Friday, March 29, 2013

Sacred Neon

It might not feel much like springtime in New York, but with Easter Sunday nigh upon us, the time seems right for an homage to those most sacred of signs.  The classic neon crucifix is a rare sight indeed these days.  Seeking out old signs for the neon book, I could find only about a dozen of them scattered across the five boroughs.  

St. Paul's House, 335 W51st Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Among these, the big neon cross that hangs over the St. Paul's House mission on West 51st Street in Hell's Kitchen is surely the best known.  SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT, it admonishes passersby in particularly in appealing midcentury letterforms from one side; the reverse is emblazoned with the somewhat more optimistic imperative to GET RIGHT WITH GOD.  The existing sign is a surprisingly faithful facsimile of an earlier iteration that had been dark for many years. 

New Covenant Holiness Church, 512 W157th Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

With its heavily commercial overtones, neon and religion seem rather odd bedfellows.  "We smile, a bit condescendingly, when we see churches bearing signs that promise 'JESUS SAVES' and similar good tidings," wrote the architecture critic Peter Blake in 1964.  But this was not always so.  Electric signs for churches began to appear early on, a response to the glittering marquees of movie houses, bars and restaurants.  Like the overwhelming ornament of baroque and rococo churches of centuries past, the intent was to dazzle the flock into submission, or at least regular attendance. 

"Electrical Signs for Church Organizations Rapidly Gaining in Popularity," reported the August 1927 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. (ST Media Group, used with permission)

New York's largest illuminated crucifix may have been one that once stood atop the Seaman's Church Institute in lower Manhattan, which was switched on by President Calvin Coolidge in a ceremony on Good Friday, 1927.  That same year New York Edison tallied more than 100 electric signs for churches in Manhattan below 135th Street alone. 

Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, 59 E2nd Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

The mass migration toward fluorescent-lit plexiglas signs after the 1960s has left precious little sacred neon in New York today. Those few neon crosses that survive are especially appealing not just for their rarity, but because they recall the lost innocence of neon's longago youth, before the signs became so indelibly linked with high consumerism and the film noir world of midway grit as to seem better suited for Saturday night than Sunday morning. 

Father's Heart Church, 545 E11th Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Manor Community Church, 348-350 W26th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Manor Community Church by night. (T. Rinaldi) 

Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, 563 W187th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Iglesia Gethsemani Pentecosta, 112 E104th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Bethel Baptist Church, 265 Bergen St., Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

Trinity Assembly of God, 138 Henry St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi) 

Washington Temple Church, 1372 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi) 


 April 10, 2013, at Landmark West (details forthcoming) 
 July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Class of '33

The City of New York issued exactly 3,400 permits for illuminated signs in Manhattan in the year 1933, according to records housed downtown at the Municipal Archives.  Of these, I could find only three that survive today.  By those odds, we can deduce that illuminated signs in New York have about a .08% chance of seeing their 80th birthday.  So, as the outpouring of centennial tributes to Grand Central Terminal continues to flow, I thought it only right to salute these signs that have defied unbelievable odds to survive into their ninth decade.

The Dublin House, then-and-now. (T. Rinaldi, top; Signs of the Times, January 1934, below / ST Media Group, used with permission)

Best known of the new neon octogenarians is undoubtedly the big, beautiful neon harp outside the Dublin House bar, at 79th and Broadway.  Many admire this sign for its distinctive shape, which was sufficiently novel to earn it a small feature in Signs of the Times magazine when the sign was brand new.  The blurb identifies the sign's maker as E.G. Clarke, Inc., for many years one of the city's most prominent sign shops.  Eagle-eyed admirers of this sign will note that the lettering TAP ROOM at its base is an alteration; the 1933 photo reveals the sign's original copy (which read RESTAURANT).  

Keller's then and now.  (T. Rinaldi, top; NYPL, below) 

A lesser known member of the class of '33 resides on the facade of the old Keller Hotel, at the foot of Barrow Street in Greenwich Village.  Keller's and its sign are covered in greater depth in an earlier post on this blog.  The sign is the work of the once-prominent Beacon Neon Sign Co. of Manhattan.  It survives today but just barely, its tubes long gone and its hand painted sheet metal having donned a particularly enchanting patina.  The building is Landmarked, so whatever happens to the sign will be regulated by the city's Landmarks Commission.

The Odeon today (above) and in its original guise as the Towers Cafeteria (below). (T. Rinaldi, top, Signs of the Times, October 1933, below / ST Media Group, used with permission) 

Further downtown, the Odeon restaurant boasts what may be the most interesting of the new neon eighty-somethings.  The long-vanished Astor Sign Co. originally installed this display for the Towers Cafeteria. The sign remains in basically the same form today, though it was partially re-lettered in 1980 when the restaurant below re-opened as the Odeon, a fashionable French bistro.  In the neon book, I describe Towers-to-Odeon transformation as a watershed moment in the life and times of New York neon, when old signs like this went from the status of "yesterday's trash" to objects of nostalgic fandom.  Ironically, it also presaged the urban revival that later meant the disappearance of old signs like this and the veteran neighborhood institutions they advertised.

Display Ad for the Aster Neon Sign Co. from the 1935 Manhattan classified telephone directory. (NYPL) 

Beyond these, there are a few other old signs for which I could establish no date of creation, but that clearly appeared sometime in the early 1930s.  These include the very lovely sign of the Spruce Florist in Chelsea; the Boulevard Tavern, in Greenpoint Brooklyn; and the Point Pharmacy up on Hunts Point Ave of the Bronx.  Still, for signs like these, the odds against multi-generational survival remain staggering to say the least.   

Odeon-ex-Towers neon at 80. (T. Rinaldi)


• If you haven't yet picked up a copy of Ilona Karwinska's superb book entitled Polish Cold War Neon, this short BBC video feature will send you running down to St. Mark's Books post-haste. 
• Whoa, technology - Fontly, an app for smart phones, pinpoints old signs near you. Rather like the Project Neon app but for all kinds of signs, world-wide. 


 April 10, 2013, at Landmark West (details forthcoming) 
 July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ancestry of Neon: Gaslight Signs

Look closely at 19th-century photos of the city streets and you'll see the ancestors of today's neon and LED signs there in the sepia.  Long before electric lamps, gas-lit signs peppered the nighttime streets of New York and elsewhere.  They came in various forms: some were basically just gas lamps with lettering or symbols painted on their glass globes.  Others were more sophisticated, using perforated sheet metal housings that presaged the eventual form of modern electric signs.  

A gas sign, from a catalogue of gaslight fixtures issued by Mitchell, Vance & Co., c. 1876. (NYPL)

Vexingly, not one single surviving example of a gas-lit sign seems to have survived to the present (at least I couldn't find any - there must be one somewhere).  Even Tod Swormstedt at the American Sign Museum couldn't put his finger on one.  But with some digging, I managed to turn up a few odds and ends that give a sense for what they were like.    
Simple gas signs were ordinary gas lamps with letters or symbols painted on their glass globes.  From the Mitchell, Vance & Co. catalog. (NYPL)

Sifting through back issues of Signs of the Times magazine, I ran across two descriptions of gas-lit signs.  "As a rule they were of box construction, with the gas jets inside," recalled E.A. Mills of the New York Edision Co. in 1922.  "The sides of the box were usually studded with vari-colored glass jewels outlining the letters.  These signs were usually found outside of drug stores, oyster houses, etc."

A gaslight sign on Washington Square West, 1894. (NYU)

Mills also described a less common gas sign typology that must have been a sight to behold.  "This sign was made up of copper tubing bent in the shape of letters, and drilled at regular intervals, and the gas pressure so regulated that only a tiny flame was emitted."  These tended to be used indoors, he wrote, as they were "readily extinguished by every slight breeze. . . .    The result was very striking, even though the sign was more or less of a fire risk."  One example of this type of sign reportedly survived as late as the 1950s at the Arion Singing Society in Irvington, NJ, but was reportedly scrapped in 1953, leaving us to wonder what they might have looked like.

The Hotel Cadillac, at Broadway and 43rd Street. (MCNY) 

In historic photographs, gas signs can usually be distinguished from electric signs by a telltale vent at the top that allowed exhaust from the gas jets to escape the metal housing. Based on the photographic record, their most common varietal seems to have been the "pedestal" sign, that would have been mounted atop a columnar stanchion by the curb, much like the old-timey sidewalk clocks that can still be found around town today.

Gaslight signs of the "pedestal" variety turn up most often in history photographs, as attested to by these turn-of-the-century scenes on Jorolemyn St in Brooklyn (top), 14th Street (middle) and Broadway (below). (Younger, "Old Bkln in Early Photographs," top; Avery, middle; MCNY, below)

Gas-lit signs could be procured from purveyors of gaslight fixtures, which included them in their catalogs, or from sign shops.  Fitted with incredibly clever (and incredibly well-named) devices called "gaswinkers," the signs could even be made to flash on-and-off. 

Ads for gaswinkers appeared in Signs of the Times magazine into the 20th century. (ST Media Group, used with permission)

Gaslight was a true phenomenon of the 19th century, first coming to New York in 1824 (CHECK THIS).  Though it was a revelation in its day, gaslight had many shortcomings: gaslamps posed a constant fire menace, they filled indoor spaces with heat and the smell of their exhaust, and coated walls and ceilings with a grimy residue. Edison's incandescent lamp made its debut in 1879 and began building New York's electrical grid in 1882, paving the way for gaslight's hasty demise in the decades that followed.  

The Opal Sign Co., a maker of "Electric and Gas Signs," once occupied this storefront at 1366 Broadway. (Avery)

Evidence suggests that gaslit signs continued to be made into the first decade of the 20th century before finally yielding the streets to electric signs once and for all.  One imagines that some old gas signs must have been converted for electric lamps.  Their role in the development of all illuminated signs that followed them was hugely important: these are the true ancestors of neon.  Yet the gaslight signs are entirely forgotten today, a fixture of the nineteenth century city lost to the winds.  

 Signs of the Times magazine, June 1922
 "Gas-Lit Sign In The News," Signs of the Times, Sept 1953

• Via Buzzfeed: 35 Really Unfortunate Neon Sign Fails.  When will my tributes to bygone sign companies and gaswinkers go as viral as this has? Thanks to Joey F. and Christian R. for the link.

 March 14, 2013, at the Type Director's Club
 March 21, 2013, at the Friends of the UES Historic Districts
 April 10, 2013, at Landmark West (details forthcoming) 
 July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Top of the Rock

The big GE signs over 30 Rock always struck me as a bit of a mis-match for the art deco skyscraper on which they perched.  Whether their successors will look any better remains to be seen, and as reported in last week's New York Times, we may see them soon.  Thanks to some corporate reshuffling, GE has passed its 30 Rock connection to cable-TV giant Comcast, which bought out GE's stake in NBC last month.

30 Rock. (T. Rinaldi)

For devotees of New York neon, this poses an obvious question: if the GE signs are to come down, what should replace them?  I for one see this as an opportunity to install new signs that look more like the ones that topped off 30 Rock from 1937 until 1969.  Those signs involved three simple letters, RCA, outlined in amber-colored neon (actually helium-filled) tubes.  Rather than RCA's great "meatball" logo, the signs used a simple geometric sans-serif typeface that corresponded to the lettering found at Radio City and elsewhere throughout Rockefeller Center.  Super-wide kerning made the letters fill-out the building's elongated facades.  

30 Rock, with original RCA sign in place, c. 1960.  (Author's collection)

Somewhat presciently, GE featured the RCA sign in this March 1938 ad run in Signs of the Times magazine. (ST Media Group, used with permission).

Perhaps serendipitously, Comcast restyled its logo in 2012 using all-caps geometric sans-serif letters not altogether different from the ones that once spelled out RCA over Rockefeller Center.  Whereas the GE logo sat awkwardly bunched the center of 30 Rock's blade-like crown and used letterforms that clashed with the style of the building, the Comcast logo would fill out the perch better and its letters would echo those that existed here historically.  (The NBC peacock might fit nicely on the narrow west end of the tower.)

Comcast adopted its latest logo, featuring the NBC peacock, in 2012.  (Wikipedia)

30 Rock's original RCA sign matched the geometric sans-serif lettering used for signage elsewhere at Rockefeller Center. (T. Rinaldi)

An even better solution (which I only wish I could claim credit for) might be for Comcast to use the space to advertise NBC, putting three simple letters right back where RCA's three simple letters had been originally.  Not only would this be a near perfect aesthetic match to the original, it would tie into NBC's historical connection with Rockefeller Center, which has been the broadcaster's home since the building went up 80 years ago.  Such a proposal would likely sail through the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission, which will regulate any proposed change.

Top of the Rock. (T. Rinaldi)

30 Rock's original RCA signs marked this as the property of NBC's parent company, the Radio Corporation of America.  Built by the prolific Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp using Claude Neon tubes, they first came to light on the evening June 28, 1937.  LaGuardia-henchman and "PR guru" Grover Whalen flipped the ceremonial switch from a dais atop the Empire State Building, while David Sarnoff and Nelson Rockefeller looked on from a perch on 30 Rock itself.  The signs faced in three directions, with letters 24-feet high on the lager north- and south-facing elevations, and 18-feet on the smaller east end of the tower.  Signs of the Times magazine described the original signs the highest neon displays in the world at the time of their unveiling, with "brilliantly lighted golden-amber helium contained in 2,376 feet of specially constructed tubing made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc."

(T. Rinaldi)

After World War II dim-outs, the original RCA signs remained a fixture of the midcentury midtown skyline until 1969, when RCA adopted a super-mod new logo designed by corporate branding consultants Lippincott & Margulies.  Big corporations from airlines to insurance companies nearly all adopted a new generation of corporate logos in these years, and RCA was not to be left out.  Built by Artkraft Strauss, the new sign brought the new aesthetic in corporate logos to the New York skyline in red neon.  The second RCA sign yielded to GE some 20 years later, after General Electric took over its longtime rival and onetime sister company in 1986.

RCA's revamped logo took the place of the original sign in 1969. (Wikipedia)

As noted above, whatever Comcast proposes for 30 Rock will be subject to the approval of New York's Landmarks Commission.  The Commission could actually require the new sign to use lettering similar to the historic sign, as it did some years ago at the W Union Square Hotel.  But the Commission will likely give Comcast more latitude, since the original RCA sign is long-gone.  The worst case scenario might be for the sign to come down for good, leaving only a blank wall behind, which Comcast could conceivably do since the existing sign is not the original.  The best would be a new sign that like the original RCA sign strikes a harmony with the modern lines of the buildings below it, ideally wrought in neon.

(T. Rinaldi)


 Signs of the Times magazine, March 1938 and January 1969.
 Last week's coverage in the New York Times (I get quoted!).
 More coverage and an interview with WCBS-AM's Wayne Cabot here.  


 By way of Rob Yasinsac, some neon carnage up the river in Tarrytown.  Brace yourselves, it ain't pretty.
 The Pearl St. Diner is back!  From Stu G. and confirmed at One More Folded Sunset and JVNY.
 From James and Karla Murray, the latest in the Hinsch's saga - good news, for now.
 Also from James and Karla Murray, an opening reception this week for their new book New York Nights.


 Hittin' the airwaves this Sunday morning (March 10, 2013) for a 30-minute interview with Metro Beat host Susan Schwartz on WFDU, 89.1-FM.


 March 11, 2013, at the National Arts Club
 March 14, 2013, at the Type Director's Club
 March 21, 2013, at the Friends of the UES Historic Districts
 April 10, 2013, at Landmark West (details forthcoming) 
 July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch