Monday, September 8, 2014

Harold's Neon No More

Helvetica, that most generic of boring fonts, has struck again, and its latest neon casualty is a loss dearly felt.  Last Monday, following up on an ugly rumor, I went out to see what had become of the "Harold's for Prescriptions" sign on Avenue U in Gravesend, Brooklyn.  As the following before-and-after photos will attest, the truth is not pretty.  

Harold's before-and-after.  2272 McDonald Ave., Brooklyn.  (T. Rinaldi)

In an odd twist, this very sign had been the subject of a dedicated homage on this blog just weeks ago.  The sign's fate was sealed even before that post went live.  Rising maintenance costs spelled its end, the drug store's management told me over the phone.  The sign needed a dozen or more transformers replaced, which meant a few thousand dollars worth of repairs. The owners decided to put that money toward a new sign instead.

(T. Rinaldi)

Whereas the old sign featured three especially appealing letterforms on its wraparound sign faces, the new sign uses just one - Helvetica, the "un-font," a typeface whose oppressive ubiquitousness made it the subject of its own documentary in 2007.  In the neon book, I discuss how Helvetica epitomized a kind of anti-neon aesthetic beginning in the 1960s and 70s, its rational, standardized appeal deployed en-masse as an answer to the fussy, one-off fonts typically used for neon signs of the 1950s and before.  

(T. Rinaldi)

Eventually Helvetica became so overused (big corporate logos etc)  that old signs, especially neon, grew to become widely admired largely for the unique quality of those pre-Helvetica fonts.    As previously discussed on this blog, a new generation of designers today has rejected the tyranny of Helvetica, using almost any other font or letterform in its place.  Once the darling of highbrow designers, Helvetica now has trickled down to the lowest depths of generic slop.

(T. Rinaldi)

It's especially sad in this case, because Harold's old sign exhibited some of the best pre-Helvetica letterforms of any old neon sign in New York.  In its day, the sign probably cost the equivalent of a new Cadillac to install.  Its appearance dated to the mid-to-late 1950s, when Harold Friedman had an earlier sign reconfigured after taking over the corner drugstore at this location.   

The good news is that the business itself is still there, and Harold's name still comes aglow each night on Avenue U, even if it is now rendered in LEDs instead of neon.  And beneath those LEDs, the store's management confirms that the original neon lays entombed beneath the new sign.  But this is cold comfort for admirers of that old sign.  On my way back from Gravesend, I broke the news to Mr. Friedman's daughter, whose e-mail to me had prompted the somewhat ill-timed story I posted in July.  "Not ill timed at all," she replied:  "a prophetic foreshadowing and goodbye."  

(T. Rinaldi)

• Via Paul Shaw, check out the Letterform Archive, a project to collect and document unique and historic fonts and letterforms as "inspirational analog artifacts."

• Good news, for now: a stay of execution for the Subway Inn.
 Save room on your bookshelf for a new volume on San Francisco neon. 
• From the west side, Debra Jane reports from San Jose and San Francisco.
• As forecast here, Warby Parker has re-lettered the old Lascoff's Drugs sign on the Upper East Side.  More to come.
• Via Jeremiah, a bad prognosis for Arthur's Tavern in Greenwich Village, whose neon has been in place since 1937.