Monday, January 28, 2013

Newsweek Remembered

The cover of Newsweek's recent "last print issue" reminded me that it's time to file another installment in my series covering New York's on-premise roof signs.  Back in the dusty corners of my mind I still harbor one or two childhood memories of the old Newsweek sign, a midcentury fixture of the midtown skyline which graced the parapets of the magazine's old headquarters building, an art deco office tower at 444 Madison Avenue.


Though the tower dates to the 1930s, the Newsweek sign only showed up around 1960, just before restrictive zoning ordinances kicked in that basically put an end to new illuminated roof signs in New York.  A blurb in the March 1960 issue of Signs of the Times magazine identifies the sign's designer as the redoubtable Douglas Leigh, the fabricator as Artkraft Strauss.  The letters were 8 and 10 feet high, made of stainless steel with faces of porcelain enamel, outlined in white neon.  An incandescent "jump clock" and temperature reading sat nested below the sign itself.

A handy graphic in the last print edition (which I impulse-bought at Duane Reade for a whopping seven dollars) shows that the sign employed the slab-serifed letterforms Newsweek adopted for its masthead in 1939, but curiously NOT the lettering as re-designed in 1949. (Newsweek)

Shortly after the Newsweek sign went up, new zoning ordinances prevented the installation of any more big roof signs like this, except where such signs were already in place.  Thus Newsweek passed the baton to New York Magazine, whose florid italic banner beamed out from 444 Madison in three directions from 1996 to 2009 (the west-facing sign, pictured on the Newsweek cover above, went bye-bye when a new tower blocked it from view).  

New York on a chilly evening in 2008. (T. Rinaldi)

The Newsweek sign lives on today, if only in spirit: New York Magazine yielded the spot to Burberry in 2009, the new sign making its debut with a ceremony held on the roof of the neighboring New York Palace hotel in May of that year.  Designed by Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey, the new sign was fabricated by Spectrum Signs of New York, the latter descended from New York's original Claude Neon outfit and the venerable Serota Sign Corp

444 Madison's new Burberry crown.  (T. Rinaldi)

Like the Newsweek sign that preceded it, Burberry glows in white neon - yes, real neon, not LEDs.  The incandescent display below meanwhile remains essentially unchanged from its installation in 1960.  The more things change, perhaps, the more they change the same.  Then again, while those old bulbs still broadcast the time and temp as they have for the past 53 years, a more telling barometer may be the sign above, whose most recent re-lettering speaks both to the travails of print media in a digital age and the proliferation of luxury retailers in the streets below.

New York remembered. (T. Rinaldi)

 A timelapse video of the Burberry installation at (click at lower right).
 NYT coverage of Burberry's neon debut (from 2009).
 Newsweek's farewell to print.

 NYNeon featured in a "glowing" (sorry) review by Brendan Perring at SignLink-UK

STAY TUNED for upcoming NYNeon lecture engagements this spring, summer and fall.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lenox Lounge

As promised, 2013 dawned with the legendary loss of the Lenox Lounge.  In the neon book, I described this establishment's "moderne porcelain-enamel and stainless-steel facade" as "possibly the finest surviving example of 1930s storefront architecture in New York."  It's gone now, along with the neon sign, ripped apart amid a truly sad tenant-landlord dispute that wrought the end of a business that had become a poster child for vanishing neighborhood institutions throughout New York.  

288 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Details on the sign's specific origins evaded my research.  As one of the most compulsively-photographed old signs in the city, I really wanted to establish its provenance.  Alas, no dice.  All I could determine was that the sign was not, in fact, original to the business's oft-cited opening date of 1939, even though many of us really wished it was.  

The Lenox Lounge.  Candidate for favorite neon letterforms.  (T. Rinaldi)

Buildings Department records show that an electric sign of approximately the same size as the one that just disappeared was installed here in 1940. But the city's c. 1940 tax photos reveal that this sign was not the one that recently departed.  The records further indicate that the sign was installed for a business called the Lenox Bar-B-Q, not Lenox Lounge.  Sure enough, the grainy tax photo shows a big neon sign with LENOX BAR-B-Q set in very appealing prewar letterforms that would have looked great with the sleek deco storefront below. 

The Lenox Lounge.  (T. Rinaldi)

So where did the Lenox Lounge sign come from?  I didn't get anywhere with Alvin Reid, Sr., who ran the business from 1988 until its demise this week.  No one at Lenox Lounge ever returned my calls, and after one of Mr. Reid's bartenders tried to tell me I wasn't allowed to photograph his sign from the sidewalk, I somehow felt less enthusiastic about frequenting the place to try to ask in person.  (Fortunately I had visited once or twice before this episode - know your rights, photographers!)

Though the sign's delightfully eccentric lettering suggested something from the 1930s, we know it wasn't there as of 1940.  Though Mr. Reid cited an opening date of 1939, the New York Times has reported that the place opened in 1942.  It could have appeared then, but neon sign production in New York ground to a quick halt in that year due to the war, so it seems unlikely.  Details of the sign's assembly were consistent with others produced in New York during the 1950s, so I gave it "c. 1955" in the neon book and laid the matter to rest.

Can't see much in the crummy microfilm version of the city's c. 1940 tax photo of 288 Lenox, except that the sign wasn't there yet. (Municipal Archives)  

After its landlord reportedly slapped the Lounge with a 100 percent rent hike last year, the storefront and sign were promptly dismembered over New Year's, thus preventing any new tenant from capitalizing on the appeal of the historic neon-bedecked facade.  Mr. Reid has announced plans to re-open at another location, and has indicated that he took the sign with him, so perhaps the removed portions of the sign and storefront will re-appear one day.  Then again, if similar episodes from years past are any indication, likely not.  And even if they do, the magic smoke is gone.  Unless the little guys from Batteries Not Included come around, I'm filing this one with Humpty Dumpty.  

Hail and Farewell, Lenox Lounge.  (T. Rinaldi)

A FOOTNOTE:  One wonders who the sign and storefront facade legally belonged to.  Some business owners have told me that their signs belonged to their landlords.  But when the P&G Bar vanished in 2010, the Landmarks Commission issued a statement saying that it could not have prevented the sign's disappearance, because the sign belonged to the bar, not to the landmark-designated building.