Thursday, September 27, 2012

Long Island City

The recent installation of JetBlue's new roof sign over its LIC headquarters is a very slight return to glory for what could aptly be called the cradle of New York's neon industry.  LIC's sprawling wonderland of early 20th century industrial lofts has been home to some of the city's most important neon shops – including Claude Neon's original neon plant, opened in 1924.  And more visibly, for most of the 20th century, these buildings hosted New York's greatest concentration of rooftop spectaculars outside of Times Square. 

The new JetBlue sign presides over the Queensboro Plaza subway station. (T.Rinaldi)

Picture the view from an east-facing office in the Chrysler Building on a dusky midcentury evening.  The Long Island City skyline must have looked like a glowing garden of great roof signs, some beaming out steadily, others blinking in animated sequence, in a range of colors.  When some proposed removing the signs with the opening of the new United Nations headquarters across the East River in the late 1940s, the Queens Chamber of Commerce protested that "the signs serve a useful purpose to the manufacturers and merchants of Queens, and, as such, are quite necessary."   

Map showing locations of Long Island City roof signs, past and present. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
Ultimately, however, the anti-sign interests won out when the city enacted restrictive zoning in the 1960s that prevented the installation of large new roof signs.  One by one, almost all of the old signs disappeared, sometimes leaving just their massive empty steel framework behind. 

Empty steel skeletons remain like husks to mark the locations of Long Island City's bygone rooftop spectaculars.  (T.Rinaldi)

The JetBlue sign appeared here only after the airline worked with the Department of City Planning and the City Council to change the zoning regulations.  (The City Council eventually approved an amendment that allows large roof signs in a delineated area of Long Island City, with some caveats.)  Unlike the giant LED billboards that crowd over the Long Island Expressway like oversized flatscreen TVs, the JetBlue sign looks more like the signs that once typified the skyline here, with giant channel letters mounted to an open steel armature.  Though the new sign uses no neon (it's all LED), it is a stirring evocation of LIC's mostly-lost landmark spectaculars, some of which are memorialized here below. (See the map above for locations of the signs described in this post.)


(Vera Lutter / Whitney)

Erected 1938 by Artkraft Strauss.  Refurbished 1997 by Artkraft Strauss.  Relocated to park after Pepsi bottling plant demolished 2004-2005.  Relocated again subsequently. 

2: SILVERCUP / 42-02 22nd Street
Original construction drawings for the Silvercup sign are preserved in the Artkraft Strauss papers at the New York Public Library.  (NYPL)

Erected 1961-62 by Artkraft Strauss.  Originally lettered to read SILVERCUP BREAD.  Copy altered after building taken over by Silvercup Studios around 1982.  Tubes removed, sign floodlit at night.

3: EAGLE ELECTRIC / 23-10 Queens Plaza South

Faced west toward Manhattan over vehicular ramps serving Queensboro Bridge and elevated subway trains, just behind the Silvercup sign.  A particularly memorable sign ("Perfection Is Not An Accident").  Steel framework now used for ordinary billboard.

4: PAN AM / 41-43 41st Ave.
( / Doug Grotjahn / Testagrose Collection)

Erected c. 1960 to face south-west over Queensboro Plaza.  A lesser-known sister to the famous sign over Pan Am's Park Avenue headquarters, erected around the same time.  Massive steel framework now empty.

5: LOCKHEED CONSTELLATION / 41-15 29th Street (?)
The Lockheed Constellation sign's animation sequence, re-created from a series of photos printed in Signs of the Times magazine in 1946.  (Signs of the Times, May 1946 / Used with permission)
The Chatham-Phenix building today. (T.Rinaldi)

Debuted March 9, 1946, "to hit automobile and limousine traffic to and from La Guardia Airport." Positioned over the Chatham-Phenix building facing west towards Manhattan.   Designed by Elwood Whitney of Foote, Cone & Belding, advertising agency for Lockheed; built by Continental Signs Inc. in connection with A.H. Villepigue, Inc.     Sign and framework gone.  (See Signs of the Times, May 1946).

6: MAGIC CHEF GAS RANGES / Queensboro Plaza

View east from the Queensboro Plaza subway station, with the Lockheed sign visible to the left of the clocktower, and the Magic Chef spectacular seen in the distance over the train.  ( / David Pirmann collection)

Faced east over Sunnyside Yards, visible to commuters on the IRT Flushing Subway (the 7 train) and the LIRR. Sign and framework gone.

7: APPLE TAG AND LABEL / 30-30 Northern Blvd.

Apple Tag and Label, looking towards Manhattan with the Ravenswood power plant beyond.  (T.Rinaldi)

Roof sign mounted to four sides of the plant's water tower, visible from LIRR and the Astoria subway.  Future uncertain as the warehouse below seems to be in the midst of a suspended conversion.

8: PIERCE-ARROW / 34-01 38th Ave.

An early 20th Century sign that sat atop the works of automaker Pierce-Arrow.  The sign is long gone but the building survives.

9: BREYERS ICE CREAM / 34-09 Queens Blvd.
The Breyers Ice Cream sign over Queens Boulevard. ( / Joe Testagrose Collection)

Remains of the Breyers sign today.  (T.Rinaldi)

Oddly shaped framework over the Manhattan-bound platform at the 33rd Street Station echoes the handsome leaf-shaped logo of Breyer's Ice Cream.  According to Fabulous Philly Foods: "The leaf logo was designed by Henry Breyer [founder William Breyer's son].  Most people think it's a mint leaf but really it's a briar-bush leaf."

10: PACKARD / 32-02 Queens Blvd.
(Signs of the Times magazine, Jan. 15, 1914, used with permission)
The Packard plant today.  (T.Rinaldi)
Erected c. 1910 by National Electric Sign Co.  Sign 100’ long with letters 24', 17' and 12' high, "visible for four miles".  As at Pierce-Arrow, the sign is gone but the building remains. (See Signs of the Times, Jan. 15, 1914.)

11: SWINGLINE STAPLES / 32-07 VanDam Street

(Signs of the Times Magazine, April 1952 / Used with permission)
(T. Rinaldi)

Unused steel armature over the CapitalOne bank sign recalls the giant Swingline Stapler that previously occupied this rooftop.  Swingline sign was built by Artkraft Strauss, around 1952. Original dimension 110' long by 58' high, featuring animated "stapling machine" 3600 times actual size. (See Signs of the Times, April 1952.) 

12: DENTYNE CHICLETS / 30-30 Thomson Ave.

The old Adams Gum plant today, sans-signs.  (T. Rinaldi)

A tryptych of roof signs advertised products of the Adams Chewing Gum Co. from the roof of its plant on Thomson Ave., which is still one of LIC's more noteworthy industrial buildings (though Adams has long since decamped).  The center portion of the sign was updated to advertise Certs mints in later years, before all three signs vanished completely.

(Signs of the Times magazine, Feb. 1928, used with permission)

A Claude Neon installation first illuminated on May 14, 1925, making it one of the first neon signs in the city.  (See Signs of the Times, February 1928.)

29-10 Thomson Ave.

The Sunshine Biscuits sign in its original configuration, c. 1914.  (Signs of the Times magazine, Nov. 1914, Used with permission)

Long Island City's ICDNY sign still uses Sunshine's original steel framework.  (T.Rinaldi)

"The tens of thousands of travelers on the busy highways and on the Long Island Railroad trains, as well as many residents of Manhattan, might easily wonder about the identity of this monster industrial building, if on the roof there did not appear an electric sign of unequaled proportions with the words, 'LOOSE-WILES SUNSHINE BISCUITS'" (See Signs of the Times, Nov. 1914). Built c. 1914 by the National Electric Sign Co with the George Patten Co.  Original dimensions 591 feet long, each letter 20 feet wide, lit with 3,928 ten-watt tungsten lamps.  Retrofitted with neon tubes by Rainbow Lights, Inc, 1926 (see Signs of the Times, October 1926).  Later re-lettered for Executone Intercoms after the mid-1950s.  Re-lettered again in 1985 when the building was made-over as the International Design Center New York, featuring the center's Massimo Vignelli-designed IDCNY logo.

15: THYPIN STEEL / 49-49 Hunters Point Ave.

Thypin Steel.  Stone tabet identifies the company's founder as Abraham Thypin.  (T.Rinaldi)
A modest sign facing Manhattan from a low-slung industrial building just north of the Long Island Expressway.  Stone tablet on the building dates Thypin's founding to 1910, and the building (along with the sign perhaps?) to 1950. 

16: PARAGON OILS / 29-02 49th Ave.

Paragon signs, then-and-now.  (T.Rinaldi)

Faded painted signs on the walls of this old building sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the Long Island Expressway recall the Paragon Oils spectacular that once stood on the rooftop of the Queens Subway Building.  The sign advertised Paragon heating oils on one side, and Texaco (which apparently owned Paragon) on the other.  The steel framework remains, still in use for ordinary billboards that occupy Paragon's perch today. (See the Newtown Pentacle for more on Paragon and the Queens Subway Building.) 


 Overall Dimensions: 75' long by 45' high (from the roof)
 Largest Letter: 25'4" high
 Made By: Going Signs (as subcontractor to Turner Construction)
 Design: HLW International, MS Signs and Going Signs
 Components: Steel channel letters with acrylic faces
 Illumination: High efficiency LED light strips


 YouTube video posted by Going Signs showing the JetBlue installation in fast motion.
 JetBlue sign coverage at the New York Times and DNAinfo.
 The signs in old photos at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, and
SPECIAL THANKS to Ross Savedge and Jillian Perrius for moral support in the production of this post.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Columbus Circle

In 1986, then-New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger decried a new roof sign advertising Hitachi electronics at Columbus Circle as "one of the sharpest visual intrusions the midtown skyline has seen in years."  The location is held down today by the CNN sign.  "It is not all that bad looking in itself, and it might look fine on Times Square," Goldberger wrote then. "But it could not be more wrong for this rooftop perch, where it brings a garish commercialism directly into Central Park."

Historically, however, Columbus Circle may have been second only to Times Square in the number of big off-premise roof signs gathered there.  Old photographs by Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott show some of New York's most extravagant spectaculars presiding over the Circle in decades past.  

Berenice Abbott's view of Columbus Circle through the Schenley Whiskey spectacular, dated February 10, 1936 (MCNY).  Walker Evans photograph showing the US Rubber and Fisk Tires signs, c. 1930 (MMA).  

Today the CNN sign (successor to the Hitachi spectacular) is the last living vestige of the days when the rooftops over this corner of Central Park glittered with an array of "garish commercialism." Though Times Square has always been known for its signs, the world's first large illuminated commercial sign in fact debuted at Madison Square, in 1891. Over the next few decades, rooftop spectaculars sprouted at most of the big intersections formed by Broadway's diagonal axis, from Union Square at 14th Street right up to Columbus Circle at 59th and Lincoln Square at 66th.  

Columbus Circle, looking south, c. 1925.  The US Tires building blocked an earlier sign advertising B.F. Goodrich.  (MCNY)

Many of the signs over Columbus Circle peddled the wares of "Automobile Row," the stretch of Broadway in the West 50s and 60s where the auto industry established a strong presence in the early 1900s.  B.F. Goodrich installed large illuminated roof signs over its headquarters building around 1910.  Signs for U.S. Rubber and Fisk Tires followed.  By the 1930s, there were Columbus Circle spectaculars advertising Coca Cola and Schenley's Whiskey, as well as big roof signs for the the Manufacturers Trust, Mayflower Hotel and Kent Garage.

Looking northwest across the Circle c. 1930.  The Manufacturers Trust sign presided over Columbus Circle from a site now occupied by the Time Warner Center. (MCNY)

Zoning ordinances enacted in the 1960s blocked the installation of signs like these throughout the city (except at Times Square). The CNN sign survives thanks to a loophole allowing the installation of new signs where older signs have existed continuously since the restrictive zoning code went into effect. Roof signs outside Times Square therefore are typically successors to a long line of interesting predecessors.


The General Motors sign seen in a Samuel Gottscho photo, February 11, 1932 (MCNY, top).  The sign survived long enough to enjoy a quick cameo in the 1971 film Shaft (bottom). 

The CNN sign owes its existence to the General Motors sign, installed around 1928 on the roof of the newly completed GM headquarters at 1775 Broadway.  The GM sign survived for an incredibly long time - apparently right up until the lamented Hitachi sign took its place in the mid-1980s, by which time the automaker had moved already moved out of the building below. Hitachi survived just a few years: it lost the spot to the A&E Biography sign around 1990, which in turn yielded to CNN in 2005.  

I could find only this one likeness of Paul Goldberger's detested Hitachi sign, in the 1988 film "Running on Empty."

The A&E Biography sign presided over the Circle from about 1990 to 2005.  (

The old GM building itself was sadly horrifically bastardized a few years ago, its art deco facades by Empire State Building architects Shreve, Lamb and Harmon masked beneath a new glassy skin.  Though it shares no frontage on the Circle proper, the building has been re-branded "3 Columbus Circle."  But the CNN sign survives, shining out as its predecessors have for more than 80 years.  Its value as one of the very few grandfathered roof signs on the Manhattan skyline will likely ensure a quick transformation when the time comes for a new sign to take its place. 

• Paul Goldberger's Hitachi Lament, as published in the Times back in '86 (scroll down).
David Dunlap's coverage of the GM building's horrific bastardization in the New York Times.

Colony Records has expired, "gone for good" as of this past weekend. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Colony Record and Radio Center

The disappearance of Colony Record's old sign back in 2004 was one of those episodes that sewed the seeds of the project that became New York Neon.  The Colony survived and even installed some new neon, but the loss of its old sign made me realize that the time had come to start photographing the city's veteran neon before it was too late.  And now, as reported last month, the Colony's replacement sign too is set to vanish.

The Colony's current sign. (T. Rinaldi)  
The old sign whose loss I so ruefully bemoaned 8 years ago was not very old at all, as it turns out.  Though it looked like something out of the Robert Wagner era, it seems to have actually appeared in the early '70s, when the Colony moved into the famous Brill Building from its original location at 52nd and Broadway. The sign was memorable for its poodle skirt-clad neon maiden, leaping joyfully into the air, disk in hand, exclaiming I FOUND IT!  

The Colony's old sign, seen in an old photo formerly shown in its display window.

The disk girl was the successor not just to the Colony's original sign, but also to a series of extraordinary neon storefront displays that have anchored the northwest corner of 49th and Broadway for more than 80 years.  

The Colony's original sign, at 52nd and Broadway, made a brief appearance in John Schlesinger's 1969 film Midnight Cowboy. ( / ChristianMontone, above; Midnight Cowboy, below)

The Brill Building opened in 1931, and by 1933 the corner now occupied by the Colony stood dressed in 2,500 feet of red and blue neon heralding impresario Nils T. Granlund's "Paradise Cabaret," a second floor nightclub that featured the "World's Most Beautiful Girls."  The Paradise didn't last long: by 1940 it had re-opened as a nightclub called the Hurricane, which itself made way for the exotic sounding Cafe Zanzibar by 1944. But the Zanzibar too proved not long for this corner: in 1949 it yielded to Bop City, a jazz club that lasted only a few years, despite featuring some notable headliners.

The Colony's spiritual ancestors: NTG's Paradise Cafe; Cafe Zanzibar, photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt; Bop City, in a 1953 photo by Herman Leonard.  (Signs of the Times magazine, April 1933, used with permission, top; Alfred Eisenstaedt / Life Magazine, center; Herman Leonard /, bottom) 

The ground floor meanwhile housed Jack Amiel and Arnold Ruben's Turf Restaurant, which opened in 1940 and outlived one nightclub after the next until it finally closed in 1963.  The upstairs space eventually became home to a joint called the Avalon Ballroom (of which I could find no photos), but this too closed by 1966.  The northern part of the Brill Building meanwhile initially housed a Translux movie theater, which made way in 1937 for Jack Dempsey's "Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge."  Jack Dempsey's lasted clear up through 1974, about the time the Colony showed up. 

The Colony's sign swap, c. 2004, see in photo formerly displayed in its display windows. 

Today, the Colony's modest animated sign is the sole heir to a succession of legendary New York neon.  (An April 2011 post on the blog Lost City yielded some details on the old sign's disappearance - a zoning code issue, reportedly.)  What will follow it is anyone's guess.  A rather sinister rendering of the storefront's possible future appeared last week on the Jeremiah's Vanishing New York blog (which also shared a New York Post report that the Brill Building's new owner helped usher along the Colony's demise by imposing a five-fold rent hike). Whatever comes here next will have some big neon shoes to fill.

The disk girl, re-born as a window display after the old disappeared in 2004, will soon flash her last. (T. Rinaldi) 


First word of Colony's Closing, at JVNY.
JVNY's report on the mega rent hike.
NYT piece on the end of the Colony.
Highly informative LPC designation report for the Brill Building.


 I have seen the neon book, and it is good!  She'll be in stores in about a month's time . . .