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.

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