Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Penn Bar & Grill

A dormant Facebook "Community" page honors one of my favorite vanished signs: that of the Penn Bar & Grill, which formerly presided over the southeasterly corner of Eighth Ave and West 31st Street in Manhattan, just across from Penn Station.  

The Penn Bar & Grill, 31st and 8th, January 1998.  (Penn Bar & Grill's Facebook Community page, photographer unknown.)

Actually, the Facebook page pays homage not so much to the sign, but to the the bar it advertised, which anchored this corner for about 50 years.  I never managed to pay a visit: it vanished in November 1998, just a few months before I made my first foray to the watering holes of this then still quite seedy block. I was in town from DC, staying with college cohorts at the Hotel Pennsylvania for the NCAA b-ball playoffs.   Finding the Penn Bar closed, we ventured instead to the neighboring Blarney Stone, two doors down, which then still looked like something straight out of Super Fly.  The Blarney Stone survives today, its decor and clientele unrecognizable, but its neon still intact.

The Penn Bar signs were New York classics: all stainless steel "raceway" signs, housings with filleted ends, round-topped "A"s, lower-upper-case "N"s, "C"-shaped "E"s.  (Aonghais MacInnes)

The Penn Bar was one of those places that fascinated me as far back as I can remember.  As a kid in the late 80s, somewhere in the back of my little brain I recall likening its ship's prow "Cafe" lettering to that of another favorite: the dearly departed P&G bar on the upper west side.  Could both signs perhaps have been made by the same sign shop?

Fortunately, the internet offers us a few Penn Bar mementos.  The signs are recorded in some nice photographs by Aonghais MacInnes, which cropped up a while back in a brief post over at the Lost City blog.  The New York Times commemorated the bar's closing with a mournful write-up back in 1998.  Though the Bloomberg era was still three years away, New York's mega clean-up was already well underway, and the Times write-up was a prelude to innumerable eulogies that came forth in the years that followed.  "Think how you'd feel if you lived in the same house for 46 years," bar owner Larry Bagell told the Times as he fought back a tear:  "If you suddenly had to leave, you'd know that the sound you were hearing was your own heart breaking."


There's still neon on this corner: a Brother Jimmy's BBQ franchise opened up here a few years after the Penn Bar closed.  Maybe one day, Jimmy's will be to a younger generation what the Penn Bar was to me: a portal into a lost city that belonged to those who came before me.  Hard to imagine.  But maybe.

The former Penn Bar & Grill, now Brother Jimmy's BBQ, at 31st and 8th.  (T. Rinaldi)

THIS POST was promised back in the early days of this blog, in a tribute to the Penn Bar's neighbor, the long vanished Railway Bar.  See also:

•  Aonghais MacInnes' Penn Bar photos, at his flickr site.
•  The NYT's Penn Bar send-off.
•  The Penn Bar's very quiet Facebook Community page.
•  More Penn Station neighborhood neon at this post.

•  From out of the blue: RIP to midtown's Famous Oyster Bar, one of my favorite neon relics in NYC no more.



Owner Larry Bagell Opened 1952-1998 To all of the Penn Bar customers. "I miss you all and remember to stay safe"

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rite Aid Reliquary

There are certain signs around town that stand out, literally.  Not because they're old, but because they physically project out farther than anything else around them.  And while the signs themselves may not be old, the informed observer will know that such creatures are likely the spiritual descendants of prominent predecessors that predate restrictive zoning that has outlawed the installation of such stand-out signage in New York for the last few decades.

Rite Aid, 182 Smith Street, Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

In other words, when you see a big projecting sign that stands out like a sore thumb because no other sign on the block approaches its size, you know you're looking at something that's grandfathered in, even if the sign may not look especially old. The zoning allows them to be altered or re-lettered, but once they're permanently removed, they can't be replaced.  Thus, these signs are relics that recall a time when New York's commercial thoroughfares were lined with similarly prominent displays of outdoor advertising.  Sometimes, their predecessors are actually cocooned within, as was revealed at the former Steinberg's Dairy on the Upper West Side in 2013.  

One such sign has always caught my eye, on Smith Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.  This is the big Rite Aid drug store sign that presides over the intersection of Smith and Warren.   Nothing else on the street approaches its size.  So naturally, I wondered what came here before.  Last week I finally got around to looking it up.

J. Michael's, 182 Smith Street, Brooklyn, c. 1980. (Municipal Archives)

Turns out Rite Aid used to be home to a J. Michael's furniture store.  I learned this by referencing the city's handy early-80s tax photos, which were recently made available online by our friends over at the Municipal Archives.  Michael's old neon sign survived here until relatively recently - the mid-90s, I believe.  Long enough that it had started to earn some notoriety among admirers of such things by the time it disappeared.  I recognized it from a photo taken by architectural historian Andrew Dolkart shortly before its demise.  

J. Michael's of Smith Street. (Andrew S. Dolkart)

J. Michael's, the self-proclaimed "friend of the people," was a furniture chain that operated in Brooklyn for many decades until it folded in 1996.  Signs of the Times magazine featured the neon marquee of its Fulton Street location in 1932.  ST praised the Fulton Street sign for its "superb simplicity," having been designed by the Brooklyn architect Adolph Goldberg (later of Goldberg-Epstein Associates) in conjuction with the Brooklyn Edison Company, in hopes "that this installation will be an inspiration to merchants in Brooklyn, and that more architects will take an interest in sign designing."  

Michaels & Co. of Fulton St. (Signs of the Times, July 1932 / ST Media Group, used with permission)

The Fulton Street and Smith Street signs both used the same streamlined lettering; could the Smith Street sign also have been the work of Mr. Goldberg?  Something to think about when next we amble down old Smith Street.

Smith Street, c. late 1920s. Michaels apparently had a big sign here even before they went neon.  Note several other projecting signs lording over Smith Street, now gone. (Photo found hanging in the Pot Belly Sandwich Shop at 345 Adams St., Brooklyn, by M.K. Metz / McBrooklyn Blog

•  Not neon, but of interest: a sign controversy in South Florida.
•  Via Rob Yasinsac, a nice write-up on the Walker Sign Co. of Detroit.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Havana Neon

Last week's amazing Polar Vortex struck me as an opportune time to break out this post, which I've been sitting on for a while.  In fact, it's been exactly a year since I jetted down to Havana.  A pretty good time of year to head south from New York, no doubt, but it was the neon, not the warmer climes, that I was after.

Havana Neon, circa 1930.  (Claude Neon News, c. 1930 / NYPL)

We all know about Cuba's fleet of ancient American cars.  What I wondered was what might remain of Havana's old neon signs.  A little bit Paris, a little bit Vegas, and a lot South Beach, Havana was a city that positively glittered with neon before the Cuban revolution in 1959.  But how would all of that commercial glitz fare under communist rule?

Sloppy Joe's neon.  (Claude Neon News, c. 1930 / NYPL)

As I researched the neon book, articles on Havana Neon kept cropping up old trade publications, including one feature in the Claude Neon News showing the island capital bathed in neon in the early 1930s.  From little neonitos packed into the narrow streets of Habana Vieja to huge rooftop spectaculars that beamed out over the Caribbean, Havana must have had some of the busiest sign shops in the world. 
"New Schenley Spectacular in Havana" - rooftop spectaculars beamed out over the Malecon.  From Signs of the Times Magazine, July 1947. (ST Media Group, used with permission.)  

Of course, all of that changed after 1959.  Those big roof signs, most of them advertising the fruits of American capitalism (such as can still be seen rolling down the calles of Cuba today) are long gone now.  But Havana's culture of neon was so firmly entrenched that it survived the island's not-so-smooth transition to a socialist economy.  

The narrow streets of Habana Vieja were literally jammed with neon signs, as seen over Burl Ives' shoulder in this screen cap from the 1959 film "Our Man in Havana."

One need look no further than the monumental neon-lit figure of Che Guevara that has presided over Plaza de la Revolución since the late 1960s.  Some establishments that were renamed for political reasons in the 1960s (especially Havana's many movie houses) had their new names emblazoned in neon.  So while precious little survives of Havana's once resplendent neon streetscape, there is more than one might think.

"Bomba Atomica," a manufacturer of water pumps and coffee machines.  Signs of the Times, September 1954.  (ST Media Group, used with permission.)

A few signs have even been preserved (or at least replicated), such as those at the historic Floridita and Sloppy Joe's bars in Habana Vieja.  But like most other parts of the world, the general trend is definitely not in neon's favor.  Signs that had were still there within a year of my visit had vanished by the I got there.  Some of them, like that of the old Hotel New York, had just crumbled.  Others simply no longer light up.  And a handful have even been retrofitted with LEDs.

Signs of the Times Magazine, September 1954.  This article featured the work of sign companies Anuncios Cape, Anunciadora Opalina and Luz Neon. (ST Media Group, used with permission.)

So take a pretend break from this wild winter and head down south where the neon was fine and the weather still is.  If this isn't enough to thaw you out, please also check out other photos from my Havana trip at my flickr page.


Havana is teeming with amazing old movie theaters, most of them still functioning.  Many, like the Yara, received new, nationalist-themed names after 1959.  You'll find them interspersed in the photos below.

Cine Yara (ex-Teatro Warner Radiocentro) / Calle L 363, Vedado, Havana

The Castro government imposed new names on many of Havana's main thoroughfares as well.  These include Avenida de Galiano, a main commercial strip that straddles the border between Habana Vieja - the city's historic core - and Centro, the "new" downtown developed around the last turn of the century.  A number of neon relics still linger here.   

La Internacional / Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

Fin de Siglo / Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

El Palacio de las Novias / Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

Gentry, Avenida de Galiano / Centro, Havana

El Gallo, Avenida de Galiano / Centro, Havana

One of the finest art deco theaters you'll find anywhere in the world, the Teatro América was Havana's answer to Radio City Music Hall. 

Teatro America / Avenida de Galiano 253, Havana

Hotel Lincoln, Avenida de Galiano, Centro, Havana

La Oasis, Paseo del Prado, Centro, Havana

El Megano (ex-Cine Capri) / Calle Industria 416, Havana

Cine Payret / Paseo de Martí, Prado 503 - 513, Habana Vieja, Havana

Restaurante El Baturro, Avenida de Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Havana

Puerto de Sagua, Avenida de Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Habana

La Pina de Plata, Calle Obispo, Habana Vieja, Havana

Hemingway's old hangout, the Floridita, bills itself as the "cradle of the daiquiri."  It's a complete tourist trap now but an obligatory stop-off nonetheless, especially for its neon.   

El Floridita / Calle Obispo at Avenida de Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Havana

La Gran Via / Calle Neptuno (?), Centro, Havana

Hotel Plaza Havana / Ignacio Agramonte No. 267, Habana Vieja, Havana

Restaurante Cafeteria Wakamba / Calle O btwn Calles 23 & 25, Vedado, Havana

I made some of my favorite finds on the south side of Centro, an off-the-beaten-path tangle of old streets near the big railroad yard behind Havana's Estación Central, 

Las Americas Ferreteria / Calle Aguila (?), Centro, Havana

La Industrial, Avenida Máximo Gómez / Centro, Havana

El Mundo de Las Maravillas / Calle Monte, Centro, Havana

Cine Favorito / Belascoain 809, Havana

Cine Cuba / Reina (?), Centro, Havana
Casa Bella / Belascoain, Havana

The Vedado district's great old Riviera theater seems to have lit up in the not too distant past, but like many others it was out cold by the time I got there.

Cine Riviera / Calle 23 No 507, Vedado, Havana

La Pelota / Calle 23 a Calle 12, Havana

Cafeteria 12 / Calle 23 a Calle 12, Havana

Restaurante Varsovia / Calle 12, Vedado, Havana

Teatro Mella (ex-Teatro Rodi), Linea 657, Vedado, Havana 

Hotel Sevilla / Animas, Habana Vieja, Havana

Back in Habana Vieja, Sloppy Joe's bar - perhaps best known for its role in Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana" - was in the midst of a heavy-handed embalming during my visit, which apparently included a facsimile of its old sign.  Compare the repro with the original (above).

Sloppy Joe's / Zulueta 252, Habana Vieja, Havana

Shades of South Beach are clear in evidence at Meyer Lansky's Hotel Habana Riviera, built just before the Revolution.  A finer specimen of late '50s hotel architecture you'll find almost nowhere.

Hotel Habana Riviera / Paseo y Malecon, Vedado, Havana

Cine 23 y 12 / Calle 23 No. 1212, Vedado, Havana

Somewhat farther afield in Miramar, the massive Karl Marx was the more (or less?) colorful Blanquita before 1959.

Teatro Karl Marx (ex-Teatro Blanquita) / Avenida 1ra No. 804, Havana

Cine Milan (La Rampa) / Calle 23 (La Rampa), Vedado, Havana

Bar Cafeteria La Red / Calle 19 No. 151, Vedado, Havana

Taken from the window of a '48 Dodge: the Cosmos-ex-San Carlos, at Calle 60. 

Cine Cosmos (ex-Cine San Carlos) / Avenida 19 at Calle 60, Havana

Scattered around town, some newer signs suggest that Havana's neon trade is still alive, if not exactly flourishing:

El Balcon del Eden Bar Restaurante / Calle K No. 361, Vedado, Havana

Restaurante de Cameron / Linea 753, Vedado, Havana
But here as everywhere, LEDs are coming.  Back where we started, next to the Cine Yara, the big roof sign of the Hotel Habana Libre is probably Havana's most prominent LED retrofit.

Hotel Habana Libre / Calle 23 at Calle L, Havana

The missing S and R reveal that the nearby Salon Rojo, too, has been LED-ed.

Salon Rojo / Calle 21 betw Calle O and Calle N, Vedado, Havana

Back in Habana Vieja, the Hotel Inglaterra sign had been converted within the year prior to my visit.

Hotel Inglaterra, Paseo de Martí 416, Centro, Havana

Los Amigos Paladar / Calle M No 253, Vedado, Havana

And perhaps the most startling convert of all:

Comandante Ernesto 'Che' Guevara: 'Hasta La Victoria Siempre' / Plaza de la Revolución

El Comandante himself, right on the Plaza de la Revolución. The uniformed man with the big gun standing in Che's shadow wash't keen on letting me look behind Che's reverse channels.  But peeking out from behind them, a stray diode confirms that Che and Castro's Cuba have outlived the neon century.

Che's stray LED. (T. Rinaldi)


Check out my other photos from Havana over at flickr.  They're sorted into these galleries:

•  Assorted
•  Cars
•  People
•  Signs
•  Neon
•  Terrazzo


"Claude Neon Bright Spots in Beautiful Havana."  Claude Neon News, c. 1930
"New Schenley Spectacular in Havana." Signs of the Times Magazine, July 1947
"Signs - The Cuban Way."  Signs of the Times Magazine, September 1954.