Thursday, August 2, 2018

Neon News & Links

 From the good-news-for-once department, word that 42nd Street's monumental Hotel Tudor sign has come back alight.  

 I'm on TV!  Talkin' Neon at Let There Be Neon with Ovation TV's Kyle Supley.

(Ovation TV)

 Way out west, director Quentin Tarantino has done a serious solid for admirers of LA neon: for the production of his next film "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" Tarantino has "recreated old theaters and storefronts with astonishing detail." 

(Curbed LA)

• I'm a little behind the ball on posting this one, but don't let that stop you from enjoying this graphic tribute to the late Carnegie Deli by illustrator Julia Rothman.

(Julia Rothman)

 Let there be ...  another NEW YORK NEON WALKING TOUR!  But it's already sold out, alas.  This tour is sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and is currently available for GVSHP members only.  Stay tuned for news of future tours, which will be reported at this blog.

 From the not-neon-but-still-interesting department, feast your eyes on a selection of NYC's Italian culinary signage via the Ephemeral NY blog. 

 Via the Shorpy blog, the following: 

     > Not neon and not NY but a sign so fantastic that who cares. 
     > Neon New Mexico, 1940.  

 Union Square's Coffee Shop, whose glorious vertical sign is a perennial favorite among admirers of New York neon, has joined the endangered list with the restaurant's closing announced for this October. See this coverage at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, and at Eater

 From the Neon-in-Art department, a lot going on: 

     > Old Town Bar and other neon landmarks of New York on canvasby artist Borbay.
     > More fantastic neon on canvas by Mary Anne Erickson. 
     > Radio City neon in the distance in this 1936 view by John J. Soble, via Ephemeral NY. 
     > From photographers James & Karla Murray, a crazy cool display of "Mom n Pops of the Lower East Side" is on view outdoors at Seward Park . . . and indoors at the Storefront Project on Orchard Street. 

(Fractured Atlas)

 In the great southwest, Debra Jane Seltzer has undertaken maybe her most comprehensive documentary road trip yet: California to Tuscon Parts 1-30, starts here

 The Times pays a visit to Lite Brite Neon of Gowanus in a piece on artists and artisans. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Hotel Neon: the Penn-Post Hotel

In the whole dark, sordid milieu of New York's gritty neon-clad hotels, one establishment stands out as a particularly dark star.  A nondescript parking lot is all that remains where once stood the Penn-Post Hotel, at the southwesterly corner of Eighth Avenue and West 31st Street in Manhattan.  Scratch just a little below the asphalt, and this unassuming corner comes alive with stories of sin and scandal that could make even Philip Marlowe himself think twice before taking the case.

The Penn-Post circa 1920 (Duke University Libraries)

I first noticed the Penn-Post in an old photo from the early 1970s, taken just before it was torn down.  Something about the place seemed worth second look.  But where to start?  The hotel's name lay partly hidden behind a M34 "Culture Loop" bus parked in the foreground.  Beyond the bus, a tantalizing glimpse of the hotel's ancient neon sign yielded only the letters "PENN P-"

(Joe Testagrose) 

I filled in the rest a few months later, on a visit to the Municipal Archives downtown.  It took just a few minutes to scan through a grainy, microfilmed copy of a 1933 City Directory pulled from a battered metal file cabinet.  "Penn-Post Hotel," it said: "Marg't L. Donohue, mgr."  Something told me ole Peggy must have been quite a gal. I decided to keep digging.

(Joe Testagrose) 

With the hotel's name in hand, the rest came easy.  Exactly when the Penn-Post first reared its head on this corner is unclear:  the building likely dates to the 1870s or so, but the name must have come after the advent of the neighboring General Post Office (now the Farley PO), opened in 1914, and of course Penn Station, opened in 1910.  The hotel turns up with an encouraging illustration in the 1920 edition of something called the "Official Hotel Red Book and Directory," advertising itself as the "Penn-Post Hotel For Men . . . A Place You'll Like!"  

"A Place You'll Like!" (Official Red Book and Directory, 1920)

Turns out the Penn-Post wasn't all that likable, unless maybe you had nowhere else to go.  A New York Times search yields a succession of headlines that read like a stack of film noir screenplays.  First comes the murder, in November 1920, of one Leeds Vaughn Waters, "globe-trotter,"  by a certain John Reidy, aged 24, deserter from the navy.  Waters, it seems, picked up Reidy on 42nd Street in the wee hours of Wednesday, November 3rd.  Reidy later told police that Waters, apparently a friendly sort, invited him to spend the night in his rooms at the nearby Hotel Plymouth.  One thing led to another and Waters wound up dead at the hands of his new friend.  The cops caught up with Reidy a few weeks later, at the Penn-Post Hotel.  

The next year, more trouble:  "Two Restaurants and Hotel Robbed," read the headline.  At around 2 a.m. on December 21st, a pair of armed assailants kicked off a minor-league crime spree at the Penn-Post, where they managed to shake down the night manager for $50 (they also made off with the room clerk's diamond tie clasp.)  "They were swarthy," said the Times of the gunmen, who remained at large the next day.

1922: another year, another stick-up, this time complete with a cops-n-robbers car chase straight out of the Untouchables.  The two gunmen had just gotten started with the night clerk when the cops, alerted by "a newsboy known only as 'Abie,'" crashed the party.  Caught off guard, the bad guys split up: one dove into a getaway car where a couple of girlfriends were waiting and took off down Eighth Avenue.  New York's finest commandeered a passing sedan and gave chase, finally catching up with the bad guys at First Avenue and 18th Street, shots exchanged all along the way.  The girls wound up in the slammer, but the gunman got away.  The other bandit meanwhile had hopped on the running board of a "north-bound touring car" headed up Eighth Avenue and, "holding his pistol at the chauffeur's head, ordered him to put on at full speed."  A police detective hailed another passing car and tailed him as far as 47th Street, but the second gunman too managed to give the law the slip.

The Penn-Post made headlines again in 1923, when one of its residents - a certain Frank Kelly - got himself shot in the neck by the men in blue after a botched robbery attempt at a pool hall on West 41st Street.  The hotel lost another lodger to the clink in 1924, when police nabbed Edward Diamond, aged 21, for holding up a jewel truck (aptly) that June.  The cops collared yet another of the Penn-Post's esteemed guests the following year, this time arresting one James Tackney for allegedly making off with $35 from the 14th Street Station of the Ninth Avenue El.  Tackney, a bit of a bad seed, had previously escaped from the Randall's Island "House of Refuge" (juvenile prison) by swimming across the East River.

1926 brought the unhappy story of Mr. and Mrs. Norman Sharkey of Scranton.  Having planned themselves a holiday weekend in the big city, the Sharkeys made an ill-advised booking at the Penn-Post.  As it happened, their visit coincided with one of the hotel's seasonal hold-ups.  Craving an early morning snack, Mr. Sharkey had gone out for "some coffee and crullers" and came back just as the night clerk was forking over the contents of the hotel's safe to three armed men.  Sharkey's bad timing cost him $495 in cash and a diamond ring reportedly worth $450.  Later that day, the couple picked up their car on 26th Street only to discover that their topcoats had been likewise pilfered:  "Mr. and Mrs. Sharkey were thoroughly robbed in their brief stay in the city," reported the Times. 

The headlines for the rest of 1926 didn't get much better:  "Slaying Laid To Feud of Drug Peddlers" in June, then "30 Crimes Fastened on Weeping Gunmen" in July (the Penn-Post figures into both stories tangentially).  Then came another armed robbery in 1927 ("3 Youths Steal Car, Hold Up Two Places"), this time unburdening the hotel of $282 ($52 from the night manager, $5 from the porter, and $225 from the safe).  "Gunmen Shot Down in a Running Fight" came the news the following April, as the Penn-Post lost another guest to the scales of justice that spring.  "Held For Robbing Friend," headlined the Penn-Post's next moment of fame: "Ricardo Diaz, 24 years old, an unemployed waiter living at the Penn-Post Hotel . . . was held on $5000 bail yesterday. . . ."   A heist of silver fox skins led to the loss of yet another tenant in 1930.  This was followed by another stick-up in July of '31, then at least three more guests claimed by the law in 1935 and 36. 

The most notorious name on the Penn-Post's illustrious guest register may have been that of Charles McGale, whom the police collared (at the Penn-Post) for a botched robbery in January 1936.  Sentenced to fifteen years at Sing Sing, McGale apparently got antsy about five years in.  He and two fellow inmates decided to make a break for it in April of 1941.  "4 Dead, 2 Captured in Sing Sing Break" read the front page of the Times on April 15th.  McGale and his cohorts made it to freedom, however briefly, but not before fatally shooting a guard while checking out.  Minutes after breaking free, one of the escaped prisoners got caught up in a mutually-fatal gunfight with a local patrolman from the Ossining PD.  (The fourth casualty was an unentangled inmate who dropped dead of a heart attack upon hearing news of the break.)  McGale and his surviving conspirator hijacked a rowboat and made it across the Hudson River to Rockland County, where they were promptly arrested and returned to Sing Sing. Both men got the chair the following June. 

Things seemed to quiet down at the Penn-Post after the 1930s.  Maybe the hotel's glory years were behind it.  Or maybe the Times had better things spill its ink on.  In any case, the litany of headlines trails off to a trickle by the 1940s.  This is not to say that the hotel turned over a new leaf.  A 1964 story made subtle reference to a little secret the Penn-Post kept down in its basement all the while:  "Policeman Demoted Over Hotel Inquiry," read the headline, a somewhat demure outline of a case in which a deputy police inspector got himself in hot water for "impeding a police investigation into alleged homosexual activities" at the hotel.

The Penn-Post didn't offer much in the way of amenities, except for a "turkish bath" in its basement.  This was open to guests and non-guests alike.  "Hotel for men," read the advertisement back in 1920, "a place you'll like!"  While a reform commission identified the Penn-Post as a house of assignation as early as early as 1923, the baths downstairs had earned a reputation as a down-low meeting place for gay men by the 1920s. 

"Beginning in the 1920s, the Penn-Post Baths, located . . . in the basement of a seedy assignation hotel on West Thirty-first Street near Eighth Avenue, offered a strikingly different sexual scene," writes historian George Chauncey in his book Gay New York.  "Like the [nearby Everard baths], it was busiest in the evening, especially after the bars closed, during lunch, and right after work, when it drew men from the many offices and depots in the neighborhood and from among the commuters who passed through Penn Station, just across the street.  But because it was so cheap, its clientele ... included poorer office and manual workers.  It had none of the privacy or elegance of the Everard, for its facilities consisted of little more than one large room, which held a dozen or so bunks and a few benches, plus a shower room and a tiny steam room, and its exhibitionistic sexual scene, as well as its 'low-class' clientele, gave it a somewhat unsavory reputation among middle-class gay men."

(Duke University Libraries)

While the Times laid this aspect of the Penn-Post story between the lines, the hotel's gay days are recounted in greater detail in the book "Alienated Affections" by Stanley Kleinberg, who frequented the basement baths beginning in the 1940s.  Kleinberg described the establishment as an "eerie Turkish bath" where he "paid a dollar to 'use the showers'" while still a minor.   "What I saw at the Penn-Post was lust in action," he wrote, "silent, genital, brief and somewhat grim. . . . there were no rooms or corners, no place for privacy and therefore no place for foreplay. I did not see two men kiss for years . . . by then, the Penn-Post was attracting younger men with its growing reputation as the raunchiest baths in town." 

A "Ten-Cent Turkish Bath" on the Bowery, c. 1900. (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

The Penn-Post made its last New York Times appearance in a 1974 story on Single Room Occupancy hotels being shut down to make way for various more lucrative redevelopment schemes.  Long before New York's hyper-gentrification seemed even a remote possibility in a then crumbling Gotham, city agencies were already monitoring conditions at places like the Penn-Post on behalf of the elderly and other low income persons for whom they provided much needed de-facto affordable housing.  The Penn-Post, reported the Times, was one of at least 23 SROs that had closed in the preceding year.

The city's Department of Buildings issued a demolition permit for the old hotel in 1975, still a few years before the the AIDS crisis exploded and the health department put an end to New York's bath house culture in the 1980s.  A fenced-in parking lot now occupies the corner where the hotel once stood.  The stretch of Eighth Avenue below Penn Station remains one of the last bastions of urban grit in midtown, though it too, has begun to turn.  A few blocks down Eighth Avneue, the old Vigilant Hotel - one of the city's last Bowery-style flops - seems finally to have flipped its last flop. On the same block as the Penn-Post, the gutted shell of the old D'Aiuto bakery sits empty, while on the next corner, a new neon sign heralds the Riff Chelsea, a hip hotel with "rockstar rooms for 2-star rates."  One TripAdvisor review laments the "just-get-over-it" attitude of the hotel's staff, but concedes that its "location is perfect."

Eighth Avenue and West 31st Street in 2018. (T. Rinaldi)

POSTSCRIPT: The Real Deal reports that the Riff Chelsea was sold for $28 million in May 2018.  The hotel closed immediately and is being prepped for demolition at the time of posting.  

THIS IS THE NINTH in a series of stories entitled "Hotel Neon," exploring the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche. See also:

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Neon News & Links

 From the another-one-bites-the dust department: Armando's, redsauce stalwart of Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, has gone to neon's the great beyond.  

(T. Rinaldi)

 Via the Jeremiah's Vanishing New York blog: in midtown Manhattan, high rent blight is encroaching on Cambridge Liquors and its great, gritty corner.   

(T. Rinaldi)

 Also from JVNY, word that 8th Avenue's Show World Center has peeped its last, bringing down the curtain on one of the last vestiges of Times Square's bad old days. 

(T. Rinaldi)

 From the still-more-bad-news-from-Jeremiahs-Vanishing-New-York department, say goodbye to B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill on 42nd Street, a latterday neon landmark of Times Square.  

(T. Rinaldi)

 By way of the Ephemeral New York blog, tributes to three neon landmarks past and present:  

  > Jack Dempsey's, a bygone neon staple on 8th Avenue  
  > Julian's, a long-vanished 14th Street pool hall.
  > The 20th Century Garage and its forgotten cinematic past.
(Ephemeral New York)

 From way out west, another incredible tour-de-neon from Debra Jane Seltzer.  

 From Greenpoint, Brooklyn, two more neon death notices on a single block: J. Smolenski Funeral Home has shuttered, and J. Joseph's Furniture & Appliances has closed and been demolished for new luxury residential construction. 

Gone and gonner:  J. Smolenski and J. Josephs, neon neighbors on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. (T. Rinaldi)

 For the fake neon enthusiast, Bud Lite's Post Malone Dive Bar Tour has gone for the gold on Instagram.  

 From the not-neon-but-still-cool department, a fabulous graphic tribute to New York in the 80s from Ilya Milstein via the NYT Style Mag. or the fake neon enthusiast, Bud Lite's Post Malone Dive Bar Tour has gone for the gold on Instagram.  

 And finally, from the let's-try-to-end-on-something-positive department - a super awesome looking outdoor exhibit of old neon signs has been installed in Boston's Rose Kennedy Greenway.  

(Chris Christo / Boston Herald)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Ephemeral Landmarks of the Eternal City

In a city known for older, more monumental landmarks, the ancient neon signs of Rome tend to get lost in the fray.  Yet 20th century Romans embraced neon as much as anyone, and the city has the commercial archeology to prove it. 

UPIM, 169 Via del Tritone

When I first visited Rome as a kid, its neon signs were one of the first things I noticed.  I remember my amusement in reading projecting signs backwards when approaching them from the "wrong" side.  Unlike neon signs back in the US, whose lettering was typically mounted over solid sheet metal sign faces, projecting signs in Rome were characterized by an open latticework of neon tubes attached to an almost invisible framework. 

UPIM in reverse. 

In addition to using half as much neon tubing, this approach required almost none of the costly metalwork involved in typical North American signs of the same period.  Especially in postwar Europe, with resources scarce, this must have represented a critical savings.  The same technique, I later learned, can be found elsewhere in Europe and Latin America as well.

Scene from "Boccaccio '70" (1962)

Rome has so much great old commercial signage that it once occurred to me there might be enough here for a book dedicated to the subject.  As it happens, that book has already been written:  Louise Fili's fantastic "Grafica Della Strada," published in 2014, is as fine an homage to the subject as one can conjure.  (Fili has issued companion volumes for Paris and Barcelona.)  

"Grafica della Strada" by Louise Fili.  

Like most tourists in Rome, my attention on that first visit was usurped by the usual suspects - the Forum, the Vatican - some of the most photographed places on the planet.  But on subsequent visits, my interest gravitated towards more ephemeral parts of the Roman cityscape.  Now, 20-odd years later, the Colosseum and the Pantheon look pretty much as they have since the advent of photography.  The big UPIM sign on Via del Tritone however has vanished forever.  Rome's other neon signs seem similarly destined to be outlived by the ancient buildings from which they hang.  When they go, these relics of the Rome of Fellini and De Sica will take with them a certain magic from the streets whose character they helped define for generations.  Over in the forum, though, I doubt anyone will take much notice.  

Ristorante Veneto (Closed) / Via del Viminale 15

Il Messaggero / Via del Tritone 154

Ristorante Da Giggetto / Via del Portico D'Ottavia 21a-22

Calzature Ugo Celli / Via Arenula 86

Ditta G. Spizzichino Di Spizzichino Ester / Via di Santa Maria del Pianto 18

Ristorante Alfredo alla Scofa (Il Vero Alfredo) / Piazza Augusto Imperatore 30

Fiori Romano (L'Angoletto Romano) / Via Tomacelli 20

Antichità / Largo della Fontanella di Borghese

Tabacchi Verni Emanuele / Piazzale Prenestino 20

Frutteria / 5 Via Raimondo Montecuccoli

Ristorante da Robertino / Via Panisperna 231

Barbiere / for the life of me I can't remember where this was.

A. Guidi Abbigliamento / Via Principe Eugenio 6-8

Cinema America / Via Natale del Grande 6

Antica Trattoria Bersagliere / Via Giovanni Amendola 18

Trattoria Esperia Pizzeria / Via Firenze 16-17

Trattoria Rosetta / Via della Rosetta 8-9

Albergo Sole / Via del Biscione 76

Cinema Alcazar / Via Cardinale Merry del Val 14

Hotel L’Impero / Via del Viminale 19

Farmacia Santa Agata / Piazza Sidney Sonnino 47

Chico Er Carettiere / Via Benedetta 10

Bar Sistina / Via Sistina 127 

Bar San Callisto / Piazza di S. Calisto 4

Antica Pizzicheria Ruggeri / Piazza Campo de' Fiori 1

Macelleria Fadda Giovanni / 28 Via D'Ascanio

Vittorio / Viale Trastevere 38

Trattoria Esedra / Via Principe Amedeo 3

Abbigliamento Sermoneta / Piazza del Viminale 17

L’Antica Roma Ristorante / Via dei Cappuccini

Ristorante Canova / Piazza del Popolo 16-17

F.A.M.A.R. / Piazza Unità 51

Hotel Genio / Via Giuseppe Zanardelli, 28

Autorimessa / Piazza della Trinita dei Pellegrini 28

Lana della Vecchia Merceria / Via dei Baullari 3

Al Sogno / Piazza Navona 53

San Eustachio / Piazza di S. Eustachio

Farmacia / Via Giovanni Giolitti 21

Dal Pollarolo 1936 / Via di Ripetta 4

Bar Monti / Via Urbana 93

Caffe Leonina, 68 Via Leonina

Checco er Carrettiere / Via Benedetta 6

Antico Bar Pasticceria Mariani / Via dei Pettinari 44

Trattoria Al Fagianetto / Via Filippo Turati, 21

Trattoria Giovanni, Via Filippo Turati 36

Ristorante L'Europeo da Colella Giovanni / Via Principe Amedeo 8

Ristorante La Piccola Cuccagna / Via della Cuccagna 14

Trattoria Da Giggi / Via delle Carrozze 53/54

Bar della Croce / Via della Croce 80

La Tavernella / Via Ezio 5

And lastly, calling cards from some of Rome's neon shops. 

(Cinema Paradiso)