Friday, August 23, 2013

San Fran Neon

San Francisco doesn't strike one as a city teeming with lots of great old neon.  LA, sure.  Vegas, maybe in the boneyard.  Debra Jane Seltzer, perhaps the most avid enthusiast of old signs I know, once told me that Chicago is her favorite city of neon.  I haven't been to Chi-town in a while, but for my money, San Francisco has an enviable concentration of fine vintage neon that most other towns (especially NYC) can only dream of.

Illuminated signs are a long-entrenched part of the San Fran skyline.  The signs are there in the backdrop of films like the Maltese Falcon (1941), Dark Passage (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Vertigo (1958). 

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Beyond the cinematic record, the proof is still there to be seen on the city streets.  These are works of real character, dating mainly to the 1940s, '50s and '60s.  They boast novel sheet metal work, uniquely appealing pre-Helvetica letterforms, and a general quality of design that is notably more sophisticated than that of their surviving contemporaries here in New York.  What follows is a short photo essay of old signs I found in an afternoon walk around San Francisco back in 2007.  

Vertigo (1958)

Inasmuch as these old signs tell us anything about a city's quality of life, the preponderance of old signage in San Francisco is enough to make one wonder how such fragile parts of the landscape seem more apt to survive in some places than others, both at the micro-level – from one neighborhood to the next – and a macro level, between cities.  At one point, common wisdom associated old neon signs with urban decay and stagnation.  Now, however, they're more often prized for their association with old, independent businesses that serve as anchors of stability for their respective neighborhoods.  What do all these old signs tell us about San Francisco?  What does their absence tell us about those places – New York and elsewhere – where such things just can't seem to survive?   

George’s Market / 702 14th Street

Harrington Bar & Grill / 245 Front Street

 Hotel St. Paul / 931 Kearny Street

 Mr Bing’s Cocktail Lounge / 201 Columbus Avenue  

Tosca Café / 242 Columbus Avenue

Royal Pacific Motor Inn / 661 Broadway 

La Pantera Café / 1234 Grant Avenue

Stella Pastry / 446 Columbus Avenue 

Tony Nik’s Café / 1534 Stockton Street

Columbus Café, Gino and Carlo / 562 Green Street

Sodini’s Restaurant / 510 Green Street

New Rex Hotel / 407 Broadway

Via Shorpy, a colorful scene from the heyday of San Fran neon.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hotel Neon: The St. James Hotel

To look at it now, you'd never suspect the St. James Hotel (off Times Square) of having once been the quintessential seedy "transients" dive.  Unless you know that such was the state of most old hotels in this part of town through the 70s, 80s and 90s, when weathered neon signs seemed to hang over their entryways on every midtown sidestreet.

All's quiet on West 45th: the St. James today. (T. Rinaldi)

Neon HOTEL signs hung from the old brick façade of the St. James until fairly recently, finally coming down about ten years ago.  This particular signage was recognizable for having appeared in not one but two films, in which the St. James played the role of the gritty, down-and-out flophouse from central casting.  Director William Friedkin used the St. James in his 1980 film "Cruising," a psycho-sexual thriller about a serial killer on the loose in New York's then still rather ribald gay bars.  Not ten minutes into the movie, the St. James' old neon sign portends a brutal slaying soon to play out in a cheap room upstairs.     

The. St. James in its gritty heyday. (Cruising)

The same sign makes another cameo in director Penny Marshall's 1988 film Big, starring Tom Hanks.  After eleven-year-old Josh Baskin is rendered unrecognizable in the body of a grown man, he and a school chum make their way to New York, where they eventually wind up at Times Square in search of a cheap hotel.  "You lookin' for some fun tonight sweet thing?"  "No thank you."  After negotiating streets of beggars, prostitutes and wandering schizophrenics, they finally find themselves bathed in that familiar glow.  "Hey, this looks OK," reassures Josh's friend.  The camera pans up toward the that same old sign.  "No it doesn't!" comes Josh's desperate reply.


Hollywood's unflattering characterizations of the St. James were not without basis, at least if one is to judge by a write-up that appeared in the New York Times under the headline "Shadows Near the Bright Lights," one year before the release of "Big."   Times writer David Pitt detailed tough times at the St. James and its neighbor, the Normandie, both of which by then had joined the ranks of the city's Single Room Occupancy, hard-knocks hotels.

"The day clerk at the St. James, who asked that his name not be used, acknowledged that prostitutes routinely try to bring customers upstairs. But he said he always did his best to keep them out, sometimes with the aid of a baseball bat.  'Sometimes a hooker will sneak by me,' he said from behind his desk-to-ceiling bulletproof canopy. 'But look, I don't know who is and who isn't. How am I supposed to know? They go into the Plaza, too, but who stops those girls?'

Checking in. (Big)

"'Now drugs - that I won't allow,' he said, reaching under the counter to display his Louisville Slugger, a Fred Lynn autograph model. 'I see drugs, I say Mr. or Mrs., out you go.'"  Mr. Pitt also scored some choice quotes from the hotel's night clerk:  "'See where the glass is broken?' he asked. 'We wouldn't let this guy in the other night, so he kicked in the door. That kind of pimp, they're the worst - filthy, dirty, living on crack. Your regular pimp is usually clean... These are lowlifes.'"

Photographer Guy Mansuco caught this great photo of the St. James sign just before it disappeared.  (Guy Mansuco)

The St. James' old neon signs hung in there all the way through the Times Square ball drop that rung in the new millennium.  They finally came down a few years later, apparently around the time the St. James picked itself up, shook itself off, and re-opened as a more tourist-friendly hostelry.  Today the pimps and the lowlifes seem to have checked out:  the St. James gets decent reviews at, though one visitor, a certain Karla P. from Encinitas, California, complains that the management still uses "actual metal keys" rather than electronic card readers for room access.  The neon may be gone, but the old St. James lumbers on, its checkered past now safely pickled in celluloid. 

(T. Rinaldi) 

THIS IS THE SIXTH in a series of stories entitled "Hotel Neon," exploring the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche. See also: 


• Via the Lost City blog, D'Aiuto Pastry closed this past Sunday (8/11/2013), supposedly for "renovations."  This does not bode well for that fantastic sign...

• From DNAInfo: some serious backpedaling from our friends at U-Haul, after their erasure of Brooklyn's landmark Eagle Clothes sign in Gowanus.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Cab Call Decoded and The Utah House's Neon Epilog

After my May 30, 2013 post on the former Utah House in Chelsea, friend and reader T.R. Revella did what didn't occur to me, and looked up the corner of 25th and 8th in the Percy Loomis Sperr photographs over at the NYPL to see what was going on at this corner in the 1930s.  Photographs dated March 21, 1938 show the storefront occupied by a certain V. Protopapas Pharmacy.  Like most drug stores of that period, Protopapas had a handsome little neon swing sign dangling over the corner, advertising "DRUGS" and "SODA". 

In writing on the Utah House and its ancient, hand-painted sign, revealed in the midst of a storefront renovation, I hoped that this relic might be covered over in plywood and entombed to one day reveal itself again.  Sadly, the sign has since been destroyed.  The storefront's new occupant, the Market Cafe, had the brownstone lintels slathered in black, Karnak-like crap.  So much for that.

(T. Rinaldi)

Asked and answered:  my post on the St. Regis Hotel's lovely and mysterious "Cab Call" sign had hardly merged onto the information superhighway when an e-mail came in from architect Rick Zimmerman.  "Many, if not all of those cab calls were made by the now defunct Kliegl Bros., makers of much theatrical lighting equipment," he writes.  Mr. Zimmerman directed me to old Kliegl catalogs, scanned versions of which can be viewed online at  The catalogs will delight any enthusiast of old signs.

(Kliegl Bros.)

Cab Call signs appear in Kliegl catalogs from 1913 through as late as 1936, in pretty much the exact form as the one over at the St. Regis. Kliegl's product lit describes them as "a rapid, quiet and effective means of calling vehicles to doorways of theatres, hotels, department stores, and other public buildings."  The signs were "constructed entirely of metal" and made up of "three numbers placed together in one frame. . . . Each number is distinctly outlined by incandescent lamps and can be seen clearly by day as well as by night." 

(Kliegl Bros.)

In the post, I speculated on how exactly they worked.  Says Kliegl Bros: "One special constructed switch which is operated without inserting a card or other contrivance, by simply operating the numbers, units, tens and hundreds on handle and pressing the handle inward, makes the correct connections quickly. . . . Any printed card with numbers can be given patrons, so that on return of same, the proper carriage can be called by attendant."  In other words, sort of like the take-a-number system over at the DMV.  Mystery solved!

Many thanks to T.R. Revella and Rick Zimmerman for writing in with these helpful hints.


• Another one gone:  The Charles St. Garage sign (featured in the neon book) has been replaced by this glamour girl:

• Charles St. may have lost its neon, but St. Charles still has its – from James and Karla Murray, an absolutely gorgeous photo of the St. Charles Garage "for Transients" over on East 60th Street.

• A painful loss on the horizon: the Back Fence, on Bleecker, set to close in the coming weeks.  

(T. Rinaldi)

• Much as I hate to be the bearer of really sh*tty news ... the rest of Hinsch's neon seems to have come down, "for repairs."  Don't hold your breath.  Thanks to Debra Jane Seltzer for the link.

Speculation on the future of the Watchtower sign in Brooklyn Heights.  

• Not all news is bad news: via Rolando Pujol, Riverside Liquors is up and running again, along with its great old sign, on the Upper West Side.  Welcome back guys!

(Rolando Pujol's instagram)

• Check out this really great write-up on New York Neon over at The Bowery Boys blog!

• A great shot of The Hub in the Bronx, c. 1940, in all its neon glory, via Shorpy.

• Also via Shorpy, feast your eyes on Jamaica, Queens, here absolutely dripping in neon storefront signs in 1944.

• And yet another one from Shorpy – a wonderland of suburban neon out in Smithtown, Long Island, 1954.

• By way of Rob Yasinsac, another upstate loss, at the Peekskill Inn overlooking the Hudson in Peekskill.

The Inn on the Hudson, nee the Peekskill Inn. (T. Rinaldi, above, Rob Yasinsac, below).       

• From Tom over at Krypton Neon: a very promising trailer for a very promising new doc called "Signpainter," based on the recently-released book by the same name.

• Not neon, but of the same ilk: Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reports that the now-shuttered Elk Hotel's "Entrance on 42nd Street" signage, a relic of seedy Times Square hiding in plain sight at 43rd and 9th, is now hiding somewhere else.

(T. Rinaldi)
• Way out of the tristate, but neon news nonetheless – some spectacular Pontiac dealer signage "gone the way of the Pontiac" in Orlando, Florida. 

• A great roundup of old Boston signage (neon and otherwise) at this tumblr page.

 And finally, a last bit of unhappy news: RIP to Big Nick's on the upper west side, which had one of my favorite neon window signs in town.  

(T. Rinaldi)