Monday, November 25, 2013

Hotel Neon: The Hotel Arlington

A short post this week, what with the table nearly set for turkey this Thursday.  There's not much to say about the old Hotel Arlington, on West 25th Street just off Madison Square, at least not that I could discover from a little light Internet prowl.  No sordid tales of hookers and whores, no spooky basement bath-houses, no two-timing floozies ending their days here in some torrid tryst gone awry.  

"Beautiful Old Hotel with Neon Sign in New York."  (Nicole DiMella /

Surely no old New York hostelry worth its salt is without its share of such tales, especially those that sported big old flickering neon signs over their doorways, as the Arlington once did.  But I'll leave those for someone else to find, and dwell instead on the Arlington's bygone place in New York's neon landscape. 

"The Brickbuilder," 1904.

The Arlington began life back in 1901-02, as an "apartment hotel" designed by architects Israels and Harder.  I chanced upon an old photo of its especially handsome brick and terra-cotta facade in a tattered back issue of a trade publication called "The Brickbuilder."  Its construction and ownership history is thoroughly detailed over at Walter Grutchfield's amazing web site, 

"The Brickbuilder."

Like any number of once-fashionable hotels on the side streets around Madison and Herald squares, the Arlington became an SRO by the 1980s.  As recently as a few years ago, the term "SRO" was as much a part of the New York vernacular as "stoop" or "schlep."  These days I find myself constantly having to define the term whenever it rears its head in casual conversation with anyone under the age of 35 or so. 

"The Brickbuilder."

In a 1998 story on their already-waning numbers, the New York Times neatly summarized the SRO phenomena in two sentences: "Home to prostitutes, drug addicts and the mentally ill, single-room-occupancy hotels are often seen as a blight, dragging down neighborhood property values. But with tenants paying an average of $426 a month, according to a 1996 city study, S.R.O.'s have also long attracted artists, factory workers, single women, students and the elderly poor."

By the 1980s, increased demand for Manhattan hotel rooms led many SROs, including the Arlington, to re-convert back into conventional tourist hotels.  This of course led to the displacement of all those prostitutes, artists, etc.  

The Arlington in 2005.  (Walter Grutchfield)

When Mr. Grutchfield visited upon the Arlington back in 2005, he found its neon "HOTEL" sign still in place, over a marquee emblazoned with Han characters.  "The Chinese seems to say Ya Ning Dun Jiu Dian (Pinyin): Elegant Peaceful Pause Hotel," writes Grutchfield at 14to42: "or, the first three characters could be Ya Ning Tun (Wade-Giles) - i.e., Ar-Ling-Ton in transliteration."

The Comfort Inn Chelsea in 2012.  (T. Rinaldi)

By the time the Arlington figured into the backdrop of my daily commute in 2009, its neon herald had made way for signage better suited for the Interstate than the side streets of New York.  Its former name survived Chinese translation, but couldn't survive the new world order of 21st Century-New York. Now known as the "Comfort Inn Chelsea," it has 3.5 stars at Yelp, though one Chris B. of Boxborough, Mass bemoans its "carb heavy" free breakfast: "we walked to the NY Racquet Club for non-dairy smoothies."

THIS IS THE SEVENTH in a series of stories entitled "Hotel Neon," exploring the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche. See also: 

• A visit to the Arlington at the Ephemeral New York blog.
• "Checkout Time?" The NYT on SROs in 1998. 

• A neon holiday shopping guide from ProjectNeon ~ there's a certain neon book available, if you haven't picked one up yet!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Riverside Liquor Co.

If I hadn't called up Riverside Liquors to ask them about their sign while researching the neon book, I'd have never known the quirky history of this particular sign that makes it one of my favorites in New York. As the sign's age suggests, Riverside has been an Upper West Side institution for a long, long time.  When the shop moved to a new location this past summer, the sign came with them.  It now shines from a new perch, at 2728 Broadway, just below 105th Street. 

Riverside's neon raceway sign at its new perch.  (T. Rinaldi)

What one wouldn't know to look at it is that this isn't the first time Riverside and its big neon LIQUORS sign have moved.  Until around two decades ago, the sign hung over a storefront at the southeasterly corner of Broadway and 105th Street, about 100 feet from where it is now.  And - more interesting - it originally belonged to a three-part set that included two horizontal raceway signs and a big vertical display that hung over the corner.  

Riverside's intermediate home, until this past summer, on Broadway between 105 and 106.  (T. Rinaldi)

The sign can be seen its original configuration in the city's circa-early-80s tax photos, now housed at the Municipal Archives.  The vertical sign featured a revolving time-and-temp display at its base.  People headed to work in the morning would set their watch by that clock, recalled John of Riverside, who answered the phone when I rang them up.  Buildings Department records suggest an installation date of 1955 for Riverside's neon triptych. 

105th and Broadway, wreathed in neon in the awesome eighties. (Municipal Archives)

Though the tax photo shows them half-dimmed in classic neon dysfunction, John remembered the signs for their reliability:  "Them things never went bad, not in all the years I worked here," he told me.  When their building at 105th and Broadway went co-op around 20 years ago, Riverside relocated half a block further uptown, taking just the LIQUORS sign with them.  There the sign and shop stayed until this past summer, when they moved again to their current location.

Inasmuch as New York's old neon signs are metaphors for survival against the odds, Riverside and its old sign say it loud and clear.  Stop by, pick up a bottle of something to thaw those frozen toes in these cold, dark months, and raise a toast to neon and perseverance.   


 On the subject of old UWS businesses shuffling signs and storefronts, check out this gem posted a few weeks ago at the Ephemeral NY blog.

 Another one down: via James and Karla Murray, news of the disappearance of the St. Charles Garage sign, by the Queensborough Bridge.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Neon Sketchbook, Part II

Picking up where we left off two weeks ago, here is the second of two installments of neon sign sketches I made as part of the project that eventually became my book, New York Neon.  As those of you who saw Part I of this series may remember, none of these sketches ultimately made it into the book.  C'est la vie.  As it happens, I think the book came out fine without them.  But just so it wasn't a totally wasted effort, I thought I may just as well post them here on the blog. 

In Part I, we made the rounds of various liquor establishments, and admired those signs that contrast script and block letterforms.  Let's kick-off Part II at the movies:

ABOVE: Paramount Theatre, 560 Bay St., Stapleton, Staten Island (Gone); RKO Keith’s Theatre, 117-09 Hillside Ave., Richmond HIll, Queens; Variety Theatre, 110 Third Ave., Manhattan (gone); Earle (Eagle) Theater, 73-07 37th Road, Jackson Heights, Queens, made c.1939 (gone).

Sadly, New York City has almost no historic movie theater neon left in any of the five boroughs, though movie houses were one of the great bastions of neon signage for most of the midcentury decades.  The marquees depicted above were about all I could find to sketch when I began this project in 2006.  One of them - the Variety - was in fact already gone (I sketched it from good photos I found online).  The Earle (aka the Eagle) lost its marquee a few years ago, and the Paramount's marquee has unfortunately been altered beyond recognition.  The RKO Keith's was still there at last check, although - as you may have noticed - it's entirely incandescent, not neon.  

A paltry handful of vertical signs for old theaters survive, too:

ABOVE: Loews 175th, 4140 Broadway, Manhattan, made 1930 probably by Claude Neon/Strauss Sign Co.; Loews Coney Island, 1301 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, made c.1938 probably Claude Neon/Artkraft Strauss (gone); Loews Post Road, 3475 Boston Road, Bronx, made in 1939 by Artkraft Strauss; New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 W42nd Street, Manhattan, made in 1937 by Artkraft Strauss (altered 1955).

But these haven't fared well either:  the old SHORE sign didn't make it through Hurricane Sandy, and the Loew's POST ROAD and 175th Street signs are both relics in need of restoration.  Only the New Amsterdam Theatre sign on 42nd Street survives with a bill of good health.  This excludes, of course, for the Radio City Music Hall signs, which are well-enough documented that I skipped them for this exercise.  

So much for the movies.  This next bunch defies categorization, so we'll go into hodge-podge mode for the home stretch.  First, with some fascia signs:

ABOVE: Faber’s Fascination Arcade, 1230 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, made c.1948 by Silverescent (gone); Frank’s Fish Market, 4230 Broadway, Manhattan, made c.1949 (gone); Maryland Furniture Store, 911 East Tremont Ave., Bronx, made c.1957 by Grauer Sign Co.

Then, with some vertical signs:

ABOVE: E94th Street Garage, 231 E94th St., Manhattan, made c.1937; Barbetta Restaurant, 321 W46th Street, Manhattan, made in 1931; C.O. Bigelow Drugs, 414 6th Ave., Manhattan, made c.1938; Hinsch’s Confectionary; 8518 5th Ave., Brooklyn, made c.1948;  Hotel New Yorker, 481 Eighth Ave., Manhattan, made 1939-40; Keller Hotel, 150 Barrow St., Manhattan, made in 1933 by Beacon Sign Co.; Lascoff Drugs, 1209 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, made in 1931;
Nathan’s Famous, 1310 Surf Ave., Brooklyn, made c. 1930 Neergaard Drugs, 454 5th Ave., Brooklyn, made c.1950 by Silverescent; Veniero Pasticceria, 342 E11th Street, Manhattan, made c. 1945;

Truth be told, most of New York's surviving vintage neon is pretty modest compared to the old signs one finds in places like Los Angeles.  (I go into the reasons for this in the neon book.)  But we still have a handful of signs that are impressive works of the signpainter's skillful hand.  I've always been particularly drawn to the bold, distinctive silhouettes of swing signs, like these:

ABOVE: Crown Caterers, 4909 13th Ave., Brooklyn, made c.1949 (gone); Famous Oyster Bar, 842 7th Ave., Manhattan, made c.1960; M&M Pharmacy, 1901 Avenue M, Brooklyn, made c.1936; Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, 80 St. Mark’s Place, Manhattan; Village Vanguard, 178 7th Ave. South, Manhattan, made c.1945.

How amazing to think that this handful of signs represents an infinitesimal fragment of the many thousands of signs installed over the storefronts of New York during the glory years of electric signs.  As they continue to disappear, if nothing else, we'll have these sketches to remember them by.


  S&G Gross Loans by Penn Station appears to be undergoing its demi-centennial makeover: at last check, the porcelain enamel facade had been pulled off its 3-story facade, but the great vertical neon sign was still there. This is probably the city's most picturesque pawn shop of yore - here's hoping that neon survives.

  Speaking of gross - some totally awful news from Yonkers (via Rob Yasinsac): Curry Chevy has completely destroyed its museum-piece dealership, including its great ensemble of neon.  This was hitherto a truly outstanding, 100% intact c.1958 car dealer.  What a goddamn shame.

  If you're looking to brush up on your neon tube bending skills, look no further than, which has recently updated its listing of neon schools nationwide.

  Good news, for once (though not neon related) - the "Ideal Hosiery" building down on the Lower East Side has been landmarked.  Someone looked at the facade over that great signage and realized this building is a substantially intact 1833 row house.  Any changes to the signage will require the blessing of the Landmarks Commission - one wonders how the commission will interpret the significance of handpainted mid-20th century signage on a federal style residential building.

  More neon (and other) treats from SoCal, via Debra Jane Seltzer.  Check out the San Fernando Relics Museum!

  Good news from Greenpoint!  The Greenpointers neon documentary made its funding threshold and will be going into production.

  From Jim and Karla Murray, a look at one of my favorite neon relics: the Berkeley Coats-Suits-Dresses sign in Brooklyn.

  Enjoy a whole wagonload of other neon news links over at ProjectNeon.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Neon Short

I'm diverting from my scheduled post (which was to have been Part II of last week's post) in order to plug another NYNeon-type project I learned of recently: a 15 minute documentary film that will look at where the signs are made and how they fit into the identity of the city.  

Rosemary's Greenpoint Tavern. (Jen Galatioto)

Jen Galatioto over at blog has launched a kickstarter online fundraiser to see the project through.  Their deadline is this coming Sunday (kickstarter requires a project to meet its target in order for it to receive funding).  The film would feature an interview with yours truly – obviously, this will be a blockbuster, if they get the funding!  Have a look and help them out (before Sunday) if you like what you see and you’ve got a few $$ to spare.

Regularly scheduled posts to resume next week.

 Looks like we're about to lose another one: Home of Cheers Liquors, at 18th and 8th in Chelsea, has apparently lost their lease.  

Home Of Cheers. (T. Rinaldi)

They're moving to 9th Ave - will their signs follow?