Sunday, October 2, 2016

Loft's on Nassau

Surveying New York's old signs for the neon book, I identified somewhere around 400 pre-1970-ish neon storefront signs scattered throughout the five boroughs - a paltry number, considering how many there once were.  In fact there are probably many more, hiding under newer signs or awnings all over town.  Among these, my absolute favorite has been one belonging to a long-defunct Loft's Candies franchise that lay hidden under a vinyl awning for Lilly's Boutique, a ladies' discount dress shop down on Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan.  

Loft's undercover.  (T. Rinaldi)

The Loft sign came to light again in recent weeks, unveiled with the closure of Lilly's cut-rate dress emporium at 88 Nassau.  The sign is a marvel, featuring prime specimens of pre-Helvetica block and script letterforms outlined in metal channel letters mounted to an old vitrolite storefront facade.  No record of an installation date appears to be on file at the Buildings Department, but the sign has the look of something that likely appeared here circa 1960.  "Will the future excavation of an ancient Starbucks be as elegant?" wondered Jeremiah Moss last week. 

Loft's "desnuda".  (T. Rinaldi) 

Loft's exhumed neon is noteworthy on several counts.  In the early 1920s, another Loft's outlet installed the earliest storefront neon in New York City for which any photographic documentation has yet surfaced.  As I wrote in the neon book, in those early years, neon signs were the domain of big corporations - besides Loft's, early neon signs in New York were installed by auto manufacturers like Willys-Overland, and chain shoe stores like John Ward.  It was only later that neon storefront signs became associated with independent businesses - from neighborhood corner stores to seedy old hotels - ultimately lending a bohemian mystique to neon as a medium.

Could this be New York's first neon storefront sign?  Signs of the Times Magazine ran this photograph under the headline "Luminous Gas Lights New Electric Sign" in October 1924.  (Signs of the Times Magazine, October 1924)

The Loft's sign on Nassau Street features the company's midcentury logotype.  Graphically, it is somewhat unusual in that the business name is rendered in block letters (behold that fabulous slashy F), while the generic CANDIES is spelled out in a jaunty script.  Typically, sign makers took the opposite tack, using script for the business name and block letters for generic copy.  An almost identical sign could once be seen on Times Square, where Loft's had a location in the old Bond Building. 

Loft's Times Square, c. 1965. (American Classic Images)

By the mid-1960s, Loft's abandoned exposed-tube neon for typical plexiglas signs lit by off-the-shelf fluorescent tube lamps, as in this (since removed) example at Danas Flower Shop at 118-01 Queens Blvd in Forest Hills. (T. Rinaldi) 

Back around 1960, a sign of this type probably cost about as much as a new Chevy Corvair.  In other words, a significant investment, even for a chain business.  Alas, this particular Loft's appears to have lasted not more than 20 years (88 Nassau is not among the 38 Loft locations listed in my copy of the 1954 Manhattan Yellow Pages, and the store was gone by the time the city's tax photographer showed up here around 1980).  Yet its survival is testimony to an era whose aesthetic is now almost entirely vanished from the city streets.  If New York were an open air museum of old neon signs, its holdings would be spread frightfully thin; Loft's on Nassau would be one of the most significant pieces in the collection.  

Loft's on Nassau.  (T. Rinaldi)

Let's hope the new tenant (rumored to be a new TwoBoots Pizza joint) will keep it in place under whatever new signage comes here, perhaps to one day resurface for the amusement of future passersby on Nassau Street.

Loft's on Nassau.  (T. Rinaldi)


Untapped Cities will sponsor two more Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tours this fall:

 October 19, 2016 (7:30 PM)
 November 16, 2016 (7:30 PM)

Tickets are available here.  Hope to see you there!


 Awful news that NYC is about to lose one of its most legendary, neon-clad institutions:  The Carnegie Deli will shutter in December.
 On October 15-16, Open House NY will offer a chance to check out Lite Brite Neon in Gowanus, Brooklyn - a must-see for any neon enthusiast.
 Thursday Night Neon - glassbending classes at Urban Glass.
 I have no hair, and somehow I still managed to have a bad hair day chatting on the old History Channel sign for Bronx News 12.
 Let us pause for a moment to admire an institution still with us: the Lexington Candy Shop on the Upper East Side, hommaged at Untapped Cities and ProjectNeon.
 In Sacramento, they're doing what we should be doing here in NYC - an exhibit featuring historic Sacramento neon opened on October 1, 2016.
 Not neon, but a wildly cool incandescent sign by way of the Shorpy blog.
 Jeremiah remembers the late lovely Cheyenne Diner on 9th Avenue in Manhattan.  

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