Tuesday, May 29, 2012

E. Kosches & Son Furniture

Last week, while browsing some old digital photos I took back in 2006, I came across a shot of a relic sign I'd completely forgotten about.  The sign belonged to Kosches Furniture, at 2171 Third Avenue in East Harlem.  Having no recollection of even taking the photo, finding it was like discovering this great sign all over again.  It's amazing how recently such relics were common enough in the city to be forgettable. 

E. Kosches & Son, at 2171 Third Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

Some light Internet delving turns up nothing particularly informative about Kosches Furniture, and no other photos of its lovely sign.  The DOB web site suggests that the business installed this sign in 1935, which sounds about right to me, from the looks of it.  This is when a sign was a sign.  Just look at that streamlined silhouette! 

The splayed "eagle's wing" effect high up on the spire of the Empire State Building seems to have inspired the design of the Kosches sign. (T. Rinaldi)

Whoever designed this made especially nice use of what one might call the splayed "eagle's wing" effect – the tiered taper of the vertical part of the sign, that seems to reference the winged spire of the Empire State Building.  This was a common device among sign designers of the 1930s and 40s (see, for example, the sign of the Veniero Pasticceria).  The lettering, too, is superb period work (get a load of that "E"!).

The neon sign of the Veniero Pasticceria on East 11th Street, with similar silhouette. (T. Rinaldi) 

At this point, you're probably wondering:  is it still there?  The answer, of course, is no.  If it were, I'd run right up, re-shoot it from several angles, bask in its interwar aura, maybe do a sketch of its elevation to satisfy my documentary instinct.  But Google Street View says don't bother.  There is a new sign in its place, advertising the liquor store that occupies 2171 Third Avenue today.  As often happens, the new sign echoes the basic shape of its predecessor, looking something like an up-side-down letter T, with no eagle's wings.  An echo not loud enough.

(Google Streetview)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Working Girl Neon (19 Rector Street)

I know what what's on your mind, Tess McGill.  It's been a tough day.  Trouble at the office, and you just found out your boyfriend's been schtupping some cheap floozy on the side.  But I know what you're really thinking as you stand by the rail of the Staten Island ferry, gazing out at the Manhattan skyline.  Just like me, you're wondering: "what the hell is that red neon roof sign up there to the right of the Woolworth building?" 

OK, maybe that's not what Melanie Griffith's character had on her mind in this pivotal scene of Mike Nichol's 1988 film "Working Girl."  But it sure bugged me.  Such is my twisted, neon-obsessed view of the city.  A big roof sign in Lower Manhattan?  There aren't any there now, and I don't ever remember seeing one.  Oh well.  Tess McGill had bigger things to worry about, and so did I, really, so I filed this little mystery away into my mental accordion folder and turned my thoughts back toward the awesome eighties exploits of Melanie, Harrison, and Sigourney.

Working Girl mystery sign, at right. (Working Girl) 

Then, about two months ago, while browsing some old New York photos online, something caught my eye.  Something high up, on the upper reaches of one of the lesser-known downtown skyscrapers. 

19 Rector Street - the Working Girl mystery sign today. (T. Rinaldi)

The Working Girl mystery sign, I soon learned, belonged to a tower known only by its address: 19 Rector.  And, much to my surprise, the sign is still there, though it hasn't lit up in a good long time.  Its installation date is thus far unclear.  My search of the DOB web site was a bust.  The building went up in 1930, a jazz-age tower by architect Lafayette Goldstone, but the sign seems to be a later addition.  Zoning ordinances enacted in the 1960s pretty much banned roof signs like this (New York's skyline is less colorful now than it was then as a result).  But the city's restrictive sign laws probably wouldn't have applied in this instance, since the copy features only the building's address, not a commercial message.  Still, judging by the patina of its sheet metal channel letters, I'd suspect this guy was here well before the 1960s.

19 Rector, west facade, around the time of its completion in 1930.  The sign would be out of view, on the south elevation.  (Arthur Vitols, Byron Co. / Museum of the City of NY

The real mystery, though, is why the building let the sign go dark.  Actually, I suppose it's not so mysterious.  Just like the long dark roof sign over at Tudor City, the management probably just got tired of dealing with its upkeep.  A few of the letters probably went into a dim flicker; a steep repair quote sealed the deal, and the big red letters over 19 Rector joined New York's ghost fleet of darkened roof signs: Domino Sugar, Kentile Floors, Tudor City, the Hotel New Yorker.  In recent years, a few of these have come back to "light" (sorry!), albeit with LEDs rather than neon (see the Lackawanna Terminal sign in Hoboken and the Hotel New Yorker in Midtown).  Perhaps one day this old girl will get back to work, too.  To do so, however, may require some re-lettering: built to house offices, about 12 years ago the tower went condo, taking on a new address (88 Greenwich) in the process.

• In case you missed last week's post - the neon book is out the door!
After my post two weeks ago, the Chelsea Hotel sign seems to have mysteriously come back to light.  Hmmmm....
In LA, a candidate for the world's longest continually-functioning neon sign, at Clifton's Cafeteria on Main Street.
• It's not neon, but on a related note - by way of various sources, the one and only Prime Burger on East 51st Street is closing.  A Landmark-worthy fortess of Formica, with a pretty good old back-lit sign hidden under its awning.  A nauseating loss.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New York Neon: On The Books

After nearly a year of dropping semi-subtle plugs for what I've come to call the "neon book", I'm happy to finally be able to offer a peek at what this book of mine will actually look like.  Last week, after some final tweaks and revisions to the proofs, W.W. Norton sent her out to the printer.  The book's actual title is New York Neon.  The release is still a few months away (I'll keep some shameless self promotion up my sleeve for that event), but here's a preview.

The Cover.
To design the book's cover and interior, Norton hired the graphic design studio Modern Good, who did a gorgeous job with the layout and especially, I think, the cover (above).  The title font is Tarzana, a contemporary alphabet that suggests the letterforms you'll see on the old signs pictured inside the book.

Skeleton sign montage.
The book's content is the product of about six years of obsessive labor.  I began casually photographing old neon signs in New York back in 2006.  To my surprise, I realized no one had done a book on the subject – sure, there are books about old neon signs in LA, Vegas, Rt. 66, the USA as a whole, etc., and books that memorialize the great Times Square spectaculars – but none covering the real workhorse storefront signs of midcentury New York.

Pages from the Introduction. 
Although many share my enjoyment of these old signs, I found that few people – myself included – really understood the intricacies of how they came to be.  So the first part of the book is a heavily illustrated 50-page introduction outlining the history of illuminated signs, of neon sign shops in New York specifically, the story of their design and fabrication, and the way popular sentiment toward the signs has evolved through the years.  There is also an appendix at the back of the book with short "bios" on a handful of the more prominent neon shops that operated in New York during the early to middle decades of the 20th century.

After the introduction comes the real main course – 125 pages of contemporary photographs showing the signs as they exist today throughout the five boroughs of New York, in all their ancient splendor.   Each sign pictured is identified by location and business name.  Wherever possible, I have also provided the sign’s maker and date of installation, along with observations on the design or the business that commissioned it.

The production phase takes some time, but Norton will have the book in stores in plenty of time for the holiday shopping season.  The sticker price is $26.95 – probably less than ConEd charged to keep the P&G Bar sign lit for a long day's night.  What a deal!   It's even got an ISBN number (978-0-393-73341-9) and everything!   Readers of this blog will be the first to know when the book comes out – in the meantime, stay tuned for the usual clips from the cutting room floor.

Many sincere thanks to Nancy Green and Ben Yarling at W.W. Norton for all their help in getting the book ready to go, to Christine Dahlin who helped with the editing, to Modern Good for a great job with the design, and to everyone who helped along the way!


This is a special time of the year, if you're a fan of old signs and commercial archeology – Debra Jane Seltzer is on the road, posting photos of great discoveries made on the course of a multi-thousand-mile roadside Americana trek. This year, Debra Jane has headed from Brooklyn out to the Southwestern states.  She'll return by way of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati.  
My cousin bought me a super cool neon-themed refrigerator magnet made by neon photographer Susan Mara Bregman – take a look!
Brite Buy Liquors down in Tribeca appears to have shuttered, leaving its lovely vertical LIQUORS sign in peril.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Terminal Bar

A brief tribute this week to a sign I never saw:  the Terminal Bar, across Ninth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, was not the kind of place my parents brought me on our visits to New York when I was a kid.  And lo, by the time I was old enough to venture into such establishments on my own, it was but a memory.  One can get a sense for the good old days, though, in this really spectacular short film, part of a longer work by Stefan Nadelman, that I came across thanks to the great then-and-now study of the film "Taxi Driver" over at ScoutingNY (the Terminal Bar makes a brief cameo in Scorsese's 1976 film).  Mr. Nedelman's film uses photographs and reminiscences from his father Sheldon, who tended bar here for ten years.
The Terminal Bar and its neighbors, c. 1976, as depicted in "Taxi Driver". Having just about killed myself trying to get decent rainy night photos for the neon book, I have concluded that Scorsese must have opened some fire hydrants to pull this off.  ("Taxi Driver")
Together with its neighbors, the Exchange Bar and the Bus Stop Bar – both very congenial places, I'm sure – the Terminal Bar made a stirring sight in its day.  Imagine coming out of Port Authority to find THIS - New York's neon receiving line, there to greet you. 
Schnipper's Quality Kitchen, at Eighth Avenue and 41st Street - the site of the Terminal Bar today.  (T. Rinaldi)
The Terminal Bar and its neighbors are ancient history today, of course – Renzo Piano's gleaming New York Times building stands in their place.  Yet, almost improbably, some pretty good new neon has sprouted here on lower reaches of the new building.  Are these hearty seedlings of the signs that existed here before?  Or did someone just feel that this corner wouldn't look right without a good sign?  In a way, perhaps, a bit of both. 

(The New York Times building has some other great signs at street level – does anyone know who made them?)

Above: New signs on the lower reaches of the new New York Times building. (T. Rinaldi) 

• The neon book has gone out to the printer!
Did anyone watch Jeopardy last night (May 7, 2012)? The correct response to final Jeopardy was "What is NEON?" and yes, I am pleased to say I got it right.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hotel Neon: The Chelsea Hotel

This is the first in a series of stories I intend to post under the title “Hotel Neon.”  These posts will explore the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche.

Each night as I came up out of the Seventh Avenue Subway, feeling worn and weary after long days at grad school, the Chelsea Hotel's big neon sign greeted me like a beacon of civilization, brightening the last leg of my trip home.  Then, one night last summer, the old sign went dark and didn't come on again.  It is still there, but has remained dim as the hotel undergoes its controversial renovation.  Last week, as scaffolding began to rise across the building's fa├žade, I realized the time had come to take a good look at this especially significant sign, an icon among icons, and to petition the new management to treat it with due care as an important part of the historic building whose place it marks. 

Looking west down 23rd Street at dusk.  (T. Rinaldi) 

Like many prominent signs, surprisingly little is known of the Chelsea Hotel's three-story neon figurehead.  Old photographs suggest that it was at least the third illuminated sign to hang from the building's facade, having been preceded by two earlier "opal glass" incandescent signs.  The existing sign arrived in 1949.  My best efforts have thus far failed to identify its maker: records at the Buildings Department yielded an approximate installation date, but no fabricator.  My contact at Spectrum Signs, who oversaw the sign's maintenance for many years, couldn't tell me who made it, nor could Jerry Weinstein, the hotel's resident historian, or even Stanley Bard, who managed the hotel for decades.

Before the neon sign went up in 1949, the Chelsea Hotel had these "opal" or "opalescent" glass signs, which were internally lit by incandescent bulbs.  The big vertical sign (above) was older, having been replaced by the more modest projecting sign (below) in 1931. (P.L. Sperr / NYPL; Berenice Abbott / NYPL)

Since about 2006 the sign has been painted black, but before that, its original stainless steel channel letters and trim and maroon porcelain enamel panels remained exposed.  For whatever reason, maroon or burgundy porcelain was a favorite among New York signmakers of the '30s, '40s and '50s (the signs of the P&G Bar and the Brite Food Shop were prominent examples, and others can still be found at the Old Town Bar, Hinsch's Confectionary, Uptown Liquors, the M&M Pharmacy, and the defunct Wu Han Chinese Restaurant, to name just a few).  Three stainless steel bands over the "H" in HOTEL add a touch of streamlined class.  The lettering is matter-of-fact, HOTEL illuminated in understated white, CHELSEA in fluorescent pink, with a classic round-topped "A".  

The old sign's maroon-colored porcelain and stainless steel accents remain beneath a coat of black paint.  Note the stainless steel trim over the "H" in HOTEL. (allvoices.com)

When this installation first appeared here, big neon hotel signs like the Chelsea's could be found all over town.  As the years wore on, mainstream hotels did away with signs like these, leaving them to become associated with less reputable establishments that eventually devolved into flop joints, drug dens and whorehouses.  In the 1980s and 90s, the few neon hotel signs that remained in New York began to disappear as the old dives either spruced up or shut down.  By the time I began to survey New York's historic neon signs in 2006, only about a dozen authentic examples remained, and about half of these have disappeared since then.

Rainy night in Chelsea: looking east down 23rd Street from the Chelsea Hotel. (Ross Savedge)

The Chelsea Hotel never suffered the rough and tumble fate of many other hotels in New York.  Instead, as old hotel signs grew scarce, the Chelsea's stood out as a relic that embodied the spirit of the hotel's legendary inhabitants, whose ghosts seemed to be alive up there within those flickering neon tubes.  And, seasoned by the usual noirish connotations of seediness associated with other old neon hotel signs, the Chelsea's sign took on a multi-faceted appeal to a greater degree, perhaps, than any other sign in the city.  "It was there before I was," Stanley Bard told me of the old sign last year: "it was so iconic a sign, everyone knew it, so all I did was keep it there and not make any changes, just make sure it was safe and sound."

The Chelsea's management featured the old sign on the hotel's business card until it closed last year. (Chelsea Hotel; T. Rinaldi).

And so it was especially painful to see the sign go dark last year.  Likewise, it is especially important that it get the right treatment.  Yes, the building is landmarked, so the Landmarks Commission would, in theory, review any proposed work on the sign.  But signs have slipped through the LPC's review process before.  It would be a shame to see the scaffolding come down to reveal a squeeky clean new aluminum facsimile of the old sign, its 60 years of hard earned patina lost forever, something to point out cynically as a simulacrum of the overcleaning of the city around it.  Better would be for the old sign to emerge looking cleaned and repaired, but not replaced outright.  Maybe take it apart, clean the old porcelain and stainless finishes and put them back together again over a refurbished steel structure, afforded the same level of care one might give an old Cadillac of the same vintage, whose voluptuous tail fins might have swept beneath this old sign when it first came aglow on a New York night more than six decades ago.   

Above: Outtakes from photoshoots at the Chelsea, 2008-2011.  (T. Rinaldi)

• The latest installment on the Beatrice Inn sign restoration, from JVNY.