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.
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.
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.
FOR MORE, SEE:
• 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.
IN OTHER NEON NEWS:
• 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!