Monday, July 28, 2014

Talkin' East Village Neon (and Other Neon News)

If you missed my last neon walking tour, I'm happy to report that I'll be leading another one on Friday evening, August 15th.  This tour will be led under the auspices of the Municipal Art Society and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.  Tickets are $20 ($15 for MAS members).  Click here to save a spot.  

Katz's, Gringer's, and Russ & Daughters will be stops on my August 15th Neon Walking Tour.

We'll wind our way through the East Village, home to a dense concentration of great old signs including Block Drugs, Veniero Pasticceria, DeRobertis Pastry Shop, Russ & Daughters, Gringer Appliances, the Orpheum Theatre (one of the oldest neon signs anywhere), and of course Katz's Delicatessen.  I will rattle off some observations on the origins and significance of the signs as we pause to admire them.  Attendees will wow their friends for the rest of the summer with a newfound breadth of cocktail party trivia.


 "Neon Signs Are Dying, But Our Appreciation Isn't" - a story by Christina Zdanowicz at CNN Online, featuring quotes from yours truly. 


First, the Bad News: 

 Jack's 99-cent World has finally ditched the old Willoughby's Camera sign on West 32nd Street.  For about 20 years after Willoughby's moved out, this was one of my favorite relics in Midtown.  A massive new LED sign has taken its place.

 Via Paul Signs' Instagram feed: in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, another great neon relic has bit the dust - no more Liquor Store neon at DeKalb and Adelphi.  DNA info reports that the storefront's current occupant, restaurant Colonia Verde, is looking to have the sign restored.  Buildings Department records suggest it had been in place since 1939.

Colonia Verde's lost relic sign at 219 DeKalb Ave. in Brooklyn. (Paul Signs / Instagram)

 From JVNY and Project Neon (and a million other places): Third Avenue in Manhattan is now a little less colorful with the loss of Rodeo Bar and its lovely retro vertical sign.  

 "Took care o'that" - Here's what's left of Kentile:

Kentile Stump. (T. Rinaldi)

 And, in East Midtown, the bell has finally tolled for the Subway Inn, a survivor no more.  A closing date has been set at August 15th, but if experience is any teacher, I wouldn't wait around to pay my last respects.  Write-ups in Grub Street, Gothamist and the New York Times.

143 E60th Street, Manhattan, February 2006.  Vertical sign installed 1950; Fascia sign c. 1955, probably by Serota Sign Corp.  (T. Rinaldi)

Next, the Weird News: 

 Via James and Karla Murray, eyeglass retailer Warby Parker has taken over the former Lascoff's Pharmacy space on the Upper East Side.  The building and the storefront have been fairly heavily manhandled, but Lascoff's neon sign, in place since 1931, is still there, bizarrely denuded of some of its lettering since Lascoff's abruptly shuttered two years ago.  Could Warby Parker perhaps cleverly re-letter the sign and make it look a little less weird?  Please? 

(James and Karla Murray)

Moving on to the Good News: 

 Let There Be Neon has completed its latest neon restoration, for the Tepee - a spectacular roadside relic in Cherry Valley, NY.
 And finally, for your viewing pleasure, a scene from Dallas' neon heyday, via Shorpy.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Subway Inn

143 E60th Street, Manhattan, February 2006.  Vertical sign installed 1950; Fascia sign c. 1955, probably by Serota Sign Corp.  (T. Rinaldi)

"Here in the shadow of Bloomingdale's lies a place
sheltered from the whims of fashion, a comfortable outpost
for those ill at ease amid the pretensions of Manhattan's well-to-do Upper East Side. The bar takes its name from the underground junction of the IRT and BMT subways almost directly beneath the jukebox by the door. Originally opened around 1934, the bar's ownership passed to Charlie Akerman after World War II, who commissioned the existing signs a few years later. Mr. Akerman ran the bar for nearly sixty years until his death at ninety-seven. A partnership of longtime bartenders took up the management thereafter."  (New York Neon)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Long Gone Neon, Part 2

In this second installment of miscellaneous neon signs spotted while browsing the NYPL's amazing collection of "Photographic Views of New York City," we get another time port into the streetscapes of midcentury New York.  Before restrictive zoning ordinances really kicked in, before economic stagnation lent the landscape that air of grit and decay that characterized the city by the 1970s, New York's commercial strips were literally abuzz with commercial activity, much of which expressed itself in one common medium: neon. 

"Pinto's Dining and Dancing" ~ 3rd St., looking west from Thompson, Manhattan.  P.L. Sperr, May 19, 1939.  Then and Now.

These photos are reminders that the small handful of old neon signs that survive today are just the tiniest sliver of the many thousands that once existed.  Today, the signs are preserved only in these old photos, which the NYPL had the foresight to commission back in the 1930s and 40s, specifically to create a visual record of the fast changing city. 

"Monte Carlo Spaghetti Restaurant" ~ 14th Street, south side looking east from 3rd Ave., P.L. Sperr, Aug. 11, 1936.  Then and Now.

In recent years, the Library has done a brilliant job of digitizing this and other collections in its graphic holdings (all of these images are available for purchase at its online digital gallery).  Sadly, the NYPL lacks the resources to commission such photographs today; one wonders whether today's Google StreetView images will be preserved to become tomorrow's backward glance. 

"Thomas Beauty Salon" ~ 14th St., north side, looking east from Third Ave.  P.L. Sperr, Aug. 11, 1936.  Then and Now.

The Old Beekman Bar ~ Beekman Pl. at East 51st St., Beecher Ogden Roosevelt, Dec. 27, 1944. Then and Now.

"Ming Studio Neon Signs" ~ Southwest corner of Canal and Mott Sts., P.L. Sperr, Sept. 25, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Conovitz Optician" ~ Main St., Flushing, Queens, west side looking south from 37th Ave.  P.L. Sperr, July 10, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Flushing Dept. Store."  Main Street, West Side, looking South from 37th Ave, Flushing, Queens.  P.L. Sperr, July 10, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Jacobs Electric Gifts" ~ Main St., Flushing, Queens, east side looking north from 39th Ave.  P.L. Sperr, Aug. 21, 1935.  Then and Now.

"Drake Secretarial Courses" (and "Weeks Bakery") ~ Main Street, east side looking north from 39th Ave., Flushing, Queens.  P.L. Sperr, Aug. 21, 1935.  Then and Now.

"Hirsh's Delicatessen" ~ SE Corner of 13th Ave. and 39th St., Brooklyn; P.L. Sperr, Oct. 10, 1933.  Then and Now.

"Manny's Bar" ~ N.E. Corner of Delancey and Suffolk Sts, Manhattan; P.L. Sperr, Sept. 25, 1936.  Then and Now.

 Long Gone Neon, Part 1.

 From CNN, a short video piece on the decline of neon in Hong Kong. Thanks to Christina Zdanowicz for this link.
 And: a very nicely curated homage to Hong Kong neon.
 "35 of America's Most Majestic Vintage Neon Signs," from Flavorwire. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hudes Broadway Delicatessen

The latest discovery of a neon relic unearthed by the removal of newer signage caused a bit of a stir on Manhattan's Upper West Side last week.  Plastic signage advertising a defunct bodega came down sometime in June, revealing an especially handsome sign left behind by a long-vanished delicatessen.  The old sign's neon tubes are completely gone, but the porcelain enamel sign face remains in place.  The sign features intensely likable streamlined letterforms cast in blue porcelain on a white background.  In keeping with an ever popular formula among sign painters, the owner's name is rendered in script and the generic copy (DELICATESSEN) in block letters.

The Broadway-ex-Hudes Delicatessen, at Broadway and 103rd Street on the Upper West Side. (T. Rinaldi)

Curiously, the business name at left had been painted over at some point, with a new name applied over the original, making this sign something of a palimpsest within a palimpsest.  The paint is mostly gone now, leaving both names essentially unintelligible.  A quick check of old telephone directories reveals that the sign must have been installed for B. Hudes and Sons Delicatessen, which operated at this address in the 1930s and 40s.  The blog Eating in Translation last week revealed a link between Hudes and the famous Carnegie Deli in midtown, which of course still exists with some great vintage neon of its own.  Max Hudes, possibly one of B. Hudes' sons, took over the Carnegie in 1942.  "With two partners," reports EIT, "Hudes operated the Carnegie Deli until 1976."  

Classic script-versus-block letter juxtaposition, C-shaped E's, "escalator" S's, lower-case-upper-case N's, round-bottomed W.  (T. Rinaldi)

By the late 1940s, the yellow pages listed Hudes as the "Broadway Delcatsen Inc" (same phone number).  The Broadway Deli eventually folded.  Its storefront was merged with the one next door and the lease signed over to the Olympia Superette, which appears in the city's early-1980s tax photo.  The space served as a small grocery store until it closed recently.

2703 Broadway before the bodega signs came down. (Google StreetView)

As for the sign itself: Buildings Department records show several filings for illuminated signs here in the late 1930s; one of these likely corresponds to the Hudes sign, making it approximately 75 years old.  The neon, now lost, likely would have glowed a bright blue to match the color of the porcelain lettering behind it.  A maker's mark emblazoned into the porcelain at bottom center tells us that the sign is the work of the evocatively-named (and long gone) Neonette Display Co. of 881 Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn. 

"Neonette."  (T. Rinaldi)

Trace remnants of Neonette's "Union Made" decal.  (T. Rinaldi)

What comes next remains to be seen.  Will this relic be entombed again beneath a layer of newer signage?  Rescued for posterity?  Or, like so many others, simply scrapped?  

 More old neon signs hidden in layers of commercial archeology around town.
 Write-ups on the Hudes sign in the West Side Rag, Eating in Translation, ForgottenNY, and Pix11 News.

SPECIAL THANKS to David Freeland for clueing me into this and Paul Shaw for digging up some background on Neonette.

 Some Leadville, Colorado neon from Shorpy. 
 Peripherally related: an exploration of San Francisco's noir landscape, at the NY Times.