Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ratner's Ghost Neon

The recent closure of a Sleepy's Mattress franchise down on Delancey Street has brought to light one of the city's more noteworthy neon ghost signs.  Ratner's, a kosher dairy formerly situated on Delancey between Norfolk and Suffolk streets, was an anchor of Lower East Side Judaica for nearly 100 years. In business from 1905 to 2002, Ratner's was a New York institution in league with Katz's or Sylvia's.  Its classic storefront was crowned by a pair of especially appealing neon signs. 

Ratner's exhumed.  (T. Rinaldi) 

After Ratner's closed, the neon came down (I'm told it survives in a warehouse somewhere) and Sleepy's moved in.  But the mattress retailer made almost no changes to Ratner's old storefront.  This invariably pleased me any time I walked by: the projecting display window, patterned terrazzo floor, and high-hat lights all remained - you could almost smell the onion rolls and hear the buzz of the neon.  Apparently, the ghost of that old sign was there too, tucked under newer signage. 

Ratner's ghost sign. (T. Rinaldi)

The neon (and the rest of the storefront) dated to a 1957 facelift that apparently coincided with the restaurant's takeover by Harold Harmatz, whose father co-founded the establishment with Alex Ratner in 1905 (says Wikipedia).  An older neon sign appears in a 1934 photo at the NYPL.  

Ratner's pre-facelift neon in 1934.  (NYPL)

Ratner's commemorated its grand re-opening with a large display ad in the New York Times in December 1957.  The ad names a small army of "artists and artisans who planned and executed this ambitious alteration."  These included the Salzman Sign Co. of Brooklyn, maker of the restaurant's new "neon displays."  As noted in a previous post on this blog, Salzman was one of New York's most active neon shops for much of the 20th century, producing the signs still in place at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, Gringer's appliances on First Ave., and many others.  

Ratner's grand-reopening display ad.  (New York Times, Dec. 10, 1957)

For Ratner's new storefront, Salzman created a bold, distinctive installation featuring a dynamic neon script encased in deep stainless steel channels mounted to a stone-clad storefront - a particularly sophisticated creation that the restaurant was justifiably proud of.  A very visible landmark just off the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg bridge, Ratner's neon scored a cameo in Bill Friedkin's 1971 film "The French Connection."  

Ratner's ghost script.  (T. Rinaldi)

Ratner's French Connection cameo, 1971. 

The sign was bold enough to leave an impression that survived both Ratner's and Sleepy's.  Whether it will survive the empty storefront's next incarnation remains to be seen.  If the actual neon indeed survives as the proverbial little birdie says it does, perhaps we will see Ratner's shine again.


• I am working with the Municipal Art Society to schedule more neon walking tours.  Dates to be announced here when they are set.


• Over on the east side, the neon is glowing again over the Subway Inn's new location on Second Ave.

(Timothy Fadek)

• On 125th Street, the huge old Blumstein Department Store sign has finally disappeared completely.  

RIP: Blumstein neon on 125th Street back in 2008.  (T. Rinaldi)

#SaveNYC, an organized movement to stem the extinction of New York's independent businesses, not coincidentally features a whole lotta neon on its online masthead.

• Via Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, another ancient ghost sign (not neon) unveiled on 9th Ave in Chelsea.
• Also via JVNY, check out (and consider sponsoring) this upcoming documentary on the Automat.
• At AnimalNewYork, a nice write-up on the new neon documentary film "Gasper & Son."
• Over at Shorpy, some classic neon street scenes on Broadway NYC and in Clinton, Iowa.  
• In Appleton, Wisconsin, a very cool looking neon exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle.  (Now if we could just do this in New York…)
• Finally - in Chicago, "Neon Signs Throughout the City" named to a list of Chi-town's most endangered historic resources.

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