signs are a long-entrenched part of the San Fran skyline.  The signs are there in the backdrop of films like the Maltese Falcon (1941), Dark Passage (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Vertigo (1958). 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Beyond the cinematic record, the proof is still there to be seen on the city streets.  These are works of real character, dating mainly to the 1940s, '50s and '60s.  They boast novel sheet metal work, uniquely appealing pre-Helvetica letterforms, and a general quality of design that is notably more sophisticated than that of their surviving contemporaries here in New York.  What follows is a short photo essay of old signs I found in an afternoon walk around San Francisco back in 2007.  

Vertigo (1958)

Inasmuch as these old signs tell us anything about a city's quality of life, the preponderance of old signage in San Francisco is enough to make one wonder how such fragile parts of the landscape seem more apt to survive in some places than others, both at the micro-level – from one neighborhood to the next – and a macro level, between cities.  At one point, common wisdom associated old neon signs with urban decay and stagnation.  Now, however, they're more often prized for their association with old, independent businesses that serve as anchors of stability for their respective neighborhoods.  What do all these old signs tell us about San Francisco?  What does their absence tell us about those places – New York and elsewhere – where such things just can't seem to survive?   

George’s Market / 702 14th Street

Harrington Bar & Grill / 245 Front Street

 Hotel St. Paul / 931 Kearny Street

 Mr Bing’s Cocktail Lounge / 201 Columbus Avenue  

Tosca Café / 242 Columbus Avenue

Royal Pacific Motor Inn / 661 Broadway 

La Pantera Café / 1234 Grant Avenue

Stella Pastry / 446 Columbus Avenue 

Tony Nik’s Café / 1534 Stockton Street

Columbus Café, Gino and Carlo / 562 Green Street

Sodini’s Restaurant / 510 Green Street

New Rex Hotel / 407 Broadway

Via Shorpy, a colorful scene from the heyday of San Fran neon.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Tom! Thanks for the plugs at your blog. Yes, hands-down, Chicago has the highest concentration of vintage signs anywhere in the country. Find a way to get there and be overwhelmed. Here are five pages of spectacular signs: