Monday, December 27, 2021

Lights Out 2021: Signs We Lost This Year

Well, it has come to this: my one and only blog post for an entire year is this annual doomsville round-up of vanished or vanishing signs.  In my defense, I did manage to crank out another book during that time!  Anyway - for all the obvious difficulties of the past year, 2021's list of neon casualties is mercifully short. (Please let me know if I've missed any.)  In a few cases, the signs are gone but the old businesses they advertised have survived.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that the list includes some real bitter pills, none harder to swallow than the loss of the Clover Deli on 34th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.  As with previous round-ups, the list below includes a few that disappeared prior to 2021 but whose loss only came to my attention this year.  With that, let's dim the lights for our funerary feature. 










Angelo's of Mulberry St., 126 Mulberry St., Manhattan. c. 1955

Angelo's ancient Italian restaurant was one of the real stalwarts of Little Italy.  Opened in 1902, the restaurant never bobbed back to the surface when others started to re-open after pandemic closures.  While there are rumblings that new management might bring it back to life, its fantastic swing sign has already vanished.  The sign was a simple beauty, with stainless steel channel letters mounted to a stainless steel box - stainless-on-stainless being a classic hallmark of New York sign shops.  All that stainless steel was beautifully offset by the icy blue hue that glowed within its fantastic mid-century script lettering.  Hopefully the sign found a good home somewhere.  










Patriot Saloon, 110 Chambers St., Manhattan. (Vertical sign only)

The Patriot Saloon on Chambers Street was home to one of New York's dwindling population of classic vertical BAR signs mounted high up over its storefront.  With only a one story "taxpayer" building next door, the sign seemed free and clear of zoning ordinances that precluded such installations outside residential windows.  But when the little taxpayer building got itself torn down and replaced with luxury apartments recently, the Patriot's old BAR sign suddenly found itself in harm's way - it's a goner now, though the bar's fascia neon remains.










Clover Delicatessen, 621 Second Ave., Manhattan. Globe Neon, 1956.

The Clover Deli bit the dust last year, after a more than 70-year run in east midtown.  Opened after WWII, urban renewal displaced the deli from its original location after just a few years.  But the business landed on its feet at the prominent corner of 34th and 2nd, where it stayed for 65 years before finally closing amid the pandemic in 2020.  For a while there was talk of a new business moving in and keeping the signs in place, but that never came to pass: the deli's owners donated the signs to the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, which came and picked them up in late August.  The signs are now in safe hands, but need some TLC (you can make a donation towards their restoration here). Still, Manhattan just isn't the same without the Clover.  










Goldberger's Pharmacy, 1200 First Ave., Manhattan. c. 1960.

Like the great Clover Deli, Goldberger's was particularly exciting as one of the few remaining neon-bedecked corner storefronts left in New York, with especially evocative period letterforms beaming out in two directions from its perch at 65th Street and First Ave. It was one of the very few neon storefronts to even get a shoutout in the AIA Guide to NYC ("The Old New York, still dispensing").  Sadly, @sign_of_the_time reported on Instagram this past August that the store had to pack up and move down the block.  The signs were partially salvaged for display inside.  And happily the business, around since 1898, survives.  But one of Manhattan's best neon landmarks is no more. 



















Rose Wine & Liquor, 449 Columbus Ave., Manhattan. 

This age-old Upper West Side liquor store is still around but their fantastic old sign has vanished and been replaced with an approximation of the original, for reasons that at the very least are far from obvious to the vested observer.  The original featured blue porcelain sign faces framed in stainless steel edging and accented by stainless channel letters tracing classic "pre-Helvetica" squared-off block letters, each rendered in four-count'em-FOUR strokes of red neon, all of it vested with the hard earned patina of probably 70 years reigning over this stretch of Columbus Ave.  The new sign is still neon - fine! - but the neon has gone from four strokes to two, the tubes are too deeply recessed in the channels, the stainless and porcelain has yielded to aluminum, the patina is gone-daddy-gone, and all you can say for the letterforms is at least they're not Arial. Some things I'll just never understand. If anyone needs a case study for the merits of an old sign purely in aesthetic terms, here it is on a silver platter.  











Columbus Hardware, 852 Ninth Ave., Manhattan.

Another case of an old business that had to give up its longtime storefront and lost its neon in the process.  Columbus Hardware has moved just a few doors down but abandoned its lovely old vertical sign in the process.  Unforgiving zoning ordinances and other cold hard realities apparently complicated the prospect of installing the old sign over the new storefront to the point of practical impossibility.  What will become of the old sign, a glowing glory of pink fluorescent neon over canary-yellow porcelain, remains unclear.  



























(Google Streetview; NYCMA / 1940s.nyc)

Mercer Street Parking Garage, 165 Mercer St., Manhattan. 

A lovely sign, if not so old, this vertical neon still had a classic flavor to it, and was likely the descendant of an older sign that probably hung in the same spot, though none appears in the c.1940 tax photo for this property.  One of New York's last big flashers, it blasted out its not-so-subtle mating call to Manhattan motorists with the words PARKING and GARAGE cast aglow in alternate sequence from a very old cast iron SoHo facade.  Interestingly, what the old tax photo does show is that the painted signage on that facade hadn't changed much in at least 80 years.  But in a land of red hot real estate such as SoHo, something so prosaic as a parking garage behind that beautiful historic facade was on borrowed time: sure enough, the garage got the boot for luxury residential circa 2017-18.  The facade is resplendent now.  It dripped in neon-lit bird doo before; it drips in something else now. 


















Schmidt's Candy, 94-15 Jamaica Ave., Woodhaven, Queens. 

Still another case of an old business still around but without its venerable neon: @sign_of_the_time reported the loss of Schmidt's sign this past February; the business owners said the city Dept of Buildings forced them to take the sign down due to non-compliance issues.  The sign was demonstrably if not certifiably old - it shows up in the city's circa-1940 tax photo - which is normally enough to get some clemency.  Somehow that didn't happen here.  Prewar storefront signs are exceedingly rare in New York today, and sadly, they're even rarer now.  Bits and pieces of the old sign have been hung on the wall inside - let's go pay them a visit in 2022.  


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Lights Out 2020: Signs We Lost This Year

2020 has been cataclysmic for the kinds of businesses featured on this blog.  Sure enough, this year's New York neon casualties count a number of pandemic-related business closures among them: two of them are among the lost businesses featured on the cover of the 12/7/2020 issue of New York Magazine.  Yet somewhat surprisingly, this year's roster of lost neon storefronts is not much out of step with that of previous years.  For those of us who have long bemoaned the loss of New York's independent storefront businesses in the face of soaring rent hikes, it comes as a bit of a curveball to find their survival now threatened by an extreme of under-stimulation that is the very opposite of the hypergentrification that had been their leading cause of death up to now.  One wonders if perhaps the reason this year's list isn't longer than it is might be taken to mean that even a global pandemic is less toxic for such businesses than a typical year's worth of crushing rent-hikes - in other words, if the mandated shutdowns wound up canceling out the lethal effect of the rent-hikes that normally kill off these businesses.  

That said, the devastating effect of the pandemic shut-downs is far from over.  Particularly for bars and restaurants, it is not just the old neighborhood stalwarts that need our support - it is everything under the sun.  

As always, this year's roundup includes some businesses that closed before 2020, but that only came to my attention this year.  Not listed are some non-neon favorite storefronts we lost, like Gem Spa, John Jovino, the Paris Cafe, or Frank's Cocktail Lounge in Brooklyn.  Nor the ancient R32-series "Brightliner" subway cars that the MTA pulled out of service (but then briefly resurrected) after 56 years with nary a mention.  And the "ones to watch" list is enormously abbreviated - in reality it could include just about every neon storefront in town.  In 2021, it will be incumbent on us to look for ways to help one another get back on our feet again as this (hopefully) uniquely difficult year recedes in our wake. 

Palomba Academy of Music, 974 East Gun Hill Road, Bronx
The Bronx's Palomba Academy of Music had been a neighborhood anchor since the 1950s, but closed down permanently when in-person music lessons became impossible during the pandemic.  Happily, the sign has been preserved at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati (with help from Let There Be Neon and photographers James & Karla Murray), but the museum can still use some support towards its restoration. 

One Penn Plaza, 242 W34th St., Manhattan
The big neon "1" atop this midtown office tower quietly disappeared this year. Though not especially old (the building itself dates from the early 1970s), it was nonetheless one of the largest neon installations in town and one of very few illuminated signs on the New York skyline.  

New Corner Restaurant, 7201 8th Ave, Brooklyn
Brooklyn's New Corner restaurant was a neighborhood anchor that traced its origins to 1936; its third generation family owners decided it was time to retire in the face of the protracted difficulties of running a dine-in restaurant amid pandemic business closures. 

Spruce Florist, 222 8th Avenue, Manhattan
Most recently operated as Spruce Florist, this Chelsea flower shop had earlier been known as Village Florist and earlier still as Nick Case Florist. It had occupied the same 8th Avenue storefront since at least the 1930s until it finally closed around 2017.  The sign hung around for a few more years before it finally disappeared in December.  I am happy to report that it has found its way to a collector who plans to restore it to its former glory.  

Loeser's Deli, 214 W 231st St, Bronx
This Kingsbridge Kosher deli had been a neighborhood stalwart since 1960.  It appears to have closed permanently at the end of 2019 owing to a buildings department gas line snafu.   


Health Wise Pharmacy, 1494 York Ave., Manhattan
The Upper East Side's Health Wise Pharmacy ditched its circa-1960 neon in favor of plastic-faced LED signs early in 2020.  Its lovely script window sign had already vanished, the result of a stray taxi that launched itself through the storefront back in 2016.  


Quinn Funeral Home, 35-20 Broadway, Manhattan
Astoria's landmark Quinn funeral home decamped to Woodside in late 2018, and the bell has since tolled for its lovely script raceway sign.  

Miller's Prescriptions, 173 Broad St, Staten Island
Miller's is still around but I'm sorry to report that they ditched one of Staten Island's very last neon storefront signs for more LED plastic bleh, which as far as I know leaves just one historic neon storefront on all of the Island.  

AND THE ONES TO WATCH IN 2021:

Clover Delicatessen, 621 2nd Ave., Manhattan
Clover was just about everyone's favorite.  Located near the east midtown hospitals, they became a kind of a mascot for many of the frontline workers who trudged back and forth along 34th Street on their way to and from work, and for the neighborhood at large, which they served through three generations of family ownership.  Alas, citing a downturn in traffic and the general difficulties of running a business during the pandemic, the owners decided it was time to bow-out and Clover quietly closed in the summer of 2020.  The family owns the building and is hoping to lease the storefront to a business that might want to keep the signs right where they have been since they were installed in 1956, so stay tuned on this one. 

Flat Fixed, 14 E23rd St, Manhattan
One of New York's more vivacious neon storefronts, the restaurant that most recently operated under the name "Flat Fixed" closed up shop amid the pandemic, leaving for-lease banners under those darkened signs. These signs are a bit of a mystery; the vertical BAR sign appears to have been installed here for a business called the Metro Tavern in 1941. The horizontal raceway sign looks to be from the 1950s. Here's hoping a new occupant will set these things aglow again soon.

Trailer Park, 271 W 23rd St., Manhattan
Though not old-old, Chelsea's Trailer Park was part restaurant, part museum, and one of the few spots that seemed to stay afloat more than a few years in a neighborhood that has been an epicenter of high rent blight lately.  Its lovely signs are the work of Roadhouse Relics of Austin, Texas.  It's one of several places that have remained closed-up tight since the first pandemic shutdowns went into effect in March.  

Fedora Restaurant, 239 West 4th St., Manhattan
Both restaurant and sign at Fedora were recent reincarnations of the originals, which had been fixtures here from 1952 until their owner - the beloved Fedora Dorato - retired in 2010 at the age of 90.  The restaurant subsequently reopened as a sort of updated tribute to its former self, in a sequence of events that seemed to be a trend for neon-crowned stalwarts in Greenwich Village at that time (n.b. the cases of Minetta Tavern, Rocco Restaurant et.al).  Cold comfort, perhaps, for those of us who loved these places as they were, but the owners kept the signs (or facsimiles thereof) shining and there was something to be said for that, particularly now as the Fedora reboot has become another casualty of the pandemic.  Whatever comes next, let's hope it keeps this neon landmark of the Village right where it has been for the past 68 years.

AND FINALLY

We would be remiss to let the year pass without noting one bit of good news, which was the rescue of incredibly old Neir's Tavern in Woodside, Queens, rescued from the brink of extinction by a groundswell of community support just before the pandemic hit.  Though not neon, this is still a cheerful story that might serve as a useful case study as rescue efforts become the order of the day in the year to come.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Neon News & Links / April 2020 - Part 2

Some bits and pieces of neon news here to help pass your springtime quarantine and give us all something to look forward to on the other side of the COVID-19 lockdown.  


(Frere Jones)

• Have you heard about the fabulous resurrection of the Essex Market sign on Manhattan's Lower East Side AND the new font it inspired? It's a story that warrants its own in-depth blog post and that's just what it gets via the graphic designers Frere Jones.


(Ephemeral New York)

• From the Ephemeral New York blog, we pause to admire the loveliness of Veniero's Pasticceria and its neon. 


(Coolhunting)

• In Brooklyn, the Turk's Inn has brought some vintage Wisconsin neon to Bushwick.  

 
(ShowBiz411)

• From the this-sounds-almost-quaint-in-our-current-dystopian-reality department: "New York is Allowing Developers to Kill The City" looks at three neon-crowned mainstays that hit the chopping block in 2019. 


(Old Salt Blog)

• From the related subjects department - New York State has banned giant Times Square-style floating billboards from circulating around the harbor on barges. 



(Sign Of The Time / Instagram)

• On Manhattan's Upper East Side, Healthwise Pharmacy has ditched its neon and gone LED.  


(NY Post)

• From the NY Post, a look at Times Square's ongoing LED-ification


(Atlas Obscura)

• Via Atlas Obscura: a celebration of Berlin's vanishing commercial typography


(Crosscut.com)

• A status check on Seattle's vintage neon, via Crosscut: "The city's most iconic signs are losing their vaunted glow to LED replacements. But not everyone is giving up on neon." 


(Buzzfeed)


• From the why-not department, via Buzzfeed: "Finding Your Soulmate Based On The Neon Signs You Choose." 


(CreativeMarket)


• From CreativeMarket.com, a deep dive into the fake neon trend (reported on in this blog back in 2018) in graphic design. 

 
(Debra Jane Seltzer / roadarch.blog)

 Debra Jane Seltzer has been making the rounds updating her encyclopedic, coast-to-coast documentation of signs and ephemeral architecture.  The news is predictably not good but the findings are as fascinating as they are heart wrenching, and, as with all of Debra Jane's output, meticulously organized.  Some updates by category: 

   - Midcentury Modern Architecture

   - Signs from Arizona to California 
   - Signs from Florida to Louisiana
   - Roadside Architecture - Gas Stations and Eateries
   - Car Dealers, Giant Animals, and Miscellany


(NeonSpeaks.org)

• And finally, something to look forward to, we hope: this September, the third annual Neon Speaks symposium is still on in San Francisco. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Neon News & Links / April 2020 - Part 1

I suspect I am not alone in having secretly longed for some kind of mandatory downtime to come along and keep me corralled at home with nothing to do but catch up on a long list of backlogged projects. Cleaning out the linen closet, finally cookin' up those hotdogs that have been peeking out at me from the back of the freezer for the past decade, and - yes - whipping up a post or two for the old neon blog.  Pandemic wasn't quite what I had in mind, but - well folks, here we are.  As I write this (April 2020) there's no telling how long our Covid-19 sequester will last - long enough, at least, to check-in on a few neon news items, starting here with part one of at least two. Enjoy these in good health and solitude. 


(Gothamist)

• Covid-19 might get you in the lungs, but this one's coming straight for your gut: the landmark Coffee Shop sign on Union Square is gone.  The Coffee Shop shuttered in 2018 in the face of a crushing rent hike. After months sitting empty, the space finally revived (if you can call it that) as a Chase Bank branch in late 2019.  When the old sign, a favorite of many, disappeared just before New Year's, some of us crossed our fingers that it might just be out for restoration.  Alas, this was too good to hope for: a plastic-faced LED sign appeared in its place.  As a tribute to its predecessor, the new sign is salt in the wound, arguably worse than nothing at all. In a fateful twist (of the knife), the shuttered eatery had opened decades ago as the Chase Coffee Shop, an irony attested to by script lettering cast into its vestibule floor.  Of course, Chase (the bank) got rid of that, too.





Chase then and now. (T. Rinaldi) 


(Jeremiah's Vanishing NY)

• Last summer New York lost its cherished Paris Theatre, then got it back again a few weeks later, reincarnated as a special screening venue for Netflix. 


(Business Insider)

• Via the Jeremiah's Vanishing NY blog: De Robertis' Pastry Shop disappeared back in 2014 and last year so too did its timeworn relic sign


(Jeremiah's Vanishing NY)

• Bad news downtown: Forlini's, Little Italy's long standing last gasp below Canal Street, is likely to close this year, as reported by Eater in January 2020. 


(Eater)

• From the not-neon-but-still-cool department: Photographer Arthur Riley's Dash to Document Every Diner in New York (via Preservation Mag Online). 


(Preservation Online)

• Via the Ephemeral NY Blog: a remembrance of New York's vanished network of neon-encrusted McAnn's Bars. 


(themoviedistrict.com via Ephemeral NY)

• In upstate NY, Coxsackie's triple-screen Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre is up for sale


(Kingston Daily Freeman)

• From way out west: meet Bea Haverfield, designer of iconic signs in midcentury Seattle (via the Seattle Times).


(Seattle Times)

• From the king's ransom department: a neon-lit boot from the vanished Regal Shoe chain has turned up on eBay


(eBay)

• Feeling cooped up? Now might be a great time for a virtual road trip with Debra Jane Seltzer, inimitable documentarian of signs and roadside architecture. Debra Jane piloted her trusty van Sparkle on a 29-day road trip last year from Louisiana to Oklahoma, publishing the outtakes in a series of blog posts starting last June. "I put another 12,519 miles on Sparkle's odometer (nearly 500,000 now).  That's an average of about 417 miles per day.  I took more than 4,000 photos.  I spent $2231 on gas (about $74 per day).  Granted, Sparkle only gets about 17mpg but when you're traveling with four dogs & you need the space for clothes, human/dog supplies & other stuff, you gotta suck that up." You can track the trip by starting with this kick-off post and following along with the series that follow.  And check out Debra Jane's what's new page at her main web archive. 


(roadarch.blog)

• From the Shorpy blog, a nationwide roundup of scenes from the neon-lit past, most of them captured by photographers shooting under the auspices of the federal government's WPA-era Farm Security and Resettlement administrations in the lead-up to WWII:  



San Joaquin Valley, CA, 1939
Pierre, SD, 1940
Grand Forks, ND, 1940
Michigan, ND, 1937
Des Moines, 1940
Dubuque, 1940
Corpus Christi, 1939
New Orleans, 1940
Clarksdale, MS, 1940
Alexandria, LA, 1940
Bardstown, KY, 1940
Saginaw, MI, 1941
Orlando, FL, 1955

• Check out NEON SPECTACULAR: JAPAN, a Kickstarter project by Kody Shafer who has set out to document Japan's famous neon-lit commercial landscape as it fades to LED. 


(Neon Spectacular: Japan / Kickstarter)

• From KQED in San Francisco, a videographic appreciation of the signs by the bay.  


(KQED / YouTube)

• And finally, wrapping up on an up-beat bit of New York neon news: a happy development in the on-again-off-again restoration of the Loft's Candies storefront on Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan, whose neon tubes are back in place. We'll be keeping tabs for more on this as it continues to develop. 

(Let There Be Neon / Instagram) 

That's all for Part 1.  Thanks to all who sent me tip-offs for the above.  Stay well, stay safe, stay home and stay tuned for more neon news later this month.