Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Hurricane Sandy has nixed this year's Halloween Parade, darkened neon all over town and destroyed one of the city's best historic signs (more below).  So here's some spooky neon to brighten this post-hurricane Halloween.

Though I try not to digress too much from NYC-related subject matter, I just had to make an exception for this little Halloween-themed gem from Detroit.  I ran across this while perusing old issues of the Claude Neon News at the New York Public Library.  Published for just a few years around 1930, the Claude Neon News showcased the company's work for promotional purposes.  The March 1929 issue featured this installation, conceived by Detroit's "city authorities" to "keep motorists and street railway passengers apart."  Oh for the days when traffic planners resorted to red neon skull-and-crossbones to keep us safe!

(Claude Neon News, March 1929 / NYPL)

Alas, these little neon Jolly Rogers didn't last long.  In July 1929 the Claude Neon News ran a blurb under the headline "Replacing the Skull and Crossbones."  Some bureaucratic killjoys apparently decided that a simple neon rectangle would suffice in place of Claude’s more spirited traffic advisory.  "The reaction to the Claude Neon skull and crossbone display previously used by the city for the same purpose was that it was a bit too gruesome." 

(Claude Neon News, July 1929 / NYPL) 

 By way of the ATZ Blog, the Shore Theater's wonderful vertical sign in Coney Island has been trounced by Hurricane Sandy.  Utterly heartbreaking.

The old Loew's Shore Theatre sign, lost to Hurricane Sandy. (T. Rinaldi)
  From the Lost City blog: bad news for Gallagher's Steak House on West 52nd Street, set to close in January after 85 years.

Gallagher's, soon to close. (T. Rinaldi)  

Friday, October 26, 2012

Was Rexall, Now Blockheads

Something about the Blockheads sign on Second Avenue and East 50th Street doesn't seem quite right.  It looks like an old sign.  But it also doesn't.  The sheet metal wrapping the sides of its distinctive silhouette looks like it's been around a while.  But the aluminum sign faces and the lettering are clearly not very old, nor has Blockheads (a local chain of Mexican restaurants) been around all that long (their web site dates the chain's inception to 1989).  So I never counted it in my survey of New York's old neon signs.
Ex-Rex at 954 Second Ave. (T. Rinaldi)
Then I saw this:  a pizza joint sign in Mundelein, Illinois, surveyed by Debra Jane Seltzer this past August.  

Bill's Pizza and Fabulous Hot Dogs, in Mundelein, ILL.  (Debra Jane Seltzer)

This is actually, as Debra Jane immediately recognized, an ex-Rexall Drugs sign re-lettered for the pizza joint.   Aha!  Rexall affiliates hung signs of this standard design all over the country (Debra Jane has compiled a gallery – actually four galleries - of them here).  At least two of them have been recycled in this way. 

A Rexall sign in its original livery, at Stewart Drugs in Lexington, Tennessee. (Debra Jane Seltzer)

The question is:  was this Second Avenue storefront a Rexall before Blockheads came along?  Or did Blockheads just salvage this old sign from someplace else and hang it here?  The 1980s tax photos at the Municipal Archives web site are just plain too fuzzy to solve this mystery, though there does appear to be a sign of about the same size and shape in place here.  Do any east side old timers know the answer?

SPECIAL THANKS to Debra Jane Seltzer for lending the photos in this post. 

 Very nice coverage of New York Neon in Friday's (10/19/12) New York Times, in Eve Kahn's Antiques Column.

 Further down 2nd Ave, some neon and other signs in photographs by Jim and Karla Murray.
 Via the JVNY and ATZ blogs – Coney’s old Playland building is finally being demolished together with the hulk of its old sign.
 In Detroit, Tiger Stadium is gone but preservationists managed to save the sign, which has just been re-lit. (Thanks to Eve Kahn for the link.)

 Nov. 19, 2012 at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hotel Neon: The Keller Hotel

Each time I pass by the old relic sign of the Keller Hotel, I almost have to convince myself it's the real thing.  That anything so ephemeral could survive on the radically transformed West Village waterfront seems incredible.  Where the once-bustling dockfronts degenerated into a post-industrial fantasy of seedy bars and abandoned piers backdropped by the rusting hulk of the West Side Highway, there are now luxury apartments girdled by the lush plantings of the Hudson River Park.  The change has been seismic, but this fragile relic remains. 

The Keller Hotel. (T. Rinaldi)
For me, the Keller's old sign is perhaps the single most evocative remnant of the waterfront's past life.  Its painted sheet metal has taken on an especially vivid patina, with faded hues of brown and beige that complement the old brick hotel from which it hangs.  Records at the Buildings Department indicate that the sign appeared here in 1933, the work of the Beacon Neon Sign Co of West Houston Street.  Its streamlined silhouette looks like an upside-down thermometer.  An angled neon arrow, gone now, once hung beneath it, pointing toward the hotel's entrance.

The Keller's sign may be the last surviving work of the Beacon Neon Sign Corp. (Manhattan Classified Telephone Directory, Fall-Winter 1931 / NYPL)

The building itself predates the sign, having begun life as the Hotel Knickerbocker in 1898.  When it opened, the Knickerbocker must have stood out as one of the more reputable hotels on this perennially gritty waterfront.  A modern, six-story building designed by the noted architect Julius Munkwitz, it contrasted sharply with the smaller, dingy flops that stood beside it.  

The Keller seen in 1929, at which time it operated as the Keller Abington.  (P.L. Sperr / NYPL)

Even in its heyday, the New York waterfront was a place most respectable people avoided except to board ferries or steamships.  This left a wide berth for bars, brothels and bawdy houses that catered to sailors and dock laborers, mostly single men.  One gets a sense for the scene in the 1928 film "The Docks of New York" (viewable in its entirety at YouTube). Set in the 1890s, the film partly takes place at a seedy saloon called the "Sand Bar", which had since been "wiped out by commerce and reform." 

Intertitle from the 1928 film "The Docks of New York".
The Sand Bar may have yielded to commerce and reform, but the waterfront generally resisted most attempts to clean it up.  As port traffic declined in the middle decades of the twentieth century, the once respectable Keller soon came to blend with the infamously disreputable hotels around it, eventually providing SRO housing for very low income persons.
(T. Rinaldi)

With the piers increasingly disused after World War II, the waterfront became even better suited as a refuge for various subcultures, particularly the city's emerging gay community.  The Keller's ground floor saloon is said to have become a gay bar as early as the late 1950s, anticipating many others that opened nearby in the ensuing decades.  In an age when homosexuality was considered about as far as one could get from mainstream mores, the Keller's old neon sign marked a portal into a world of "gross indecency".

1970s advertising for Keller's. ( 

The sign was still there in the '70s, by which time Keller's (as the bar became known) figured among a growing number of gay bars that clustered along the old waterfront.  Though more aboveboard than in previous decades, these establishments were typically somewhat less polished than the sashay-away gay bars of recent times.  A 1971 guidebook called "The Gay Insider: A Hunter's Guide to New York and a Thesaurus of Phallic Lore" described Keller's as "the oldest gay leather bar in town."   The internet provides a few spirited accounts of Keller's in the libertine years between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis (links below).  "When it was not so fashionable to be an out-of-the-closet homo-thug," recounts one, "Keller's was a place where men from the projects and their admirers could hang out on the 'down-low'."

The Keller sign, seen on May 7, 1940 (above) and on Sept. 19, 2009. (P.L. Sperr / NYPL; T. Rinaldi)
Keller's is empty now, "commerce and reform" having finally triumphed over the wayward ways of the waterfront.  The hotel shuttered around 1990, according to a 2006 story in the New York Times.  Work began on a (presumably luxury) residential conversion in 2004, but stalled soon after, leaving the hotel's old sign to linger on over the foot of Barrow Street. The place is now protected by the city's Landmarks Commission, which will hopefully help ensure that something good happens here, sign-wise at least. 

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

Hotel Neon, Part 3: The Cavalier Hotel


The Landmarks Commission's incredibly thorough designation report on the Keller Hotel.
NYT coverage of the Keller's recent suspended animation make-over: two stories, one from '06 and one from '08.  "The ghosts of the past breathe deeply here."
Reminescences of fast times at Keller's, here, here, here, here, and here.


 Check out the new book Signs, Streets and Storefronts: A History of Architecture and Graphics Along America's Commercial Corridors, by Martin Treu.
Via Project Neon - help save a landmark Roanoke, VA sign.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hudson River Neon, Part 2 - Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia and Greene Counties

With the Hudson Valley's autumn leaves about to peak in the next few weeks, we bring you the second installment of this two-part round-up of upstate neon (and a few non-neon signs that were just too great to leave out).  
Part 2 features a not-comprehensive selection of signs found in Dutchess, Ulster, Columbia, and Greene counties, along with one or two from Albany and Rensellaer (the Capital District is chock-a-block with a fine collection of great old neon that really warrants a post of its own - maybe one day...).  If you haven't yet, be sure to look over Part 1 featuring signs of the lower Hudson Valley.  Many thanks to Rob Yasinsac for collaborating in this venture.
Did we miss some?  We've got a few more over at – and see also Debra Jane Seltzer's gallery of upstate signs.

The Derby / 96 Main Street, Poughkeepsie

Poughkeepsie Diner / 59 Market Street, Poughkeepsie 

Imperial Lounge / Main Street, Poughkeepsie
Gone now, I think.

Sharkey's / Main Street, Poughkeepsie
A surprisingly good reincarnation of the old Sharkey's Appliances sign - Sharkey's itself is long gone, but the building owner thankfully had the sign faithfully re-fabricated.  Here's what it used to look like.   

Dutchess Center / Rt. 44, Poughkeepsie

CafĂ© Aurora / 145 Mill Street, Poughkeepsie

Juliet Billiards / Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie
Formerly, of course, the Juliet movie theater.  The "CAFE" copy was added when the old theater was converted into a billiards hall.

Mulligan's Irish House / New Hackensack Road, Poughkeepsie

The Milanese / 115 Main Street, Poughkeepsie
The arrow flashes.

Town Shop / Rt. 9, Poughkeepsie

The Roosevelt Inn / 4360 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park

9G Drive In Theatre / 1234 Route 9G, Hyde Park
Gone now, sadly.

Wayside Trailer Park / Wilbur Road, Pleasant Valley

Mystery Motel / Taconic State Parkway, Pleasant Valley

Millerton Diner (now Oakhurst Diner) / 19 Main St, Millerton
Not an especially old sign - the diner now has a new name and a re-lettered sign.

Foster's Coach House / 6411 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck
Made 1942 by Servicenter Neon Sign Co. of Poughkeepsie

Northern Dutchess Pharmacy / 18 East Market Street, Rhinebeck

Village Diner / Rt. 9, Red Hook

Ship Lantern Inn / Rt. 9W, Milton

Hilltop Cabins / Rt. 9W near Esopus

Friendly Acres / Somewhere near Esopus

Eng’s Chinese / 726 Broadway, Kingston

The Mohican Co. / John Street, Kingston

Astoria Hotel / 435 Main St., Rosendale

Orpheum Theatre / 156 Main Street, Saugerties  

Main Street Bar & Grill (now Main Street Restaurant) / 244 Main Street, Saugerties

Lachmann’s Bakery (now HV Dessert Co.) / 264 Main Street, Saugerties

Vozdik Realty / Saugerties

Clock / Partition Street, Saugerties
Dying to see this one in action!

Exchange Hotel / 217 Main St, Saugerties
Not sure if one can still rent rooms here, but the bar is still alive and kickin' - one of your better bets for late night libation in town.  

Elm Tree Motel / 1384 RT 23, Craryville
Sign seems to be gone now, ditched for a modern replacement.  How they could get red of this beauty I'll never understand.

Ancram Hotel / Rt 82, Ancram

West Taghkanic Diner / Route 82 @ Taconic Parkway, Taghkanic (See also

Martindale Chief / 1000 New York 23, Martindale
Lesser-known twin to the West Taghkanic Diner, once under the same management.

Ye Olde 1811 Inn / 2 Austerlitz St., Chatham

High-Way Drive-In Theatre / Route 9W, Catskill

Red’s Restaurant / 12005 Rt. 9W, West Coxsackie, NY

IOOF Odd Fellows Hall / Main Street South, Castleton-on-Hudson

Grand Hotel / Albany Ave, Nassau

South End Tavern / 757 Burden Avenue, Troy

Hotel Wellington / State Street, Albany
The old Hotel Wellington was mostly razed not long after this photograph was taken.  A portion of the facade remains but sadly the sign didn't make it.

The Trojan Hotel / Third Street, Troy