Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tudor City

But for a decision of New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Tudor City sign would be just a memory today, leaving 42nd Street's eastern terminus without one of its most visually engaging features.  Neon roof signs for apartment buildings were somewhat common in Los Angeles, but have always been rare in New York, the sign at Tudor City apparently being the only surviving example today.

Tudor City, with the East River beyond.  (T. Rinaldi)


Signs over the Ojai, Fontenoy and Los Altos buildings in Los Angeles.  Neon signs for apartment buildings were somewhat common in LA, as the examples pictured above attest, but never really caught on in New York. (T. Rinaldi)

Originally, the Tudor City sign was part of a matched set, which beamed west down 42nd Street from atop a pair of high-rise apartment buildings.  Fred French, Tudor City's developer, conceived of the complex as an almost semi-suburban enclave in the heart of the city, eventually including ten buildings in all.  French positioned the signs to catch the eye of weary commuters heading back to Grand Central and the suburbs after a day at the office or a night on the town, as if to say "if you lived here, you'd be home by now." 

Tudor City's original twin incandescent bulb signs, depicted in a period sketch published in the Edison Monthly. (Edison Monthly, December 1928)

The signs reared their heads in the late 1920s, perched on the rooftops of Prospect Tower to the north and Tudor Tower to the south (completed in 1927 and 1929, respectively).  Incandescent bulbs originally outlined their giant letters, but after about ten years, the management upgraded to neon, hiring Claude Neon Lights to retrofit the sign over the Prospect Tower on the north side of 42nd Street.  The other sign had already been removed, likely because the construction of the Woodstock Tower at 320 East 42nd Street blocked it from view.

Tudor City's neon conversion scored coverage in Signs of the Times magazine in 1939.  (Signs of the Times, June 1939, above; October 1939, below; used with permission)

The surviving sign hasn't come alight in decades, but a 1939 blurb in Signs of the Times magazine records that its tubes once glowed a shade of "old gold," which would have been more or less consistent with the off-white hue of the incandescent bulbs they replaced.  ("Old gold" was a relatively popular color for neon signs at the time; the great RCA sign atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza used the same shade.)  In 1995, Prospect Tower's co-op board filed for a permit to remove the sign, but was rebuffed by a unanimous vote of the Landmarks Commission, which had designated the entire Tudor City complex for protection in 1988.  Thus spared to survive into more "enlightened" times, perhaps one day that old gold glow might once again brighten the east end of 42nd Street.

Tudor City's neon ghost remains in place over 42nd Street.  (T. Rinaldi)


• A November 1995 New York Times story by Christopher Gray on the co-op's failed attempt to have the sign removed.
• The Landmarks Commission's in-depth designation report for Tudor City, by way of the Neighborhood Preservation Center.


• New York Neon featured on last week's "The Debrief with David Ushery" on WNBC (Sunday, June 24, 2012)!
• From the Lost City blog, great news on salvation for the Sokol Brothers sign in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hotel Neon

I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon.  I never felt sadder in my life.

                                                                     Jack Kerouac, On The Road, published 1957

The sign lured you.  Like a hard-sell street hawker, its job was to drown out the competition.  This is the best hotel!  Stay here!  Once inside, you begin to realize that the brightness of the sign spoke less to the quality of the establishment than to the management's eagerness to get your money.  Outside, the sign's radiance promised a safe, clean respite.  In the room it's a different story: almost like a bait-and-switch, the bright light of the sign piercing into your room actually denies you the rest it promised.  (Unless, of course, it wasn't rest you came here for.)  Your cynical side tells you you've been had, that the management cares more about packing in as many guests as possible than about providing anyone with a decent night's sleep.  Soon it's common wisdom:  only dopes and suckers fall for those flashy neon signs.  Eventually, the hotel managers catch on, too.  Better hotels ditch neon.  The old hotels that keep the signs are those whose patrons are too dumb or too destitute to care.

Catalog pages from Chicago Sign Sales Corp of Charlotte, NC (top) and Specialty Neon Lights of Minneapolis, MN (below), c. mid-1930s.  (American Sign Museum)

This was the general idea.  Sure, you could just pull down the shade.  But here, at these old hotels, neon signs became identified with capitalism's downside – unscrupulous commodity pushers bent on profit for profit's sake.  As mainstream hotels did away with neon signs, the less reputable hotels that kept the signs deepened the association.  Especially in declining American cities, such signs conjured up scenes of vice and vermin, violence, alcohol and prostitution, gunshots in the night, hourly rates, loud domestic quarrels overheard through thin walls, unsavory "transient" guests dealing drugs in dim hallways, dead bodies found in musty rooms, where buzzing, flickering neon signs beamed indifferently through dirty windows.   

Frames from "Fallen Angel" (1945, above) and "Sorry Wrong Number" (below, 1948).

How this image became so indelibly etched in the mindset of the American mainstream is almost as fascinating as the imagery itself.   Writers and film makers exploited it, reflecting and perpetuating the association over and over again until no bohemian existence was complete without at least one sleepless night at the hands of a sign - ideally flashing - out the window of a cheap hotel room.  The ever present blinking sign motif appears in film as early as 1931, with director Mervyn LeRoy's "Little Caesar"(though the sign depicted belongs to a social club, not to a hotel).  Used perhaps to greatest effect in the hotel scene in Fritz Lang's 1945 film "Scarlet Street," the flashing sign device conveys disquietude, or, like a highway alert sign, warns of danger ahead. 

Frames from "Desparate" (1947, above) and "Scarlet Street" (1945, below).

Early on, it is interesting to note, filmmakers used incandescent bulb signs for this part, seizing on their obsolescence to set a fringe mise-en-scène.  The transition to neon came in the 1940s, possibly beginning with Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler's seminal hardboiled crime novel of 1941. "I lay on my back on a bed in a waterfront hotel and waited for it to get dark," recounts the redoubtable Philip Marlowe:  "The reflection of a red neon light glared on the ceiling. . . . I thought of dead eyes looking at a moonless sky, with black blood at the corners of the mouths beneath them. . . . It got darker.  The glare of the red neon sign spread farther and farther across the ceiling."

Frames from "Thieves' Highway" (1949) and "Vertigo" (1958).

By the next decade, such vignettes made neon hotel signs an essential element of the film noir landscape, and of the bohemian iconography of demimonde characters such as Sal Paradise, protagonist of Jack Kerouac's beat novel On The Road.  From a tenderloin flophouse in San Francisco, Kerouac wrote, Paradise "looked out the window at the winking neons," after "a gray-faced hotel clerk let us have a room on credit. . . .  Then we had to eat, and didn't do so till midnight, when we found a nightclub singer in her hotel room who turned an iron upside down on a coathanger in the wastebasket and warmed up a can of pork and beans. . . .  I stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time of my life."

David Janssen, TV's "Fugitive," on the lam in 1963 (above). Joe Buck peers out from his room at Times Square's old Claridge Hotel in "Midnight Cowboy" (below, 1969).

Separated by due distance of time, all of this seems rather quaint today. In New York, most of those old divey flops of yesteryear have been born again as high-end condos and co-ops. Sure there are still cheap hotels and SROs, but they seem less notorious now, and old neon signs no longer count among their compulsory accoutrements. If we could find a dingy old hotel with such a sign, we might even stay there for nostalgia's sake, so that we could feel just a little bit like Sal Paradise, a died-in-the-wool bohemian.  In a roundabout way, the same negative connotations that once sullied neon's repute now add up to an appealing mystique.  Judge with caution today's pariahs; they may yet have the last laugh.

Jane Dickson, "Hotel Girl," 1982. (World House Gallery)

Sign for the musical "Rent", formerly hung from the facade of the Nederlander Theatre on West 41st Street.  The neon hotel as bohemian icon. (T. Rinaldi)

One of New York's last functioning neon hotel signs, at the Hotel Roger Smith on Lexington Avenue and East 47th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

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

• Photos and a brief story on New York Neon ran in last week's New York Times, in a great article by Aidan Gardiner
• Another media mention in Curbed in a story by Dave Hogarty.
• By way of the Lost City blog, a last look at the ruins of the Sokol Brothers sign in Carrol Gardens, Brooklyn.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Light a Neon Candle

The murky origins of neon signs make it perennially difficult to pick any single anniversary to celebrate as their true date of birth.  One date, however, is hard and fast: on June 12, 1898, the British scientists Sir William Ramsay and Morris William Travers discovered the gas they named neon.

"Of the five elements with four-letter names, it's the only one that's not solid at room temperature." (Jeopardy 

The details of the discovery are well recorded thanks to numerous published works, including several books authored by Travers later in his life.  "The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story, and it was a sight to dwell upon and never to forget," he remembered in The Discovery of the Rare Gases, published in 1928: "nothing in the world gave a glow such as we had seen."

Sir William Ramsay's discovery of neon and the other noble gases helped earn him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1904.  It was Ramsay's adolescent son Willie whose suggestion led the gas to be called "neon" in 1898. (

At risk of some reckless oversimplification, I will attempt to reduce the science to layman's terms.  Ramsay and Travers spent years isolating the various gases that exist in the earth's atmosphere – in other words, breaking the air we breathe down into its component parts.  To do this, they cooled air to an extremely low temperature, turning it to liquid.  As the liquid air then warmed, its component elements returned to a gaseous state in sequence, making it possible to collect small samples of them individually.  In addition to neon, this basic principle enabled Ramsay to discover argon, krypton and xenon.  Neon's luminous properties became apparent almost immediately: as a matter of course, Ramsay and Travers passed an electric current through a glass-enclosed sample of the gas, an analysis of the resultant glow helping to determine whether they indeed had found a new gas.

Morris William Travers, aka "Rare Gas Travers", was in his twenties when he and William Ramsay discovered neon. (Science Photo Library)

All of this happened in the last years of the long reign of Queen Victoria: odd as it may seem, neon is a bona fide product of the Victorian era.  By at least one account, Ramsay and Travers used neon together with several other gases to make an illuminated sign in tribute to Victoria in 1898.  (My efforts to find primary documentation of this sign have thus far come to naught.) 

Sample colors in the New York shop of Let There Be Neon.  After its discovery, neon took on something of a life of its own.  Many if not most luminous tubes used for "neon signs" actually contain argon, not neon.  (T. Rinaldi)

Another decade would pass before other developments facilitated the commercial viability of neon illumination.  For all the controversy that would haunt the evolution of neon signs in the years that followed, credit for neon's place on the periodic table remains securely with Ramsay and Travers.
East 138th Street in the Bronx.  (T. Rinaldi)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tom's Secret

"Talk to Paul," the man told me on the phone.*  "He'll tell you anything you want to know about the sign."  I could hardly believe my luck!  Here in my hot little hands I had a lead on the true provenance of a real New York icon: the Tom's Restaurant sign, on Broadway at 112th Street, known the world over thanks to its regular appearances in the TV sitcom "Seinfeld."

Tom's Restaurant on a brisk fall night in October, 2006. (T. Rinaldi)

Already, what I had managed to learn about the sign had piqued my curiosity.   Records at the Municipal Archives indicated that it had been installed by an unknown sign company in 1957, for an establishment known as the Columbia Restaurant.  This got me to wondering: did the part of the sign that now reads "TOM'S" originally say "COLUMBIA"?  Perhaps in a jaunty midcentury scriptOn my next trip to Tom's, with furrowed brow, I gave the old sign a close examination.  A few anomalies quickly caught my eye.  First, the lettering for TOM'S doesn't quite match the adjacent lettering for RESTAURANT (TOM'S being slightly more extended, or wider, than the rest).

The lettering for TOM'S is slightly different from that for RESTAURANT. (T. Rinaldi)

Then there's the sign's hand-painted finish.  By 1957, hand-painted neon signs were pretty much a thing of the past in New York.  More likely, this would have had faces of porcelain enameled steel, which could have been painted over later to cover-up a name change.  And finally, there is a tell-tale seam in the sheet metal sign face between TOM'S and RESTAURANT – could it be that the part reading COLUMBIA was cut-off and replaced with new sheet metal, and then the whole thing painted in the blue-and-white colors of Columbia University?  The answer to this mystery, I hoped, lay with this man Paul.

The corner of Broadway and West 112th Street, October 12, 2006.  (T. Rinaldi)
At length, the day came.  I called ahead to be sure he would be working.  A few hours later I found him there, stationed at the cash register.  I introduced myself and explained my bizarre cause.  The man was friendly and gregarious, as Tom's staff usually are.  But it soon became clear that he couldn't tell me anything about the sign.  He had been there a long time, he said, but the sign was there longer.  

Two views of Tom's, September 20, 2010. (T. Rinaldi)

For now, at least, the secret of Tom's neon is safe.  As far as most of the world is concerned, however, this whole question is of marginal significance, literally: throughout its tenure on "Seinfeld", the TOM'S portion of the sign was neatly cropped out of view, and the place was known to viewers as the fictitious "Monk's Coffee Shop".  Out of sight, out of memory.

As seen on TV: Tom's on "Seinfeld," 1989-1998. ("Seinfeld")
* The names have been changed to protect the innocent.