Monday, December 29, 2014

Lights Out 2014: Signs We Lost This Year

2014 started as a quiet year in the world of vanishing neon.  But things picked up over the summer, leaving us at year's end with a miserable tale of loss and woe.  In keeping with previous years, 2014 yielded more than 15 notable neon casualties, up from the dozen or so we've lost each of the last few years (see "Lights Out 2011 / 2012 / 2013").  This year's losses seemed especially painful, including some of the city's best landmark neon.  A few of the signs we lost this year have been earmarked for preservation in one form or another. The Famous Oyster Bar signs even resurfaced (partially) within the year.  The rest, however, are bitter pills to swallow. 

Famous Oyster Bar / 842 7th Ave., Manhattan

Manhattan's self-proclaimed "Famous Oyster Bar" closed in February after more than five decades in midtown.  Happily, its pair of fascia signs soon reappeared downtown at the Grey Lady.  Previously the signs faced southeast from the corner of 54th and Seventh; now they face northwest at Delancey and Allen.  The "SEA FOOD" swing sign however remains at large.

Kentile Floors / 58 Second Ave., Brooklyn

Kentile's disappearance in mid-summer spurred probably the most vocal reaction to any disappearance of any neon sign ever in New York.  A group called "Save Kentile" formed to try to preserve the landmark roof sign, a landmark Gowanus for more than 60 years.  Councilman Brad Lander brokered a deal to have the giant letters preserved for future re-installation; they were last seen in the custody of the Gowanus Alliance, a local business improvement nonprofit that tucked them away in storage.  While details on the sign's rebirth remain elusive, the Gowanus Alliance brought out the giant "K" for a holiday photo-op just before Christmas 2014.

Hude's Broadway Delicatessen / 103rd and Broadway, Manhattan

The re-appearance of long hidden signage for Hude's Broadway Delicatessen on the Upper West Side stirred some serious excitement over the summer, with write-ups in all the local papers.  Alas, the sign disappeared quietly a few weeks later, apparently salvaged, but whereabouts unknown.

Domino Sugar / 292-314 Kent Ave., Brooklyn

"Falling like Domino," one might say:  after a prolonged dormancy, the long-projected demolition of the former Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg finally kicked into high gear this autumn.  On orders from the city's Landmarks Commission, the developers have spared just the core of this historic industrial complex; the plant's huge neon sign came down with a neighboring addition in November.  The sign is slated for re-installation, a-la Long Island City's Pepsi Sign or Jersey City's Colgate Clock.

Adult DVD Depot / 725 Eighth Ave., Manhattan

Not an old sign but a favorite nonetheless, with unabashed showmanship and animated splendor that evoked signs of decades past, DVD Depot was a real stalwart of urban grit just west of Times Square.  Sadly, we noted its loss this summer.  Say what you want about taste, the Eighth Avenue nights are darker for its absence.

Dime Saving Bank / 9 DeKalb Ave., Brooklyn

This grandiose roof sign for Dime Savings Bank lorded over Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn for decades.  It's gone now, but a new Chase sign has taken its place amid a forest of beanstalk towers rising around it.

Lorraine's Bar & Grille / 1410 Unionport Road, Bronx (photo via Kirsten Hively / ProjectNeon!)

A neighborhood classic, Lorraine's BAR sign has vanished from Unionport Road (actually, a bartender reports that the sign was in fact a casualty of Hurricane Sandy).  Happily, the bar beneath it survives. 

Central Parking / 252 W40th Street,  Manhattan

Darkened but not gone (yet):  Central Parking's giant animated arrow was a holdout, brightening the gritty sidestreets by the brooding Port Authority Bus Terminal.   The early 20th century garage shuttered this year, with plans afoot to level it and build a new tower in its place.

Harold's for Prescriptions / 2272 McDonald Ave., Brooklyn

Usually, the disappearance of an old sign means the disappearance of a stalwart neighborhood institution. But sometimes, the story is just that an old business decided it was time for an ill-advised makeover.  This, sadly, is what happened over the summer at Harold's for Prescriptions, in Gravesend, Brooklyn.  The old neighborhood drugstore is still there, but one of Brooklyn's finest old storefront signs is obliterated, entombed beneath generic new signage installed over it.

Home of Cheers Liquors / 261 W18th Street, Manhattan

Home of Cheers Wine and Liquors lost its lease earlier this year; happily they found a new storefront further up Eighth Avenue in Chelsea.  Unhappily, however, its pair of old signs didn't come with them.  The "WINES LIQUORS" raceway sign has since vanished with the opening of a fancy new gelatto place in Cheers' former storefront over the summer, but the vertical sign remains in place, for now.

Grande Memorials / 382 Grand Ave., Brooklyn

Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported earlier this month on the disappearance of Grande Memorials, on Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The store hasn't so much disappeared as re-located (to 7803 17th Avenue) – whether their great neon window signs went with them we do not as yet know.

Hotel New Yorker / 481 Eighth Ave., Manhattan

The New Yorker is known for its enormous roof sign, but it also sported a great pair of old neon blade signs down at the street level - until this month.  DOB records tell us that these signs had been there since the time of the 1939 World's Fair, and the signs show up in the city's c. 1940 tax photos.  They hadn't lit up in years, but were still some of my favorite neon relics in town.  They're gone now, displaced by LED replacements. 

DeRobertis Pasticceria / 176 First Ave., Manhattan

DeRobertis vanished on December 5th, 2014, wrapping up an incredible 110-year run on First Avenue.  The shop's neon window signs quickly disappeared, but the storefront sign seems to have been left behind, though its future seems as dim as the neon tubes within.

Pearl Paint / 308 Canal Street, Manhattan

Pearl Paint closed this summer amid rumors of grievous malfeasance on the part of its management and a plot to turn the veteran Canal Street art supply emporium into (surprise) luxury condos.  The orphaned sign remains hanging in ghostly limbo while the building awaits what comes next.

Subway Inn / 143 E60th Street, Manhattan

The Subway Inn fought and lost a David-v-Goliath battle against its landlords in the waning months of 2014, closing out a 70-year stint over the subterranean junction of the IRT and BMT subways at 60th and Lex.  Thanks to an outpouring of support from its admirers, the bar managed to secure new digs a few blocks further east, and has pledged that its neon will shine again.  

Smith's Bar & Restaurant / 701 8th Ave., Manhattan 

Trying to wrap this up on a positive note, we end on Smith's, which disappeared late this year.  When the bar itself closed suddenly just before Halloween, the sign came down piecemeal - only to re-appear soon thereafter.  Word on Eighth Avenue is that the Smith's will re-open at the same address under new management in the new year. 

 From Alexandra Villareal and the New York Observer, "10 New York Institutions We Loved and Lost in 2014."  

 From the west coast, Debra Jane is dispatching from a Bay Area holiday neon road trip.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bad Neon News for Long Island City's Pepsi Sign

Greetings from New York, where no neon news is good news of late.  Topping the list of bad tidings is word that New York's Landmarks Commission is poised to "de-calendar" Long Island City's famous Pepsi Cola spectacular, together with nearly 100 other historic sites across the five boroughs.  

Pepsi, a New York landmark in all ways but one.  (T. Rinaldi)

In Landmarks Commission terms, "calendaring" means that a site has been nominated for legal protection, but that the Commission has taken no action on the nomination (often to avoid antagonizing influential property owners opposed to designation).  Though not formally designated, "calendared" sites are tentatively protected from demolition.  In many cases, the historic sites in question stay in limbo for decades: the Pepsi sign has been calendared since 1988.  

Pepsi of Long Island City.  (T. Rinaldi)

By way of background, the Pepsi sign has beamed out across the East River since 1937, when the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp. erected it atop a Pepsi bottling plant in Long Island City.  Huge waterfront spectaculars were once a characteristic feature of New York Harbor,  positioned to catch the attention of anyone on or across the water.  Zoning ordinances outlawed such signs in the 1960s, and almost none remain today.  Though not officially Landmarked, the Pepsi sign charmed its way into posterity when the bottling plant beneath it was demolished in 2005, and has since been incorporated into LIC's new landscape of parkland and luxury high-rises.  To date, not one historic sign in New York has been Landmarked in its own right.

Vera Lutter / Whitney

Sources indicate that the Commission is set to decide the matter in a closed hearing on December 9, 2014, with no room for public testimony.  In the meantime, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation has set up an online portal through which to voice your concerns to City Hall; you can also write the Landmarks Commission directly via this link.  

(UPDATE: LPC dropped its de-calendaring proposal in early December.)

DeRobertis will close on December 5, 2014, after 109 years. (T. Rinaldi)

Meanwhile, from the East Village (or the Lower East Side, if you prefer) comes sad news that DeRobertis Pasticceria on First Ave will close its doors on Friday, December 5, 2014, after a jawdropping 110 years in business.  No evil landlord to pin on our dart boards this time: the DeRobertis family has sold the building (for $12 million) and decided to retire from the cannoli business after four generations.  Read the full story in this touching write-up by Frank Mastropolo at Bedford+Bowery.  Then hurry up and treat yourself to a cannoli after sounding off to DeBlasio on the LPC's de-calendaring nonsense.

Mishkin's, in happier days.  (T. Rinaldi)

Still more grim news from uptown, where ScoutingNY reports that Mishkin's Pharmacy (145th St and Amsterdam Ave) has inexplicably executed a total self-gut, completely erasing all traces of what had hitherto been one of New York's most remarkable old drugstore interiors.  Mishkin's exceptionally great neon vertical sign is still there, but "most depressing of all," writes Scout, "the neon hasn't been lit up in some time."  Given the carnage perpetrated below, this does not bode well for some of New York's finest old storefront neon.  Photos and well written commentary at ScoutingNY - fair warning, it ain't pretty.

Reflecting on Miskin's. (T. Rinaldi)

All of this comes as word has spread on the closing of Cafe Edison, one of the very last traces of pre-Bubba Gump Times Square.  Cafe Edison doesn't have much in the way of neon (just a Budweiser sign over the griddle inside) but it has survived as a last link to the neon-crowned automats and cafeterias that fed the hoards of Times Square in the days before Disney's 42nd Street makeover.  Check Jeremiah's Vanishing New York for updates on Cafe Edison's struggle to stay put.

Andreas Feininger / Life Magazine

Finally, one bit of bright news: the trailer is now out for Gasper and Son, a short documentary featuring two of New York's great neon stalwarts, Gasper and Robbie Ingui of Artistic Neon in Ridgewood, Queens (there's also some bonus rambling by yours truly).  Check it out at and stay tuned for details on public screenings.

Gaper and Son.

Oh yes - almost forgot: tickets are still available for my next neon walking tour, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society.  See you on December 11th!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Neon News & Links

After a bit of a hiatus here, I was all set to make a big come-back, until I managed to wipe out the post I had drafted with one ill-placed tap of my index finger.  Gone - poof.  So, while I go back to the drawing board on that, here are some links and news items, quite a few, in fact, both good and not so good.


 On the Brooklyn waterfront, the Domino Sugar sign is coming down (as of early November 2014).  The sign is slated to re-appear once the former sugar plant re-emerges from its transformation to luxury condos, but whether this will actually happen remains to be seen. 

The Domino Sugar sign before its removal, from the Williamsburg Bridge.  (T. Rinaldi)

 Also in Brooklyn, some especially fantastic old neon was recently unearthed during a storefront remodeling on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, only to disappear soon after.  Photo via Rolando Pujol, who reports that the sign has since vanished; whether it was removed or simply signed-over again is unclear.  The sign was the work of the late, great LaSalle Sign Corp of Brooklyn.

"Hot Bagels" made a brief re-appearance on 86th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Rolando Pujol / Instagram

• Neon's troubled state of affairs: a status check in the NYU Local, by Peter Slattery. 

 My next Neon Walking Tour of the East Village will take place on Thursday, December 11.  TICKETS NOW AVAILABLE via the Municipal Art Society at this link - bundle up and let's take a walk!

 If you've already taken my East Village neon walking tour and still want more, good news!  I will be leading a Neon Walking Tour of the *West* Village later on this winter.  Stay tuned for details!

RIP: Smith's Bar & Restaurant.  (T. Rinaldi)

 As reported here and elsewhere, Smith's Bar near Times Square shuttered just before Halloween.  No word from the owners on the fate of its spectacular 60-year old neon signs, which have graced the corner of 44th and 8th since 1954.  See write-ups on Smith's closure at the Times and at Project Neon.

 The Terminal Bar, a one-time contemporary of Smith's just down 8th Avenue, is memorialized in a great new book by Sheldon and Stefan Nadelman.  (See also this New York Neon write-up on the Terminal Bar from back in 2012 here.)

 Vanished:  the Hude's Delicatessen sign that re-appeared on Broadway this summer has disappeared.

Hudes Broadway Delicatessen. (T. Rinaldi)

 On Times Square, the Times Square Visitors Center has permanently closed.  The Visitors Center was housed in the beautiful restored auditorium of the former Embassy Theatre and featured some pretty great relics from Times Square's neon past. (News via ScoutingNY.)

Peep O-Rama sign, formerly displayed at the now-closed Times Square Visitors Center.  (T. Rinaldi)

 San Francisco Neon, a great new book by Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan paying tribute to San Francisco's superb array of old neon storefront signs, is due out in December!  Pick up your copy here

• Some neon (and other) ghost signs hanging around NYC, via Ephemeral New York.

• Out in Denver, Colorado, a movement to preserve the Sid King's Crazy Horse Bar sign.  

• Via Vanishing New York, lots of vanished New York Neon in a gorgeous portfolio of scenes from 1970s and 80s NYC by photographer Carl Burton.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Smith's Bar and Restaurant

Smith's Bar and Restaurant, 801 Eighth Ave., Manhattan.  (T. Rinaldi)

"Situated just west of Times Square, Smith's Bar once shared this stretch of Eighth Avenue with a notorious lineup of down-and-out dives, adult movie theaters, and flophouses.  In recent years the street has cleaned up measurably.  The few adult 'novelty' shops and peep shows that survive here seem almost quaint, regarded by both native New Yorkers and European tourists with a strange nostalgic affection.  Through all of this, Smith's survives, though it too has experienced a bit of a facelift in recent years."  - New York Neon, p. 114.

This week, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported that Smith's will close today (Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014).  

(NYC Department of Buildings)

• From back in 2012, this piece on the origins of Smith's neon.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Harold's Neon No More

Helvetica, that most generic of boring fonts, has struck again, and its latest neon casualty is a loss dearly felt.  Last Monday, following up on an ugly rumor, I went out to see what had become of the "Harold's for Prescriptions" sign on Avenue U in Gravesend, Brooklyn.  As the following before-and-after photos will attest, the truth is not pretty.  

Harold's before-and-after.  2272 McDonald Ave., Brooklyn.  (T. Rinaldi)

In an odd twist, this very sign had been the subject of a dedicated homage on this blog just weeks ago.  The sign's fate was sealed even before that post went live.  Rising maintenance costs spelled its end, the drug store's management told me over the phone.  The sign needed a dozen or more transformers replaced, which meant a few thousand dollars worth of repairs. The owners decided to put that money toward a new sign instead.

(T. Rinaldi)

Whereas the old sign featured three especially appealing letterforms on its wraparound sign faces, the new sign uses just one - Helvetica, the "un-font," a typeface whose oppressive ubiquitousness made it the subject of its own documentary in 2007.  In the neon book, I discuss how Helvetica epitomized a kind of anti-neon aesthetic beginning in the 1960s and 70s, its rational, standardized appeal deployed en-masse as an answer to the fussy, one-off fonts typically used for neon signs of the 1950s and before.  

(T. Rinaldi)

Eventually Helvetica became so overused (big corporate logos etc)  that old signs, especially neon, grew to become widely admired largely for the unique quality of those pre-Helvetica fonts.    As previously discussed on this blog, a new generation of designers today has rejected the tyranny of Helvetica, using almost any other font or letterform in its place.  Once the darling of highbrow designers, Helvetica now has trickled down to the lowest depths of generic slop.

(T. Rinaldi)

It's especially sad in this case, because Harold's old sign exhibited some of the best pre-Helvetica letterforms of any old neon sign in New York.  In its day, the sign probably cost the equivalent of a new Cadillac to install.  Its appearance dated to the mid-to-late 1950s, when Harold Friedman had an earlier sign reconfigured after taking over the corner drugstore at this location.   

The good news is that the business itself is still there, and Harold's name still comes aglow each night on Avenue U, even if it is now rendered in LEDs instead of neon.  And beneath those LEDs, the store's management confirms that the original neon lays entombed beneath the new sign.  But this is cold comfort for admirers of that old sign.  On my way back from Gravesend, I broke the news to Mr. Friedman's daughter, whose e-mail to me had prompted the somewhat ill-timed story I posted in July.  "Not ill timed at all," she replied:  "a prophetic foreshadowing and goodbye."  

(T. Rinaldi)

• Via Paul Shaw, check out the Letterform Archive, a project to collect and document unique and historic fonts and letterforms as "inspirational analog artifacts."

• Good news, for now: a stay of execution for the Subway Inn.
 Save room on your bookshelf for a new volume on San Francisco neon. 
• From the west side, Debra Jane reports from San Jose and San Francisco.
• As forecast here, Warby Parker has re-lettered the old Lascoff's Drugs sign on the Upper East Side.  More to come.
• Via Jeremiah, a bad prognosis for Arthur's Tavern in Greenwich Village, whose neon has been in place since 1937.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Subway Struggle

As previously reported, the Subway Inn (at 60th and Lex in Manhattan) is set to close later this month.  The entire corner is to be cleared to make way for redevelopment, reportedly a luxury residential tower.  But the bar isn't going without a fight:  Its owners have launched a petition and are taking donations for legal expenses in a last ditch attempt to survive.  Follow this link to learn more about how you can support the Subway Inn.

The Subway Inn, 143 E60th Street, Manhattan.  (T. Rinaldi) 

Background: the Subway Inn is a blue-collar watering hole that has been around for nearly 80 years.  The pair of neon signs over its storefront dates to the 1940s-50s.  Uniquely appealing among the few such signs that survive in New York today, they mark this as an establishment where little has changed over the years. 

(T. Rinaldi) 

In the face of the aforementioned megadevelopment slated for this corner, the future appears very bleak indeed for the bar and its signs.  The management could attempt to relocate, but taking the signs with them is a costly proposition.   Perhaps a better alternative would be for the bar's landlord to reserve a spot for it in whatever new building takes shape here (at an affordable rent), though this would require the business to close or relocate for a prolonged period before moving back in, something that has been tried and failed before (read Mars Bar).  

143 E60th Street, Manhattan.  February, 2006. (T. Rinaldi) 

On a personal note, the Subway Inn was a point of entry and a favorite hangout when I first moved to New York a decade ago.  Even then, it stood out as a relic of a time when Manhattan was more accessible to what we now call the 99-percent, when a middle income family could plausibly live within walking distance of 60th and Lex - something essentially unthinkable now.  I loved rounding the corner from Park or Madison onto 60th Street, high rent district all around, and seeing that neon BAR sign still aglow down the street. 

(T. Rinaldi)

Neon storefronts like this were once a dime a dozen in New York.  We celebrate the few that survive today because change has rendered them unique.  We bemoan their loss not just because they're old, but because their disappearance signals New York's transition into a city whose center is growing ever farther beyond the economic reach of the working class.

 Support the Subway Inn by purchasing prints over at Project Neon.

 There are still a few slots open for my Neon Walking Tour of the East Village this Friday!  The tour starts at 7pm this Friday, Aug. 15.  Reservations required; you can book here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Harold's for Prescriptions

The best part about maintaining this blog is when e-mails come in from people with real connections to the signs I've sought out and photographed for the neon book.  The latest of these comes from Amy Radin, whose father, Harold Friedman, is known to admirers of New York's old neon signs for the "Harold's for PRESCRIPTIONS" sign, on McDonald Avenue in Gravesend, Brooklyn.   

Harold's for Prescriptions, 2272 McDonald Ave., Brooklyn.  (T. Rinaldi)

As is often the case, there is a story behind the neon here, one that the sign does not speak to.  "He was the first Jewish merchant in a solidly blue collar Italian part of Brooklyn," Ms. Radin recalls of her father:  "Apparently it was not easy at first."

(T. Rinaldi)

"My dad, Harold Friedman, was born September 9, 1929 and grew up on the edge of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. His parents owned Chiffon Bakery, a kosher bakery on Coney Island Avenue near Avenue J which was around at least into the 1990s.  Oriented by his parents towards a career in retail, he went to St. Johns College of Pharmacy (I think he really wanted to be a doctor)," writes Ms. Radin.  "In 1955, around the time that my parents had their first child, he struck a deal to buy Barrata's Pharmacy," an Italian-owned corner drug store in the shadow of the Culver Viaduct at Avenue U and McDonald in Gravesend.  

(T. Rinaldi)

"There was a 'buy Italian' message circulating around the neighborhood," writes Ms. Radin.  Wary of making waves, Harold Friedman waited a few years before re-naming the business and updating the sign.  "Harold eventually overcame whatever these attitudes were and became a real neighborhood fixture.  When he got comfortable that he was sufficiently established (probably around 1957) he updated the sign to its current wording.  He kept the original style - the script lettering - of the Barrata's Pharmacy sign, according to my mom."  

(T. Rinaldi)

"I can remember hearing customers call him 'Signor Farmacista' and seeking his advice on health issues - so he definitely got to a point of acceptance and friendship with members of the community as time passed."  

(T. Rinaldi)

Ms. Radin's story is corroborated by records at the Buildings Department, which indicate a 1945-installation date for the sign, though its appearance seems more in keeping with signs of the following decade.  The sign wears the makers mark of Super Neon Lights of Bensonhurst, an Italian-American-owned shop that has been in the same family since the 1940s and is still one of the most active sign companies in this part of Brooklyn.  

(T. Rinaldi)

Sadly, Harold Friedman's tenure in Gravesend was cut short by illness in 1980, just over 20 years after his name went up in lights over Avenue U.  "He died at 51 of heart disease and I still recall the large community turnout at his funeral," recalls his daughter.  More than thirty years later, Harold's name still brightens the shadows under the old Culver viaduct, a favorite among enthusiasts of New York's old signs and storefronts.  "My dad was extremely proud of the appearance of his store," writes Ms. Radin: "no doubt he would have been smiling his characteristic big smile at the artistic impression the sign now creates."

(T. Rinaldi)


 Harold's at Ephemeral NY, Project Neon and the Lost City blog
 Harold's and other sights on Forgotten New York's grand tour of Gravesend.

• Upstate, Newburgh's historic Ritz Theatre is getting a new marquee.
• Some North Carolina Neon at Shorpy.