Friday, April 19, 2013

United States Lines

A slight digression this week from the normal neon fare to visit upon another threatened icon of the New York Landscape.  Over at the Pier 76 tow pound on Manhattan's west side, long-dark neon signage recalls the once formidable United States Lines.  The company's flagship, the SS United States, was a fixture on the New York waterfront from its maiden voyage in 1952 until 1969.  The SS United States exemplified the point-to-point ocean liners that were character-defining features of the city's harbor for decades, until jet aircraft rendered them obsolete as basic transportation in the 1960s. 

Above: US Lines neon at Pier 76, still in situ after all these years.  One of the "I"s came alight each night until a few years ago. (T. Rinaldi)  Below: as often depicted in old postcards, the SS United States were features of the New York skyline for decades.

Remarkably, the SS United States survives today, now one of the very last ships of her kind anywhere in the world.  A nonprofit called the SS United States Conservancy has taken stewardship of the vessel (now idle at Philadelphia) with an eye toward preserving the ship as a stationary historic site, ideally at an underutilized pier in her former home port of New York.

United States neon.  Above: Location unknown, perhaps the company's headquarters at 1 B'way. (R. Garcia/Serota Sign Corp.)  Below: a detail of the signs that once faced out from the ends of Piers 84 and 86, as seen in a 1954 advertisement for Corning neon glass tubes. (Signs of the Times Magazine, used with permission, below)

But time is money, and the Conservancy needs more time – and money – to keep the SS United States afloat until a deal can be struck to re-purpose and restore the ship.  In this season of tax deadlines and Titanic anniversary tributes, please consider making tax-deductible contribution to help save "the most famous ship that didn't sink," a New York landmark in exile.

For now, the SS United States resides at an industrial pier in Philadelphia. (T. Rinaldi)


• Heartwrenching news from the Upper East Side via ProjectNeon - Cork and Bottle liquors has ditched their great old signs for plastic replacements.
• More bad liquor news from Midtown: JL Liquors, on East 34th Street, one of my favorites, has gone LED. 
• I am told that the Manhattan Furrier sign over in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is a gonner.  Can anyone confirm?
• Now, the good news: the Langdon Florist sign down on Reade St. has been restored by Paul Signs of Brooklyn.
• Stay tuned for details on the pending restorations of the Long Island Restaurant and - yes, at last - Circo Pasticceria signs in Brooklyn!
• "Flickering Light," a new book from author Christoph Ribbat, takes on the whole big crazy history of neon.


• RESCHEDULED: my walking tour of Upper West Side neon was mercilessly rained out!  The tour will take place on Weds 5/1/13; see the West Side Rag for details (ignore the date at this link).
• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch

Sunday, April 7, 2013

World Telegram

Of all the old signs in New York, the big rooftop spectaculars facing out over New York Harbor have always held a particular fascination for me.  Among these, the old World Telegram sign in lower Manhattan is a particular favorite.  I never saw it in person, but it turns up every now and then in old photographs of the downtown skyline, typically presiding over steam ferry boats, ancient sagging piers, and other long-vanished pleasures of the harbor.

The World Telegram presides over another departure of the Barclay Street ferry, July 31, 1964; (Photo by A.R., T.W. Scull Collection; WSS/PONY)

One day not long ago, having hopped off a boat from Hoboken and marched east through the Irish Hunger Memorial, I glanced up and happened upon a vaguely familiar sight.  The World Telegram is long gone, but there atop its old art deco headquarters building, the steel armature that once held the sign aloft over the Barclay Street ferry docks is still there, a haunting reminder of the lost waterfront.

World Telegram's ghost armature today.  (T. Rinaldi)

Similar neon relics can be found elsewhere, especially over in Long Island City.  But here where so much has changed in the past few decades, where the World Trade Center has come and gone and come again, where Battery Park City has risen over what was once open water, it seems more than a little bit remarkable to find such an odd vestige of the old skyline still with us.  Maybe it's just me, but that old steel skeleton seems to cry out for some big neon letters to once again take their place on the skyline.  Alas, the old World Telegram building no longer looks down over the bustling waterfront, but now sees its own reflection in the glassy facade of the 44-story Goldman Sachs tower at 200 West Street, built over the old Barclay Street ferry slips.

125 Barclay Street, the former World Telegram building, around the time of its completion - no sign yet - c. 1930.    The art deco building was the work of architects Howell & Thomas.  (flickr/CPL Fine Arts and Special Collections)


• This Wednesday, April 10, 2013, I'll lead a walking tour of Upper West Side neon, sponsored by Landmark West; we'll meet under the AAA sign at Broadway and 62nd at 7pm and proceed up towards the Dublin House.  Please join if you can.
• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch