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

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