Thursday, October 27, 2011


Nothing says "trick-or-treat" like this neon pumpkin, who has brightened my diurnal walk to work from his perch in the display window of the Goodwill Store on West 25th Street near Sixth Ave.  He is emphatically NOT for sale ("boss says I'd get fired if I sold it") but appears to be the work of the Neonetics of Hampstead, Maryland, and can be found on eBay for about $40.

The 25th Street Goodwill meanwhile has some noteworthy neon of its own.  The facade is crowned by a fascia sign with fluorescent blue neon tubes shielded behind a sheet of stainless diamond-plate steel, from which Goodwill's comic-sans-like logotype glows in silhouette when the sign comes alight.  Unfortunately it is mounted rather high up and is somewhat obscured by a big street tree, making it a little difficult to see.  Langston Hughes once said that he liked neon signs "as much, if not better than trees."  While I might agree in some contexts, on West 25th Street I'm content to have both.

Happy Halloween, Goodwill Store!  I'll see you for some last minute costume shopping this Saturday...


I have added a handful of new signs to the main New York Neon site: 
• The Sheraton New York, formerly the Americana (sign gone now)    
The Essex House, on Central Park South  
• The recently-landmarked Shore Theatre in Coney Island   
• Added a better photo of Queens Wines & Liquors     

And, from Brooklyn, word of new life for Hinsch's Confectionery

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The MONY weather beacon has been LED-ed.  I noticed it the other night, while running across Broadway in the rain, late for a dinner date.  The familiar old incandescent bulbs that told the time and temperature and zipped up the mast above are gone, together with the red neon glow in the star-shaped finial, all replaced with bright amber LEDs.  The change seems to have taken place over the summer.

MONY versus MONY, before and after. (T. Rinaldi)

Truth be told, the old weather beacon had begun to look a little sad of late.  Its codified weather signals hadn't worked in years, and the only thing you could count on seeing up there was a patchwork of burned out bulbs.  It's looking healthier now, if a bit sterile.

Before LED-ification, 4,200 lamps studded the Weather Star's 150-foot spire.  Keeping them lit proved a challenge.  (T. Rinaldi)

More properly known as the Mutual Life "Skymark" or "Weather Star", the installation first appeared in 1950, perched atop the new headquarters building of the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York at Broadway and West 55th Street.  Conceived by famed Times Square sign man Douglas Leigh (1907-1999) and fabricated by the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., the Weather Star was produced by the same team responsible for virtually all of Times Square’s midcentury neon spectaculars, including the puffing Camel Cigarettes sign.  It was originally accompanied by a large neon sign reading MUTUAL LIFE in gold neon mounted to the parapet wall below the beacon.  The sign was later re-lettered "Mutual Of New York", then simply "MONY".  A re-hashed MONY sign appeared in 1998, which finally made way for the existing LED-powered "1740", installed in 2008 after the insurance company disappeared into an alphabet soup of mergers and acquisitions (MONY is now part of AXA S.A.).  

The Weather Star c. 1968, in a frame enlargement from "Midnight Cowboy."

The Weather Star meanwhile remained largely unchanged through the years (apart from some minor improvements made in 1965), outliving all of its Times Square cousins.  As originally programmed, the 4,200 bulbs on its 150-foot mast zipped up to indicate rising temperatures, down if the forecast called for cooler weather, and remained static if no change was predicted.  The star changed from green to orange to white to indicate fair or cloudy skies, rain or snow. 

MONY used the weatherbeacon as a corporate logotype in its advertising during the 1950s and 60s. (Life Magazine, June 24, 1957)

Similar weather beacons appeared in other cities (MONY has a cousin at the Mutual Life building in Syracuse; Wikipedia counts more than 70 around the world).  But the Weather Star was New York's own. "From my office, I could look across town to the weather signal on the Mutual of New York Building," wrote Joan Didion in Goodbye to All That: "that pleased me obscurely."  Tommy James cited the display as the inspiration for the 1968 hit "Mony Mony": "It's almost as if God Himself had said, 'Here's the title.' I've always thought that if I had looked the other way, it might have been called 'Hotel Taft.'" The beacon had a bit part in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, backing up a questionable scrabble move by the hapless Joe Buck.  When MONY briefly dimmed the beacon in 1979 in an attempt to save an estimated $50,000 annually on its upkeep, a small outcry convinced the company to turn the lights back on. 

My gut reaction to the Weather Star's LED-ification came as a pang of nostalgic lament for the old incandescent bulbs.  It looks just a little too uniform, especially with the star in the same orangey LED hue as the rest of it.  But consider the alternative: the building is not Landmarked, and its owner – Vornado Realty Trust – could just as easily have taken the thing down altogether.  Much as I am invariably saddened by the loss of superannuated technology, it's nice to see new life breathed into the old girl.  Now if only they could bring back the beacon's animated, color-coded forecasting scheme so those of us without smartphones might once again get our weather on the fly . . .  

"Mony Mony" hit Number One on the UK Singles Chart in 1968.  (YouTube)
MONY Weather Star Fact Sheet
from Signs of the Times magazine, January 1951:

• Electrical Consumption: 170 kw
• Lamps: 4,200
• Neon Tubing: 3,500 feet
• Transformers: 85
• Wiring: 17,000 feet
• Height of Clock Numerals: 7 feet, 6 inches
• Combined Weight Mast & Base: 32.5 tons
• Diameter of Star Finial: 10 feet (from point to point)
• Height to top of Star Finial: 526 feet
• Estimated Range of Visibility: 5 miles

For more, see:

Signs of the Times magazine, September 1950 (cover), January 1951 (pp. 41-42), and November 1965 (p. 100).
• Georgia Brittan, "MONY Star Extinguished." New York Magazine, March 12, 1979
• David Dunlap, “No More MONY in the Midtown Skyline.”  New York Times, February 8, 2008


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

American Neon

Sixteen stories over Broadway, the remnants of an old painted sign reading AMERICAN NEON are still faintly visible.  They cling to the side of a 21-story office tower at 989 Sixth Avenue, just above Herald Square, known as the Lefcourt Empire Building.  Handsome but rather non-descript, the Lefcourt Empire melds anonymously into the midtown skyline today.  But for a few years in the late 1920s, a giant neon beacon blazed out from its roof, making this one of the most prominent nocturnal landmarks in the city.

16 stories over Sixth Avenue, faint lettering still reads AMERICAN NEON. (T. Rinaldi)

The big neon beacon made its appearance here as an advertising ploy for the American Neon Light & Sign Corp., which organized in 1927. Since the first practical neon signs appeared in the United States in 1923, one company – Claude Neon – had sought to control the neon business by way of patent litigation.  By the late 1920s, however, Claude began to lose its grip on the industry.  American Neon was one of Claude’s first serious challengers.  
 American Neon lit the universe... but not for long.  (Signs of the Times, Sept. 1927)

The company’s backers included A.E. Lefcourt, a prominent real estate developer.  "All but forgotten today," says Wikipedia,  "in his lifetime Lefcourt was known as one of the city's most prolific developers of Art Deco buildings." Keying into the growing fascination with developments in aviation, Lefcourt offered American Neon the roof of the Lefcourt Empire for the construction of a neon "airport signal" intended guide aircraft towards New York from as far as 100 miles away.  To light the beacon, the company brought in Clarence Chamberlin – pilot of the second successful Transatlantic flight (completed in June 1927, just two weeks after Lindbergh) – who flipped the ceremonial switch. "Special provisions have been made for the flashing of any and all code signals on any specific occasion," reported Signs of the Times magazine in August 1928.

Lighting the neon beacon.  (Signs of the Times, Aug. 1928)

American Neon advertisements featuring the beacon.  (Signs of the Times, Nov. 1927 left; July 1928 right)

By appearances, American Neon could hardly have picked a better time to enter the neon business. The years 1927 and 1928 saw neon signs sweep the country in the way LED signs seem to be doing today.  But somehow, things went awry.  Sure enough, the company became embroiled in costly patent litigation – the so-called “neon war” of the late 1920s.  Then came Black Tuesday.  Claude’s crucial patents expired in 1932, but it was too late for American Neon, which declared bankruptcy in 1930.   

989 Sixth Avenue by daylight, Feb 5, 1929, showing the beacon at upper right.  (P.L. Sperr / NYPL)

In the years that followed, American Neon and everything it touched faded into obscurity.  Lefcourt’s real estate empire fell apart during the depression:  he died of a heart attack in 1932, just 55 years of age, leaving behind a small army of frustrated creditors.  While Lindbergh remained a household name for decades, Clarence Chamberlin wound up selling real estate in Connecticut, where he died in 1976.  And once the beacon light went dark, the Lefcourt Empire Building receded into the cityscape, as taller towers rose around it.  Satellite photos reveal no trace of the beacon on its roof today.  But the faded letters remain, a haunting reminder of headier days.  

The Lefcourt Empire today.  (T. Rinaldi)

(More background on American Neon can be found at the fantastic web site

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ode to a Luncheonette

Hinsch’s seemed too good to be true.  Turns out it was.  Various internet sources report that the venerable confectionary and luncheonette, on 5th Avenue by 86th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, has suddenly shut its doors, and two of New York’s finest old signs have gone dark some 63 years after they went up.

Hinsch's occupied this storefront at 8515 5th Avenue in Brooklyn for 63 years. (T. Rinaldi)

This past summer, I gave Hinsch’s a call to ask about the old neon signs that hang over their storefront.  I’ve made a hundred or so calls like this trying to gather as much information as I can about these old signs before the details of their provenance vanish into the ether.  Sometimes the calls go nowhere.  Sometimes a grumpy voice on the other end hangs up on me.  But there are other times when friendly store owners are only too happy to tell me about their family businesses.  I can very often sense great pride in the way they speak.  

Elevation sketch of Hinsch's vertical sign, installed c. 1948.  Rounded ends, porcelain enameled steel in two tones and bird feather details mark this as a fine work of its period. (T. Rinaldi)

The woman who answered at Hinsch’s passed the phone to John Logue, Jr., the owner.   Mr. Logue spoke with a polite, friendly cadence, every bit as pleasant as the business he ran - it was a pleasure to talk with him.  A business association tallied up 685 confectioners in New York 45 years ago, he told me.  This summer he knew of only four that survive.* 

Hinsch’s had been in business at the same location since 1948, but the shop had roots that went back further, having operated on 18th Avenue in Bay Ridge previously.  In 1948, old Mr. Hinsch moved the business to its current address, where a confectioner’s called Reichert’s had already been in operation for at least a decade.  The city’s tax photo from c. 1940 shows Reichert’s storefront with neon signs very similar to the ones Mr. Hinsch installed in 1948 (this was fairly common – many of New York’s old neon signs replaced predecessors of similar configurations).  

Before 1948, 8515 5th Avenue was home to Reichert's Confectionery, with neon signs very similar to those installed by Hinsch. (Municipal Archives)

Mr. Logue’s father began working for Hinsch before the shop moved from its old location on 18th Avenue.  He bought the business outright in 1961 and later passed it to his son, the affable Mr. Logue who kindly lent me a few minutes of his time this summer.

We may never know who Hinsch hired to make his signs back in 1948 – Mr. Logue quite understandably had no idea; the information may or may not lie buried in Buildings Department paperwork somewhere.  The little “Union Made” tag appears to be too faded to yield the numeric code that might identify the maker.  Whoever it was did a fine job.  The signs looked great.  And they lasted 63 years, right up to the day Hinsch’s closed.  I echo Project Neon's plea for a neon angel to give these signs a good retirement.   Meantime, I’ll remember a frigid night in January a few years back, after hours of traversing the city seeking out ancestral neon, when refuge came accompanied by a cheeseburger and a coke, slid my way across the countertop where untold thousands of burgers and cokes had been served up over the  decades. 

Oh well, I guess we still have Burger King.

*The other three confectioneries Mr. Logue mentioned are the Anopoli Ice Cream Parlor on 3rd Avenue at 69th Street in Bay Ridge, and two outside the city limits - Itgen’s Ice Cream Parlor in Valley Stream, and Krisch’s, in Massapequa, the latter with a lovely neon sign of its own.  There is also Eddie’s, in Forest Hills, also with neon.

UPDATE: As of December 2011, Hinsch's is up and running again under new management.