Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eagle Clothes

I guess it had to happen sooner or later:  the one and only Eagle Clothes sign in Gowanus, a much-photographed Brooklyn landmark, is coming down.  This week.  It's likely already gone as you read this. I always figured the cause of death would come in the form of some Buildings Department citation for falling chunks of Eagle signage hitting the sidewalk.  But DNAinfo reports that the sign's demise has come instead at the hands of U-Haul, its owner, who plans to add two stories of self-storage units to the former industrial building on whose roof the sign has stood for the past 62 years.

RIP: Eagle Clothes, a Brooklyn landmark. (T.Rinaldi)

As it happens, I had just been prepping a little tribute to the Eagle sign for a forthcoming post.  Sadly that tribute is going up ahead of schedule, now as an obituary piece.  The Eagle sign debuted in the summer of '51, advertising the wares of Eagle Clothes, a now-defunct maker of men's suits.  Like the neighboring Kentile Floors spectacular (erected a few years later), the Eagle sign took aim at motorists and passengers on the elevated viaducts of the Gowanus Expressway and the IND subway (now the F train).  


Both signs were the work of the White Way Neon Sign Co of Chicago. Signs of the Times magazine devoted a substantial illustrated blurb to the Eagle sign upon its installation: "The word 'Eagle' is spelled out in red 18-foot porcelain enamel letters," it said. A "realistic back-lighted skyline silhouette of plastic buildings," already long gone, originally crowned the top.  Otherwise, the sign went unchanged through the years, even after Eagle Clothes went belly-up in the 1980s.

Signs of the Times, November 1951. (ST Media Group, used with permission)

It's gone now.  "U-Haul had originally hoped to preserve the vintage sign," reports DNAinfo, "but . . . installing the sign on top of two additional floors would make the entire structure too tall for city height limits."  Huh?

"City height limits"?  

Somebody ought to tell that to the guys building all those 12-story condos in the neighborhood, like this one, this one – oh, and this one, two blocks away.  


DNAinfo also reports that U-Haul "worked with the city to find community members or local groups to weigh in, but no one stepped forward."  Oh yeah?  Earlier this year, an anonymous comment on this blog suggesting the imminent demise of the nearby Kentile sign sparked a mild torrent of Internet chatter, until the New York Times established that the rumor was a false alarm.  Seems like a proposal to drop the Eagle might have made at least a ripple in the murky waters of the Gowanus.

#gowanus (_jlu_ on Instagram)

Not to worry: U-Haul has pledged to do "everything in its power" to "make sure we maintain the past and incorporate parts of the sign into the new building."  Except that the letters seem already to have been dumped.  Writes Wayne Heller of Lite Brite Neon (whose shop is on the same block as the Eagle sign), "they appear to be chopping the whole thing into pieces before tossing it into the dumpsters. . . .  I don't think much will be left by the end of the day tomorrow [Thurs 7/25/13], the Eagle letterforms are already trashed." 

The Eagle has landed - apparently in the trash.  (Wayne Heller)

I wish U-Haul would just have told it like it is:  they could have figured out a way to keep the sign, but it would have cost too much damn money.  They could cleverly built around it, taking a cue from the developer of 4610 Center Boulevard in Long Island City, who cantilevered their tower behind the famous Pepsi sign to create a "shadow box, so the letters stand out."  They could have formally proposed re-erecting it on the roof of the new addition, and let the Buildings Department take the fall if indeed such an installation would exceed "city height limits."

(T. Rinaldi) 

But, as U-Haul pointed out, the sign wasn't Landmarked (nor is Pepsi, or Kentile, or basically any other sign in New York, unless it happens to belong to an already-landmarked structure – food for thought), so by rights they can do whatever they please here.  And that they have.  Eagle Clothes will no longer woo, please, amuse or charm passersby on the Gowanus Expressway, or the F train, or the newcomers in those luxury mid-rises.  But there will be plenty of self storage.  And with more new buildings on the way, Gowanus: you're gonna need it.

 JVNY's excellent redux of the life and times of Eagle Clothes.  
 An Eagle eulogy from Forgotten NY.
 A survey of Eagle and other south Brooklyn relic signs, also from Forgotten NY.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Signs Under Awnings

In rounding-up old signs for the neon book, I managed to find just a few hundred specimens of "pre-helvetica" neon scattered around the five boroughs.  In truth, however, there are probably hundreds more, hidden beneath layers of newer signage hung by thrifty business owners who saved a buck by simply installing their own signs over those of their predecessors. 

Old neon hidden under / peeking out from / revealed by the removal of newer signs installed over them.  From top: Fink's Fine Footwear, Livingston St., Downtown Brooklyn; unknown bar off Fulton St., downtown Brooklyn; unknown Delicatessen/Restaurant on First Avenue in Manhattan; Floral Expressions of Harlem, on 135th Street.  (T. Rinaldi)

The palimpsest thus formed reveals itself every so often, when those newer signs come down, and the layers of the urban fabric temporarily unravel.  Sometimes, the disinterring of a long-buried relic sign  elicits an outpouring of exaltations from enthusiasts of old New Yorkiana, as in the case of the Dixon's Cafeteria sign off Times Square, which was revealed 2007.  

The Loft's Candy chain is long gone, but this sign remains under an awning at 88 Nassau St. in Lower Manhattan (T. Rinaldi).  A matching sign once hung on the Bond Building in Times Square (below, between Woolworth's and Regal Shoes, by way of American Classic Images).

The signs are not always neon.  A recent storefront rehab on 8th Avenue revealed the ancient herald of the Utah House, which likely pre-dated the discovery of neon in 1898.  There are porcelain signs, hand-painted signs, signs for shops that vanished generations ago and signs for businesses that simply installed newer signs over their old ones.

Non-neon ghost signs revealed on 8th Ave. in Chelsea, at 22nd St (top), 30th St (middle), and 25th St (bottom). (T. Rinaldi)

Once exhumed, these old relics are sometimes covered back up by newer signs, entombed again perhaps to reappear one day for the amusement of future antiquarians.  More often than not, however, the unearthing of these old signs presages their imminent demise.  The Dixon's Cafeteria sign reappeared only to be taken down soon afterwards.  Dapper Dan's "Imperial" clothes on 14th Street was revealed only to be lost a few months later. 

Hidden signs found out and undone, from top: 125th Street in Harlem; old signs for Faber's Fascination arcade on Surf Ave. in Coney Island, exposed during the building's demolition; Dapper Dan "Imperial" clothes, on 14th St. in Manhattan, saw the light of day again for a few months before being taken down. (T. Rinaldi)

So don't be shy about looking up under the awnings of your neighborhood bodega, liquor store or wash-and-fold; you never know what friendly neighborhood ghosts might lie beneath.  


 Signs under awnings turn up every so often over at the Ephemeral New York blog, as they do here and here.

 This unearthed Treadwell Shoes sign in Williamsburg could be yours:  

• A Brooklyn butcher sign recently revealed and removed, at JVNY.

 Unearthed signage for Bogan's Corner Bar & Grill in Harlem and the Normandie Bake Shop in Crown Heights, photographed by Dave Cook of Eating in Translation after being disinterred.  They're both gone now:

• By way of Rolando Pujol, a relic of Longchamp's restaurant at the Chanin building made a brief appearance a few years back:


• July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Newark Neon

S. Klein and Howard's Men's Clothes disappeared from Manhattan decades ago, taking their big signs with them.  But over in Newark, their neon corollaries survive, though probably not for long.  Downtown Newark is a preserve for the kind of commercial archeology that is all but gone from Manhattan.  Besides the neon relics of S. Klein and Howard's, Newark retains a good share of other vestigial neon, along with some pretty great hand painted and terrazzo signs, too.  This past March, I joined up with my veteran conspirator Rob Yasinsac to pay homage to Newark's downtown neon, and to see what else we could find.

S.Klein "On The Square" / Broad St. between Cedar and West Park (T. Rinaldi)

S. Klein "On The Square" is often remembered as an institution of Union Square in Manhattan.  Turns out, it was also an institution Broad Street in downtown Newark.  The massive neon sign covering six stories of its main facade is a close cousin of one that once advertised the department store's Union Square location.  Both seem to have been installed around 1950.  An older sign on the rear facade appears to be a re-lettered relic from the building's previous occupant, Hearn's.  Sadly, word is that both signs and the historic buildings behind them are due to be razed imminently.

S. Klein's bygone Union Square Signage. (Carl Burton)

Rear facade, on Halsey St.   (T. Rinaldi)

Just up the street from S. Klein stands the husk of Hahne & Co., one of Newark's flagship department stores.  The signs aren’t neon but still quite an eyeful.

Hahne & Co. Broad, New and Halsey; Halsey St. side. "The Store With The Friendly Spirit" (T. Rinaldi)

Also not neon but still of interest: Kislak, on Broad St. and Central Ave., apparently a relic from the Kislak Realty Co.

Kislak / Broad St. and Central Ave.  (T. Rinaldi)

The Little Theatre boasts the only functioning bit of old neon we found on our tour.  A cute "little" theater indeed, the films screened within rather less so: like many of its now-vanished cousins in New York (the Variety Theatre et-al), the Little Theatre is hangin' in there as a porno venue.

The Little Theatre / 562 Broad St. 

Back near the main crossroads of Broad and Market, the Newark Paramount still has one of the finer neon and incandescent theater marquees anywhere in the tristate, though the theater itself has been shuttered for decades.  The old lobby is now a discount store, but the auditorium behind it is empty.

Newark Paramount Theatre / 195 Market Street

Lording over the intersection of Broad and Market, this remarkable billboard still advertises a long-gone establishment called, appropriately, the Broad & Market Tavern.

The Broadway & Market Tavern, "In the hub of Newark, serving you the best." (T. Rinaldi)

Just around the corner looms the neon herald of Weber and Heilbroner, merchants of "Stein-Bloch Clothes."  Like S. Klein, Weber and Heilbroner had a larger store in Manhattan, on Herald Square.

Weber and Heilbroner Stein-Bloch Clothes / Broad Street (T. Rinaldi)  

Proceeding back onto Market Street, we find:

Miscellaneous painted signs on Market St. between Broad and Mulberry. (T. Rinaldi)

Some very cool old hand-painted window signs, still looking down onto Market Street from vacant offices overhead.  Though most Market Street storefronts are alive and well with bustling if rather honkytonk discount stores, the spaces above seem to be vastly underutilized. 

Meanwhile, underfoot: 

Jack's / Market Street (T. Rinaldi)

Hardy / Market Street (T. Rinaldi)

Abelson's, now Rich Pawns / 825 Broad St. (T. Rinaldi)

Woolworth (now Conaway) / 165 Market St. (T. Rinaldi)

. . . the names of long-vanished Market Street retailers are recalled by a nice collection of handsome old Terrazzo threshold signage.  There's Woolworth's, Jack's, Hardy's, Abelson's, and, is that . . . 

Thom McAn / Broad St. near Market


After S. Klein, our next-most exciting find was this four-story high neon remnant of Howard Men's Clothing, at the corner of Market and Halsey.

Howard / Broad and Halsey (T. Rinaldi)

Times Square at New Year's 1956.  Howard signs (in the distance, to both sides of the Admiral TV sign) loomed over the north end of the square for decades.  (Life) 

A pair of very similar signs presided over the north end of Times Square for about forty years.   Howard seems to have been pretty well known in its day, with locations on Long Island and in Allentown, PA, in addition to Newark and Times Square.  They're gone now, and quite forgotten, too, at least as far as the internet is concerned.  But there's still the Howard Building, in downtown Brooklyn, presumably the company's former warehouse, now part of the CUNY campus, which still displays the company's distinctive lettering over its main entrance.  

Bamberger's / 131 Market Street (T. Rinaldi)

Heading up Market Street, we find this rather forlorn ghost clock hanging from the magnificent fa├žade of the former Bamberger's department store, probably Newark's preeminent commercial institution in its day.

Sports/Radio/Kodaks/Frigidaire / Market Street near Washington

Across Market Street from Bamberger's, four old neon signs advertise such wares as "Kodaks," Sports," "Radios," and "Frigidaire" for a vanished downtown retailer.  Does anyone reading this know what store these belonged to? 

Bushberg Bros. / 77 Market St. (T. Rinaldi)

Bushberg Bros., a recently departed furniture store, left this sign in place after it decamped from its Market Street digs a few years back. Older signage up above recalls the building's previous occupant, Kirch's furniture - one of a nice handful of ancient painted signs still to be found up and down Market Street.

Mystery sign / Washington St. off Market (T. Rinaldi)

Rounding the corner onto Washington Street, we find this curious neon ghost.  Does anyone out there know what this once advertised?

Further down Washington, this quaint storefront is home to Miller’s Cafe, which would seem to have all the makings of a time-honored, mom-n-pop lunch spot.  

Miller's Cafe / 270 Washington St.

Oops! Turns out it's a strip club.  Oh well, that's still some delightful hand-painted lettering…

Miller's Cafe (T. Rinaldi)

Winding back down Branford Place, the old school mom-n-pop eatery manifests itself, in the form of the venerable Hobby's Deli.  I regret to say we didn't stop in, having already sated ourselves at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que over on Market Street by the time we found it.  There's always next time . . .

Hobby's / 32 Branford Place (T. Rinaldi)