Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sign Heaven

Where do good signs go when their time is up?  Why, to Cincinnati, Ohio, of course, and the American Sign Museum.  Last month, my father and I made a pilgrimage to this esteemed institution, partly so that I could round-out some punch list items for this neon book of mine, and partly just because the place looked like it merited the 11-hour drive from New York.  Having made the trip, I'm happy to say it was well worth the effort.

Relic from a vanished Manhattan Howard Johnson's preserved at the American Sign Musem - no, not the last Times Square HoJo's, but another one (the 1960 Manhattan yellow pages listed seven of them). (T. Rinaldi) 

Sections of the old incandescent Times Square "zipper", recently acquired by the American Sign Museum after being de-accessioned by the Museum of the City of New York, which had taken them in when the zipper was LED-ed back in the 1990s.  (T. Rinaldi)

Certain friends, when told of our destination, responded quizzically: "the *what* museum?", they would ask.  I, however, am only baffled that sign museums are so few and far between.  Just think about how many antique auto museums there are!  Alas, from sea to shining sea, there seems to be just this one museum dedicated to signs.  This is not to discount two other museums (the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles and the Neon Museum in Las Vegas) that have also preserved many wonderful signs; but these others are devoted to neon, not to signs of all flocks.

This electric boot once graced a Regal Shoe location in Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

In addition to signs, the museum's collection includes historic ephemera and other items, such as various materials inherited from Times Square sign impresario Douglas Leigh.  Leigh's firm produced this mock-up showing a proposal for the Gordon's Gin and Haig Whiskey spectaculars that stood over the Bond Building in Times Square in the late 1960s. (T. Rinaldi)

The museum opened in 2005, the brainchild of Tod Swormstedt, whose family has published the Cincinnati-based Signs of the Times magazine for four generations.  In print since 1906, Signs of the Times has been the preeminent trade publication of the American sign industry for most of the years since then.  The magazine's back issues are an invaluable chronicle of American commercial design.  Having spent months chained to a microfilm reader poring over most of the magazine's entire run at the New York Public Library, visiting the museum was like seeing those grainy black and white images spring magically to life.  If I had been hit by a bus coming out of the library after one of those missions, heaven would have looked something like this.

Sunrise over the Sign Museum.  This is one of a pair of giant genies that once advertised Aladdin Carpet Cleaning in southern California.  (T. Rinaldi)

One needn't be a sign enthrallee to enjoy this place:  the signs make an exciting eye-full all gathered together, and the less you know going in, the more you'll learn before you come out.  While neon predominates, there are all forms of signs here, gathered from all corners of the country (including NYC), properly curated and expertly displayed.  The presentation is sufficiently powerful to change the way one looks at old and new signs in the world around us.

A preserved vertical sign for Ox-Line paints from the Boston area (top) has a cousin still in place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (bottom). (T. Rinaldi)
The museum's entire collection is now (March 2012) being moved to a new location just north of downtown Cincinnati.  Housed in part of a historic brick industrial complex, the museum's new digs will feature a research library, event space, and an on-site restoration facility.  Visitors will also be able to view neon tube benders in action at the sign shop of Neonworks, which inhabits an adjoining space.  The museum is closed to visitors while its collection is being transferred, but will re-open this coming June, 2012 (check here for details).  I could go on for volumes about how wonderful the American Sign Museum is, but I'll wrap this up and let the photos speak for themselves.  If you've read this far, you owe yourself a trip to Cincinnati to see the real thing.  

THE AMERICAN SIGN MUSEUM is located at 1330 Monmouth Street in Cincinnati, Ohio.  It will re-open in June 2012.

Big genie and bigger hammer mark the museum entrance.  The hammer originated in Columbus, Indiana. (T. Rinaldi)

The sign museum's new home is part of a historic factory complex that once made women's clothing and parachutes. (T. Rinaldi)

Museum founder Tod Swormstedt tending to signs in the museum's on-premises repair shop. (T. Rinaldi)

The museum's new display area will feature a Main Street-USA mock-up, with larger free-standing signs centered in the space.  Big HoJo sign at center originally stood near Utica, NY. (T. Rinaldi) 

Signs waiting to be moved from the museum's old home. (T. Rinaldi)

Johnny's Big Red Grill was a Cornell University institution in Ithaca, NY.  After the restaurant closed, the sign was reportedly sold on eBay to an alum, who, not realizing it was 20 feet high, subsequently sold it to the American Sign Museum where it is now in storage awaiting restoration.  (T. Rinaldi)

L. Fish - not a fishmonger but a furniture store, formerly in Chicago, Illinois. (T. Rinaldi)

A pair of signs awaiting transfer to the museum's new location. (T. Rinaldi)

Other items in the museum's collection include this salesman's display for a Glo-Dial neon clock, an item that became a true 20th century American icon, typically installed at service stations. (T. Rinaldi)

Back issues of Signs of the Times Magazine, at the ST Media Group headquarters. In print since 1906, this journal is truly an American treasure. (T. Rinaldi) 


Cincinnati YMCA, at Elm and Central Parkway. (T. Rinaldi)

Cincinnati Union Terminal. (T. Rinaldi)

The Imperial Theatre, at West McMicken Ave and Mohawk Place. (T. Rinaldi)

The grunge-tacular Dennison Hotel (closed, sadly), on Main Street near East 7th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

The Bay Horse Cafe, on Main not far from the Dennison. (T. Rinaldi)

 Scotti's Italian Restaurant, on Vine Street near West Court Street. (T. Rinaldi)

MANY THANKS to Tod and Wade Swormstedt for their help and hospitality.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Return to Jade Mountain

Kathleen from Canada longed to have an old neon sign of her very own, and now she has two: last summer she and a friend came to the rescue of the beloved projecting and fascia signs of the defunct Jade Mountain Restaurant in the East Village.  At the time of their disappearance last year, these counted as two of the finest vintage neon storefront signs anywhere in New York.  Very nearly lost, the signs are now tucked away for safe keeping in a Bronx warehouse, awaiting restoration.

New York's last working CHOW MEIN sign finally went out in the summer of 2011.  (T. Rinaldi) 

For signs and saviors alike, it came down to a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  One afternoon last summer, Kathleen noticed scaffolding going up at Jade Mountain's former home on 2nd Avenue. Siezing the moment, she found the contractor and enquired about the old CHOW MEIN sign that had remained in place after the restaurant closed in 2007.  The sign had already been removed and carted off to the contractor's junk pile in the Bronx, she learned.  Encouraged, Kathleen hiked up to the yard only to find the old sign partially dismantled, its neon tubes knocked out and metal faces folded over themselves, literally tossed on the scrap pile.

The rather crumpled remains of Jade Mountain's CHOW MEIN sign today.  The sign was made by the Laster Neon Engineering Company in 1960. (T. Rinaldi)

"If you like that signboard, I still have the other one downtown," the  man told Kathleen as she picked through the scrap pile looking for crumpled bits of CHOW MEIN.  Jade Mountain's other sign had been left behind the parapet wall over the storefront after the restaurant closed, hidden from view.  Unaware that it was even there and incredulous after seeing the condition of the CHOW MEIN sign, Kathleen almost didn't bother.  But on a hunch, she recruited some helpers and returned to Jade Mountain.

Jade Mountain's fascia sign lay hidden behind a parapet wall for five years after the restaurant closed.  The sign was originally installed in 1954. (Kathleen M.)

Long story short, both signs are now reunited, a bit worse for wear, but in safe keeping.  The Jade Mountain sign will require some new tubes (Kathleen managed to salvage many of the originals) but its sheet metal is largely intact.  

Jade Mountain lives!  The sign's new owner managed to salvage much of the original glass tubing. (T. Rinaldi)

The old CHOW MEIN sign didn't fare as well.  Blissfully unaware of its significance, the contractor's henchmen broke it down into its component parts for ease of handling on the way to the scrap pile.  But Kathleen was able to salvage the essentials: the weathered sign faces can be coaxed back into plumb and fastened onto a new concealed angle iron framework, its twisted channel letters can be nursed back into shape, and new neon tubes bent to replace the originals. 

Not as bad as it looks: Chow Mein will shine another day.  (T. Rinaldi)

Neon signs for Chinese restaurants held a unique prominence in the visual iconography of American cityscapes for most of the last century (as previously noted here).  Roman characters styled after East Asian scripts and bold signs reading simply CHOW MEIN or CHOP SUEY (as famously depicted in Edward Hopper's 1929 painting) were their hallmarks.  The Jade Mountain signs are particularly significant for exemplifyling both of these themes.  The restaurant's CHOW MEIN sign was the last functioning specimen of its kind in New York.

Jade Mountain in September '06 (below), and in March 2012 (top). (T. Rinaldi)

I had forgotten just how much there is to like about this pair of signs.  Seeing them up close, after their narrow escape from a shockingly cruel fate, their appeal really hits home: the fine stainless steel joinery of the JADE MOUNTAIN fascia sign, made by an unknown sign company in 1954; the handsome pre-Helvetica lettering of CHOW MEIN (made by the Laster Neon Engineering Co. in 1960), and the evocative patina on its old white porcelain enameled faces, which Kathleen plans to keep as-is when the signs are restored.  Displaying the signs will be another matter: at 15- and 7-feet long, they're too big to go over the mantle.  And besides that, their new owners would like them to wind up where they can be widely enjoyed.  In the meantime, even without their tubes, these old signs make the world a little brighter just for having survived.


• A moving NYT story on the demise of Jade Mountain when the restaurant closed in 2007.
• The JVNY blog chronicled the disappearance of the Jade Mountain signs in a series of posts last summer.


The delightful "Old Fashion' But Good" signs of the M&G Soul Food Diner on 125th Street have disappeared (the business itself closed up shop back in 2008).
• The signs of 20th and 6th through the years - including a rare glimpse of what are likely gas-lit signs - at Ephemeral New York.
• I spent this weekend rounding-out "pen"-ultimate revisions to the neon book - one more round and she's off to the presses for release this fall!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Artkraft Files

No news is usually good news on this here New York Neon blog – my reports often have to do with some great old sign being pulled off a wall somewhere.  In fact, New York lost three lovely old neon signs in recent weeks.  But first, the good news: the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp. papers are now available for researchers at the New York Public Library.

Original design drawings for the Howard Johnson's signs that held the corner of 46th and Broadway in Times Square from 1960 until about 1990, when they made way for replacement signs that finally vanished in 2006. (NYPL)
Artkraft Strauss was New York's preeminent maker of electric signs for most of the 20th century.  The company is known for having fabricated most of the blockbuster Times Square spectaculars erected between the 1930s and the 1990s.  But researchers will not find materials relating to Artkraft's Times Square mega-signs amongst the NYPL collection: the company sold these documents at auction in 2006 when it discontinued its sign fabrication and maintenance operations.

Correspondence from a HoJo staff architect dictating the color scheme for the Times Square signs. (NYPL)
Instead, the bulk of the files at the NYPL tell the story of Artkraft's more garden variety "on-premise" signs – theater marquees, roof signs for hotels and factories, and typical storefront signs.  In many ways, this body of work is more significant than the spectaculars, which are already well documented.

Before there was the Life Cafe, the Life Restaurant commissioned this design sketch for a sign that Artkraft may or may not have ever actually fabricated.  (NYPL)
The Artkraft Strauss papers at the NYPL offer representative examples of the what one might have found at typical sign shops in New York and elsewhere.  Better than any other resource I have found so far, these files tell the story of how the signs came to be.  All of the New York sign shops I've successfully contacted told me they discarded these materials long ago.  There are sketches and letters, formal design and shop drawings, maintenance contracts and photographs. 
Just in time for the neon book, these materials helped me solve a nice handful of little mysteries, for example:
YES!  The big Blumstein Department Store sign on 125th Street was the work of Artkraft Strauss, as I suspected.

Artkraft's sign for Blumstein Dept. Store sign lorded over 125th Street in Harlem from 1936 until it was covered over around 2008. (T. Rinaldi)
NO! The "Music Hall" copy on the Radio City marquees was not originally its present yellow, as implied by reports stating the sign was "restored"  to its original colors, but red, as I remember seeing it when I was a kid.
YES! Artkraft Strauss indeed made the enormous Silvercup Bakery sign in Long Island City, in 1961-62, and re-lettered part of the sign to its present Silvercup Studios configuration twenty years later.

Artkraft's original construction drawings for the Silvercup Bread sign in Long Island City (top), which survives today in slightly altered form (below). (NYPL; T. Rinaldi)

YES! The Loews Post Road Theater sign in the Bronx was among many Loews theater signs made by Artkraft throughout the New York area.

Original drawings for the Loew's Post Road Theatre signs, installed in 1939.  The vertical sign was later re-lettered when Loew's sold the theater, but remains in place today. (NYPL; T. Rinaldi)
YES! Artkraft also made the big Domino Sugar sign on the Williamsburg waterfront.

Drawings for Williamsburg's Domino Sugar spectacular (above) and the sign as it appears today (bottom).  This sign replaced an earlier display which stood atop the historic refinery building next door (at left in the photo).  (NYPL; T. Rinaldi)
HERE is a brief synopsis of the collection for anyone interested in visiting:

Artkraft Strauss donated the materials to the NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division between 2007 and 2010. The documents are nicely indexed in this finding aid, which is a searchable PDF. They are grouped into 4 sets or "series", including executive office files, management files, job files, and photographs. Of these, the highlight (for me anyway) was the "Job Files" (Series III), which is comprised mostly of manila folders each generally corresponding to a sign made by Artkraft Strauss. Some of the folders are pretty slim, holding say a single draft contract for a job that was never executed. Others are pay dirt, with design sketches, illustrative correspondence, and other materials that document the sign's whole production.

The collection can be viewed at the NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division, by appointment only. To make an appointment, researchers should fill out a short online application form. Manuscripts and Archives is located at the north end of the NYPL's main reading room on 42nd Street. The materials are grouped into boxes; researchers can request up to five boxes at a time, a maximum of three times a day (that means 15 boxes a day - click here to see the opening hours). Leave your Esterbrooks at home: it's pencils only here. Photocopies can be made by staff only – visitors must make a log of what they want copied.
MANY THANKS to Tal Nadan at the NYPL.


• From the Lost City blog, the super wonderful old sign of the Crown Deli Caterers in Borough Park has vanished (as has the deli).  A pretty cool new sign has appeared to advertise the storefront's new occupant (not a bank or a Starbucks but an ice cream parlor), but one hopes the old sign found a good home somewhere.
• Also from Lost City, the lovely streamlined marquee of the old Earle/Eagle theater in Jackson Heights is gone.  This was one of the very last vintage movie theater marquees anywhere in New York.
• Finally, via Kyle in Astoria - Walter's Hardware has gone and now so too has their sign.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Manganaro Foods & Restaurant

I rounded the corner onto Ninth Avenue, and there it was - that familiar stack of red neon letters blinking the name MANGANARO out into the early evening light. It was summer, so to photograph the sign under the darkest possible sky, I came ten minutes before the Hell's Kitchen grosseria's 7pm closing time.  Down the sidewalk I marched, readying my camera as I went.  But when I looked up again, the sign had gone dark!  Was this perhaps just a longer than normal pause between blinks?  I waited, hoping against hope, but alas, the letters did not come on again.

The view down Ninth Ave. in January 2010.  (T. Rinaldi)

The owners were locking up as I approached.  I enquired about their normal closing time - not 7 o'clock sharp, but 7 o'clock more or less, it turned out.  The woman with the jingle-jangle key chain seemed especially chatty, and our brief conversation soon digressed to our mutual Italian heritage.  I asked what part of Italy the Manganaros had come from.  "Amalfi coast," she told me.  "We went back to visit a few years ago.  It's fuckin' beautiful."

The Amalfi Coast. (T. Rinaldi)

This, I learned later, was Seline Dell'Orto.  The legendary Seline Dell'Orto, whose family has run this business since the 1920s.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Manganaro's has been the subject of much intrigue, partly because its owners have been embroiled in a decades-long feud with their cousins who run a sandwich shop next door, and partly just because the business has been around long enough to become a curiosity in its own right.  A bit of a pistol, Seline doesn't suffer fools gladly, and she doesn't like questions.  The Internet is littered with woeful accounts from inquisitive visitors who got on her bad side.

A sampling of unsympathetic reviews from Yelp. (Yelp)

Innocent of all this, I managed to mind my Ps and Qs - I kept my questions to a minimum and got on Seline's good side.  "Come on back sometime and have dinner here.  If it gets late we won't kick you out.  Come back and have dinner next time before you go to a show."  I resolved to take her up on this.  And so, some months later, having picked up tickets for "In The Heights," I returned to Manganaro's with a friend in tow.

Some more upbeat reviews from Yelp. (Yelp)

We sat down to two styrofoam plates of spaghetti and meatballs.  Seline stood authoritatively behind the tall deli case, which seemed to come almost to her shoulders, and shared observations at length on subjects ranging from the day Lauren Bacall came into the shop to her thoughts on the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore".

Every so often, as she spoke, a little grey mouse darted back and forth across the tile floor, its movements visible to us but not to Seline because the high deli case partially obstructed her view of the room. Feeling my dinner companion's troubled eyes upon me, I turned to her and in one look communicated: "I also see the mouse. But we both know there are mice even in the kitchens of the finest restaurants.  And besides, as Steinbeck says, 'A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.'  We must not let Seline know about the mouse."  My friend looked back at me and I knew she understood, and we both turned back to Seline, who had continued speaking to us without interruption.  Seven o'clock came and went.  Outside, the sign blinked its cadence over the Ninth Avenue traffic.  Seline gave us Italian cookies as we left, well after closing time.

Manganaro had one of New York's last vintage flashing signs.  CLICK TO MAKE IT BLINK.  (T. Rinaldi) 

I eventually managed to get some halfway decent photos of Manganaro's sign lit up, but this past December I realized I had yet to get really good photos for the neon book.  Also, I had never asked Seline about the sign.  This latter task was a daunting one.  I knew how such a question was likely to be received.  I had once called up and asked her over the phone.  "Ya gotta come in person.  We don't give out free information anymore," she told me.  Well, now I needed to re-shoot the sign, and I was out of parmesan, so I decided the time had come.  I ordered generous chunks of pecorino and parmesan from the man up front, and then looked around for Seline.  She was in the back, by the tall deli cases.  Did she remember me?  I'm still not sure.  I mustered my courage, tried to act cool, and proceeded with my usual spiel: "Do you have any idea who made the sign or when it was installed?"

She returned with a question of her own.  "When was the first neon sign made?"  This, I had learned in my obsessive research, is something of a 64 thousand dollar question - there is no simple answer.  Realizing that Seline probably didn't share my enthusiasm for the subject, I boiled it down as best I could.  "1912," I said.  "Well then the sign's been there since about 1915" came the answer, very matter of fact.  I felt my face turn white.  This was impossible!  The first recorded neon sign in New York didn't arrive until the mid-1920s, and the oldest known sign in the city dates to 1929 (clearly she had not read by blog post).

Moon over Manganaro, December 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

What's more, the details of the Manganaro sign - its extended sans-serif lettering, simple rectangular shape, its porcelain enamel faces and stainless steel channel letters - seemed to correspond to a Buildings Department permit issued in 1955.  I now found myself in the unenviable position of having to challenge her assertion.  I made a feeble attempt.  "Tell ya what.  I'll ask my father, maybe he knows.  Call me next week."  I thanked her, took my hewn blocks of parmesan and pecorino, and got the hell out while the getting was good, grateful to be alive.  I called Seline the next week, but her father didn't know anything about the sign, she said.  I logged it as "c. 1955, maker unknown" in my handy database, and laid the matter to rest.

December 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

There have been rumors that Manganaro's might go the way of so many other neon-bejewled veteran neighborhood institutions, off into the sunset.  But last week, the blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported that the end seems finally to have come for this place, which traces its opening to 1893 - "a hundred and twenty fucking years," Seline told the New York Observer last year. Out of fear and respect, I had decided not to write about my visits to Manganaro's, at least not until some statute of limitations had run out.  Seline must not know about the mouse.  But now, the song has ended, the old sign has likely blinked its last, so I thought I may as well yield to temptation and put it all down in pixels for posterity.  Here's to your passion, your mice, your germs, your styrofoam plates, your personality, your hundred and twenty fabulous years, Manganaro's.  I will think of you as I watch the little white bits of parmesan float gently down onto my marinara sauce.


• The "reviews" section of Yelp's Manganaro page makes good beach reading.
A New York Times story from 2011 parsing out the Manganaro family feud.
• Seline Dell'Orto talks to the New York Observer.