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

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