Sunday, February 23, 2014

Long Gone Neon, Part 1

Almost any time I need to track down an old photo of anything in New York, I go to the New York Public Library's incredible collection of historic photos gathered together under the rather ungainly collection heading of "Photographic Views of New York City, 1870s-1970s."  The collection includes more than 54,000 photographs, four of which appear in the neon book.  For many years viewable only on microfiche, today the photos can be found (and prints purchased) online, at the NYPL's digital gallery.

"Splended Lunch Bar" ~ 125th St., N. side, looking east from Madison to Park, Aug. 3, 1936, P.L. Sperr. Then and Now.

Among many other remarkable things, the photos record thousands of old neon signs long vanished from the city streets.  The bulk of the collection dates to the 1930s, most of them taken by the (vastly underrated) photographer Percy Loomis Sperr (1890-1964), whom the library commissioned to "document the changing face of New York City, with a particular emphasis on new building construction, and on the structures torn down and replaced." As the photographs show, neon signs had spread like wildfire all across the city by the 1930s, defining the character of the midcentury New York.  

"Cavalier Hotel" ~ Jan. 7, 1939, Somach Photo Service.  Then and Now.

Browsing these photos, the signs are impossible to miss.  What follows is a random assortment of 1930s New York neon, spotted while browsing the collection.  Not a single one of these remains today, as you'll see by clicking the Google StreetView links below the photos (the "Now" links below).  Watch for the stylistic transition that played out in the mid-1930s, as sign shops abandoned stamped metal edge moldings and serifed letterforms in favor of a more streamlined aesthetic.  The full, un-cropped photos can be viewed (and purchased) at the NYPL's digital gallery (follow the "Then" links below).  

"Dine With Slim" ~ Boller Ave., south side at Boston Post Road, Bronx, view to east.  P.L. Sperr, June 16, 1938.  Then and Now.

"Hyman Spitz Florist." (and "Miles Shoes," etc.) ~ Pitkin Ave., north side, looking east from Rockaway Ave.  P.L. Sperr, May 8, 1936. Then and Now.

Dinner Jackets "To Hire" ~ Brooklyn: 5th Avenue, North from 6th Street, Brooklyn - P.L. Sperr, Nov. 5, 1941.  Then and Now.

"Cut Rate Drugs" ~ 2nd Ave., looking north from 76th St., Manhattan, P.L. Sperr, Dec. 28, 1936.  Then and Now.

"Perry's Luncheon-Candy-Soda" ~ 3rd Ave looking north from 76th St., P.L. Sperr, March 29, 1937.  Then and Now.

"Peper Bros. Paints" (And "Bradley Cafeteria") ~ Sixth Ave., west side, looking north from 14th St.  P.L. Sperr, April 26, 1934.  Then and Now.

"Village Grove Nut Club" ~ Seventh Ave. South, east side below Grove St., Manhattan.  Feb 18, 1933.  Then and Now.

"Black Cat" 7th Ave. South, East Side below Grove St.  P.L. Sperr, Feb. 18, 1933.  Then and Now.


• Just when you think you've seen it all: Junior's, the downtown Brooklyn institution, is selling its flagship location for redevelopment.
 Neon artist Chryssa has died.  Among the first artists to begin working with neon, in the early 1960s.
• Did anyone check out Keith Sonnier's neon work at the Pace Gallery this month?
• At HuffPost, more neon art, from the UK.
• And still more neon art, closer to home: works by Ivรกn Navarro at Madison Square Park.
From NPR, some interesting perspective on the ongoing LED revolution in lighting.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Famous Oyster Bar

There's not much to say about the self-proclaimed Famous Oyster Bar of midtown, except that its signs had been among my very favorite things to see in this neighborhood for a long, long time.  No more: the place closed two Sundays ago after 55 years in business.

(T. Rinaldi) 

The Famous Oyster Bar's fascia signs boasted particularly evocative midcentury letterforms; the swing sign was curious in that it seemed to have been re-lettered from a previous incarnation (its stylized silhouette didn't quite jive stylistically with the lettering, and abandoned electrode housings in the arced space above suggested that some tubing had been removed). 

(T. Rinaldi) 

In a sterile part of town that seems especially hostile to anything the least bit ephemeral, the very sight of these signs made me feel that I still lived in the city as I once imagined it, the New York of Jack Lemmon movies and Checker cabs, stale sandwiches at the Automat and graffiti-covered Redbirds flying underground by night.

(T. Rinaldi) 
Much as I always admired its signage, I had never actually patronized the Famous Oyster Bar of West 54th Street.  The owners had so heavily reworked its interior that I figured I might just as well enjoy this place for what I liked best about it, from outside.  But when Jeremiah Moss broke the news that the Oyster Bar would breathe its last, with about 24 hours' notice, I decided I'd better get the hell up there.  

(T. Rinaldi) 

I don't much care for coming around such places in their final hours.  I prefer to experience them on a normal day - just another guy in just another restaurant, as though there were a whole world of such places out beyond the threshold.  For the Oyster Bar, I decided to come anyway - it was that or nothing.  The staff there had been so friendly when I rang them up to ask about their signs for the neon book, I felt I obliged to check-in at least once.  

(T. Rinaldi) 

So Sunday night I went over and sidled up to the bar.  I ordered a cocktail, then one more.  I watched the Grammy awards get started on TV.  The kitchen closed as I finished my drink.  Closed for good, after 55 years.  A little more of that old city of my imagination dissipated back into the spirit world from whence it came, away out there with Jack Lemmon and the Redbirds ... the banjo-strumming bohemians of Greenwich Village.

"Neon in daylight is a great pleasure" - Frank O'Hara.  (T. Rinaldi)