I had been photographing old neon signs around the city for a year or so when one day a troubling thought crossed my mind: what if someone asked me to point out New York’s oldest neon sign? I decided I’d better have a good answer. Two years later, I’m still waiting for someone to pop the question. Which is lucky for me, because two years later I still don’t have a good answer. In theory, records at the NYC Department of Buildings should be able to clear this up. But these are spotty and difficult to access, so we’ll probably never know for sure which is truly New York’s oldest existing neon sign.
Nonetheless, I have narrowed the pool down to a small handful of contenders, one of which we can be pretty certain holds the title for New York’s oldest. These signs have demonstrated an incredible tenacity: each has been in use for more than eight decades, a feat that never ceases to amaze me. New York’s first neon sign appeared in 1924 (more on that in a later post); it is remarkable to think that these survivors appeared just a few years later.
The oldest sign whose installation date I have yet confirmed is the large neon fascia display on the façade of the Loew’s Paradise Theatre on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The theater opened on September 7, 1929, and the sign is original to its construction. It is likely the work of Strauss & Co., Inc. predecessor of the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., which had a contract with Loews to install and service signs for their New York-area theaters.
The Loew's Paradise in the Bronx,
then (1930) and now. (flickr/Brad Smith; T. Rinaldi)
There are a handful of old signs for which I could find no documentation, but which are likely as old or older than the Loew’s Paradise display. Techniques and popular taste in sign making changed so quickly in the 1920s and 30s that one can often guess a sign’s date of fabrication within a few years’ based on design details such as moldings, typeface or silhouette.
Until a few years ago, one contender hung on that gritty stretch of Eighth Avenue near the corner of 46th Street: the neon emblazoned disk of Collins Bar most likely dated from around the year 1930. With its fantastic typeface and delicate border molding, it was so picture perfect I was sure it had to have been salvaged from somewhere else and installed here later on as a gesture of retro-chic. But the city’s tax photo proves that it had been in place at this location since at least 1950. It disappeared around 2007 as the building’s tenants were forced to move out to make way for new construction on the site. Here’s hoping it found a good home somewhere.
Collins Bar, formerly at 46th and 8th. (T. Rinaldi)
Further down Eighth Avenue in Chelsea hangs the sign of the Spruce Florist. The city’s tax photo shows it hanging above this storefront as early as 1940, but its style suggests it had already been here for at least a few years by then. Its tubes are missing from one side and the other hasn’t been lit in years. It's due for a good refurbishment.
Spruce Florist, on 8th Avenue in Chelsea. (T. Rinaldi)
Across town, the fragmentary remains of the Orpheum Theatre’s neon marquee cast a warm glow over the east side of Second Avenue near St. Mark's Place. Only one of the marquee’s three faces remains in place. For some years its neon tubes were missing, but happily the management had them re-fabricated and the sign glows anew today. It boasts a particularly handsome typeface.
The Orpheum on 2nd Avenue. (T. Rinaldi)
Far away in Coney Island, Nathan’s Famous offers what is certainly the city’s most impressive display of old neon today. Most of the signs at Nathan’s date to c. 1960. But the vertical sign is older, a product of the early 1930s or before. Like the sign that once hung over Collins Bar, it features a stamped sheet metal border molding typical for that period. Its distinctive shape and raised metal letters are also representative of the era.
Nathan's Famous. Border molding and distinctive shape
typical for signs of the late '20s and early '30s. (T. Rinaldi)
Just around the corner from Nathan’s, the Wonder Wheel is similarly festooned in a barrage of classic neon. Like Nathan’s, most of the Wonder Wheel’s signs are of midcentury vintage. The oldest stands modestly beneath the wheel off to one side. Walker Evans photographed this sign in 1929 or 1930, making it at least 81 years old, and it could be older still.
Wonder Wheel sign, photographed by Walker Evans
c. 1929 (left) and by me in July 2011 (right). A refresh-
ment stand now occupies Evans' original vantage point.
(Walker Evans First & Last; T. Rinaldi)
For now at least, the true identity of New York’s oldest neon sign remains unknown, like Jimmy Hoffa’s final resting place, Captain Kidd’s treasure, the Maltese Falcon and those missing 18 minutes of Watergate tape. Somehow, it seems appropriate.