Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lights Out 2012: Signs We Lost This Year

Sad to say, 2012 has been a rough year for New York's old neon signs.  Below is the list of the year's casualties (including a few that vanished in late 2011).  As is usually the case, most of the signs below disappeared along with old, independent businesses, places that had been neighborhood institutions for generations.  A few were lost thanks to Hurricane Sandy.  Put together with last year's losses, this brings us to a total of about 25 great old signs lost from New York in just the past two years.  And the prospectus for 2013 isn't much better (see below).

Maiman's Pharmacy, 821 Franklin Ave., Brooklyn
Silverescent Neon Sign Co., Installed c. 1951
An age-old corner drug store shuttered suddenly this summer.  The place had changed hands in the last few years, at which time the sign was beautifully restored.  Gone now.  More on the sign's provenance here

Crown Caterers, 4909 13th Ave., Brooklyn
Installed c. 1949

Sokol Bros. Furniture, 253 Columbia St., Brooklyn
Installed c. 1953
Store closed, sign removed, building demolished during the summer of 2012.  Sign reportedly salvaged for future re-installation.  

Walter's Hardware Co., 45-17 Broadway, Astoria, Queens
Salzman Sign Co., Installed c. 1955

M&G Southern Fried Chicken, 383 W125th St., Manhattan
Globe Neon Sign Corp., Installed c. 1966
M&G closed back in 2008 (shortly after making a cameo in the film Precious) but the sign hung around until about a year ago.  Gone now.

Eagle (ex-Earle) Theatre, 73-07 37th Road, Queens
Installed c. 1939
Originally the Earle, the marquee was re-lettered when this neighborhood theater re-branded itself the Eagle after a stint showing adults-only fare.  Later became a Bollywood house before finally closing around 2009.  Marquee removed as theater prepped for reported conversion to a "South Asian market and food court."  

Manganaro Foods & Restaurant, 488 9th Ave., Manhattan
Installed c. 1955
Legendary Hell's Kitchen Grosseria Manganaro shuttered in 2012 after 120 years of operation.  The space is now home to Tavola, one of New York's new high-end pizzerie, which has installed a new sign in the style of Manganaro's old one.

J. Leon Lascoff & Sons, 1209 Lexington Ave., Manhattan
Installed 1931
Lascoff's closed in the summer of 2012 after 113 years in business.  The sign had anchored this corner since 1931, making it one of the very oldest surviving neon signs in all of NYC.  Amid pleas for its preservation, the sign turned up for sale on Craigslist.  Re-listed after no-one ponied-up the $12k asking price, the sign finally vanished without a trace.

West Side Tavern, 360 W23rd St., Manhattan
Pioneer Sign Co., c. 1960
The West Side Tavern's old vertical BAR sign has made way for a very convincing facsimile.  

Colony Records, 1619 Broadway, Manhattan
Installed 2003-04
A new sign for an old business.  Colony was around long enough to have three great neon signs, of which this sadly has proved to be the last.

Starlight Lounge, 1086 Bergen Street., Brooklyn
Installed c. 1955
A belated obit for the great wrap-around signs of Crown Heights' Starlight Lounge, which closed in 2010. 

Shore Theatre, 1301 Surf Ave., Brooklyn
probably Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., c. 1938
Blown to bits by Hurricane Sandy.  

Artkraft Strauss Plant, W57th Street and the West Side Highway, Manhattan
Demolished to make way for new residential development.  


Lenox Lounge, 961 Lenox Ave., Manhattan
Installed c. 1960; future uncertain with the impending closure of this Harlem landmark business.

Mitchell's Wine & Liquor Store, 200 West 86th Street, Manhattan
Installed 1946 and 1949, vertical sign by Midtown Neon Sign Co.
Project Neon brought us the troubling news that this sign might be poised to needlessly vanish in the coming months due to a slated storefront renovation.  Sympathetic readers are encouraged to call, write, or stop by to entice the ownership to reconsider.  

Playland Arcade, 1508 Surf Ave., Brooklyn
Higger Sign Co., c. 1950
Already lost most of its letters; Playland Arcade demolition on hold while Coney deals with Hurricane Sandy clean-up.

Brite Buy Liquors, 11 Ave. of the Americas, Manhattan
Higger Electric Sign Co., c. 1959
Brite Buy has closed-up shop; what will happen to the sign remains to be seen.

Gallagher's Steak House, 228 W52nd Street, Manhattan
Installed c. 1946
Gallagher's is set to close in February 2012 after 85 years. 

Pearl Street Diner, 212 Pearl Street, Manhattan
Installed 1958
The Pearl Street Diner is one of the unfortunate legion of restaurants laid-low by Hurricane Sandy, still closed more than two months later.  Here's hoping they can get back on their feet sooner than later.    

Monday, December 24, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

Hotel Neon: The Penn Terminal Hotel

Leonard Cohen's upcoming appearances at Madison Square Garden will be something of a homecoming for this legendary troubadour, who once lived just around the corner.  Though Cohen's stint at the Chelsea Hotel is better remembered, his first New York address was at 215 West 34th Street, at a forgotten place called the Penn Terminal Hotel. 

The former Penn Terminal's old HOTEL sign, pictured around 2009.  (T. Rinaldi) 

Forgotten, and now gone:  the former Penn Terminal vanished just three years ago, having made way for a forthcoming 39-story tower that will house retail space and a new hotel (the retail stores opened for business earlier this year).  

Mr. Cohen occasionally dredges up memories of his days at the Penn Terminal in prefacing performances of the song "Hey, That's No Way To Say Good-Bye," which he penned during his stay there.  "I was living in a brown hotel room on 34th Street in the Penn Terminal Hotel," Cohen recalled at a concert in Montreux in 1976. "It was a terrible hotel room.  The windows wouldn't close.  The radiator wouldn't stop hissing. The faucet wouldn't stop its mythological drip into the porcelain sink.  I was with the wrong woman as usual.  But as your . . . Eastern metaphysicians know, just as from the darkest mud blooms the whitest lotus, so from the brownest hotel room you occasionally get a good song."*

Checking in, checking out: The Penn Terminal's lobby c. 1960.

Another vignette of Cohen's stay at the Penn Terminal appeared on the liner notes of a greatest hits album released the same year.  "This song arises from an over-used bed in the Penn Terminal Hotel in 1966.  The room is too hot.  I can't open the windows.  I am in the mist of a bitter quarrel with a blonde woman.  The song is half-written in pencil but it protects us as we maneuver, each of us, for unconditional victory." 

Memories of the hotel's bohemian backdrop seemed to stay with him through the years.  "I don't want any of you to go there," Cohen remarked of the Penn Terminal at Wiesbaden in 1985: "It's not a bad hotel, but it's very very brown.  Don't go there.  If I see you there I will chase you right out of the lobby."

The ex-Penn Terminal in its last days.  (T. Rinaldi)

The Penn Terminal's big neon HOTEL sign may or may not have cast its red glow across the brown walls and over-used bed of Cohen's room as "That's No Way To Say Good-Bye" lay half-written.  Some time after Cohen moved downtown to the Chelsea Hotel, the Penn Terminal changed hands and re-opened as a Ho-Jo.  But the big HOTEL sign remained in place until the old girl finally ended its days at the Regency Inn and Suites in 2009.  

The site of the Penn Terminal today. (T. Rinaldi)

I remember the sign as a dim, flickering relic, glimpsed over my shoulder one evening a few years before the old hotel closed.  That such a thing could still exist in New York seemed incredible, and sure enough, its days were already numbered.  By the time I went back with my camera, the sign had flickered its last.  When the scaffolding went up not long after, I knew it meant only one thing.  In New York these days, that's the way they seem to say good-bye, one after the next.

*Cohen quotes by way of

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

• Hotel Neon, Part 3: The Cavalier Hotel

 An exhaustive catalog of vintage Swedish neon, anyone?  (Thanks to Tommy Stark in Sweden for this great link.)
 NYNeon featured at the Untapped New York Holiday Guide!  Check out their other features at the link above.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Serota Lights New York

One of the best discoveries made in researching this little neon book of mine was a trove of historic portfolio photographs preserved by Ralph Garcia, a veteran of the Serota Sign Corp of the Bronx.  Large sign companies typically assembled portfolios of their work for promotional purposes.  But by the time I began my research, I heard over and over from the old-timers that I had come too late: "Shoulda called me 20 years ago," they would say. "We threw all that stuff in the trash."

Longchamps Restaurant / formerly in the Chanin Bldg, E42nd Street in Manhattan, c. 1935. 
A fragment of this sign may survive in place beneath newer signage. (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Associated Photo Service)

This remnant of Serota's portfolio was on its way to the trash when Mr. Garcia rescued it more than 20 years ago. It shows about fifty of the thousands of neon signs made by Serota between the 1930s and the 1960s - just a tiny fragment of the company's output.  Some of the older photographs appear to have been inherited from Claude Neon Lights of New York, which Serota took over in 1941.     

Subtle decals still mark Serota's work around New York. (T. Rinaldi)

From modest origins, Serota grew to become possibly the largest and most important sign company in New York by the late 1940s, second only to the better-known Artkraft Strauss Sign Co.  While Artkraft Strauss earned widespread notoriety as the fabricator of the enormous Times Square "spectaculars," Serota made its trade installing storefront signs across the five boroughs and beyond, its name known to few outside the sign industry. 

From a 1960s Serota brochure.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)

Records indicate that Max Serota established Serota Signs around the late 1920s.  A sign painter by trade, Mr. Serota immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1902.  The company grew quickly: in 1941, Serota purchased Claude Neon Lights, Inc., which had formed in 1924 as Georges Claude's first American franchise. (Historians generally cite Claude as the father of neon signs as we know them today.)  Control of the firm eventually passed to Theodore "Teddy" Serota, the founder's son, and later to Richard Diederle, who remained a prominent figure in New York's sign business for decades.

From a 1960s Serota brochure.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.) 

After a series of mergers and acquisitions begun in the 1990s, Serota finally found itself absorbed by Spectrum Signs of Farmingdale, Long Island, which keeps the Claude/Serota legacy alive as one of the most active sign companies in New York today. And while old signs bearing the Serota decal can still be found all over town, not one of the signs pictured in Mr. Garcia's salvaged portfolio appears to have survived intact, making this something of a glimpse at a vanished city.

A NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPHS: None of the photos are marked with locations or dates.  Where possible, I have figured out locations with some light detective work.  For some, I have linked the address in the caption text to current views of the same location at Google Street View.  The dates are based on educated guesses or clues in the photos.  Please contact me if you can add anything to the exact locations of the photos, details on the businesses pictured or on the Serota Sign Corp.

Longchamps Restaurant / Broadway and W41st Street, Manhattan. This photo ran in a 1937 advertisement for GE transformers.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)
The Viceroy / 565 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, c. 1950. The Viceroy and its sign are both long gone, the 1950s alteration shown here having made way for a re-creation of the building's prewar appearance.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
Barton's Bonbonniere / 218 West 34th Street, Manhattan, c. 1950. This entire block has since been erased from the map.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
Hector's Cafeteria / possibly 1627 Broadway, Manhattan, c. 1950. Hector's ran a small chain of cafeterias in midtown, including one right on Times Square.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Ralph Tornberg photo)
Astor Bar / in the Hotel Astor, Times Square, Manhattan, c. 1940. The Astor Hotel and Bar both vanished in 1966 for the markedly less fabulous W.T. Grant building, today called One Astor Plaza(R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)
B/G Cafeteria / 778 7th Ave., Manhattan, c. 1955. (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Ralph Tornberg photo)
Don Allen Chevrolet Sales & Service Garage / 327 W61st St., Manhattan, c. 1950. (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
Don Allen Chevrolet Showroom / Broadway and W57th St., Manhattan, c. 1948. (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
Manufacturer's Trust Co / 221 Park Ave. South (at E18th St.), Manhattan, c. 1948. Note the entrance to the now-abandoned 18th Street subway station, which closed on November 8, 1948.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
London Character Shoes / 165-22 Jamaica Ave., Jamaica, Queens, c. 1950.  Serota fabricated this installation to designs by noted architect Morris Lapidus.  A Samuel Gottscho photo of the same storefront is preserved at the Library of Congress(R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
Century's Kingsway Theatre / 946 Kings Highway, Brooklyn, NY, c. 1950. This theater survived until the relatively recent date of 2001. The building sill stands, somewhat brutalized, as a Walgreen's.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)
Century's Brook Theatre / 3839-49 Flatlands Avenue, Brooklyn, c. 1949. Another now-defunct theater building, still standing but now serving other purposes.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Daphne Studio photo)
Century's Argo Theatre / 485 Hempstead Turnpike, Elmont, NY, c. 1950. Slightly outside the city limits.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Ralph Tornberg photo)
Kitty Kelly Shoes / location undetermined.  Presumably on an outer-borough main drag, c. 1950.  Loft Candies next door.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Francis A. Leigh photo)

The Dingle Man / location undetermined, c. 1960. Serota continued to use the Claude name in addition to its own for many years after its acquisition, as the label in this c. 1960s photo attests.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Daphne Studio photo)

Regal Shoes / location undetermined, c. 1950. The big Regal boot hanging over this storefront appears to be identical to one preserved at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)

National Shoes / location undetermined, c. 1950.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Sciarra Studio photo)

Ward's Tip-Top Bread / East 143rd Street and Southern Blvd., Bronx, c. 1940. A near-twin to the very handsome Ward bakery recently demolished to make way for the Atlantic Yards redevelopment in Brooklyn.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)

Young's Stetson Hats / probably Morris Ave. and East Fordham Road, Bronx, c. 1950.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Conrad Studios photo)

United States Lines / Chelsea Piers, c. 1940.  Perhaps at U.S. Lines' headquarters at One Broadway in lower Manhattan.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)

A.S. Beck Shoes / location undetermined, c. 1950.  Under an el, presumably on an outer borough commercial strip.  Alas, I could not figure out where.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)

Chevrolet Sales and Service / location undetermined, c. 1950s.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Apex Studios photo)

Covert & Reed Packard / location undetermined, c. 1950.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)

A.S. Beck Shoes / location undetermined, c. 1955.  (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp., Jules Germain photo)

MANY THANKS to Ralph Garcia for the images used in this post.

• NYNeon featured in this Wall Street Journal video story - special thanks to Emily Prapuolenis, Anna Russell and Eben Shapiro for making me sound somewhat coherent!
• A day in the life of this project brilliantly summed up in this amazing piece by Kim Velsey in the New York Observer.
• An interview with George Bodarky on WFUV's CityScape.
• A very flattering NYNeon redux by Laura Itzkowitz in Untapped New York.
Photos from last week's lecture at South Street Seaport, sponsored by the Historic Districts Council.  


 Jan. 24, 2013 at the 92nd Street Y TriBeCa