Thursday, May 29, 2014

Neon Afterglow.

As old neon signs continue their chronic disappearance from the city streets, some of them - the lucky ones - find shelter indoors.  As I write in the neon book, old signs are of such powerful appeal that people sometimes go to herculean lengths to keep them around, installing them in restaurants, bars or lobbies where they serve variously as decor, mascots or supplemental lighting.  One sign - that of the Holland Bar, now moved indoors - holds the cremated remains of one of the bar's former patrons.

Holland Bar / 532 9th Av., Manhattan

Harboring retired signs in this way is more challenging than one might think.  For one thing, the signs themselves are typically big - much larger than than they look hanging from the side of a building - which requires some shoehorning in a city not known for disposable squarefootage.  A handful of old signs - those of the Cedar Tavern and Ratner's Kosher Dairy, for instance - survive in private collections.  Museums in New York have generally turned a cold shoulder to neon signs, leaving it mainly to restaurateurs and bar owners to preserve vintage signs for public enjoyment.  Keep an eye out and you'll find them here and there, perched over display shelving or bartenders' shoulders, bathing us in their neon afterglow.

Mr. Wright Fine Wines & Spirits, 1593 3rd Av., Manhattan / An exceedingly fine remnant of early 1930s signage, probably made right after the repeal of Prohibition, now ensconced in this Upper East Side liquor store.  

Chat N Chew / 10 E16th St., Manhattan /  "BAR" sign of unknown provenance entreats passersby to join the festivities at the one and only Chat N Chew diner by Union Square.  Makers mark emblazoned into its burgundy porcelain face gives us an idea of where this came from.

HousingWorks Books / 126 Crosby St., Manhattan / Provenance unknown - real or fake-old?  Either way a likable sign.

Emmett O'Lunney's / 210 W50th St., Manhattan / Part of the old McHale's Bar signage formerly at 46th and 8th.

Emmett O'Lunney's / 210 W50th St., Manhattan / More neon at O'Lunney's on W50th.

Farrell's Bar / 215 Prospect Park W., Brooklyn / Farrell's original sign, made c.1935, sustained storm damage and was replaced by a very good fake around 2010.  The original was halved and moved indoors: one side decorates the inside of the bar on Prospect Park West, the other wound up on Long Island.

Times Square Museum / 1560 Broadway (Times Sq.), Manhattan / Former 42nd Street Peep O-Rama signage, lovingly preserved by the folks at Let There Be Neon (see below).

Somewhere in SoHo. Unknown liquor store signage now decorates the inside of a fancy SoHo residential lobby.

The 13th Step / 139 2nd Av., Manhattan / Handsome signage indeed, provenance unknown. 

Crunch Gym (ex-David Barton Gym, ex-McBurney YMCA) / 215 W23rd Street, Manhattan / As noted previously on this blog, this sign had a starring role in the original music video for the Village People's "YMCA."  Previously hung from the facade of the former McBurney YMCA on 23rd St., now moved inside the same building.

IFC Theater / 323 Ave. of the Americas, Manhattan / When the Waverly became the IFC, neon letters from the marquee went up in the theater's bistro, just next to the main entrance.  The bistro has since closed - hopefully these will turn up again one day.

Duke's Original Road House, 99 E19th St., Manhattan / A maker's mark emblazoned into the porcelain faces of this sign identifies it as the work of the Bell Maintenance Co., once one of New York's more prominent neon shops.

LTBN / 38 White St., Manhattan / As close as it gets to a neon museum in NYC, the shop of Let There Be Neon on White Street in TriBeCa.

Kew Gardens Cinema / 81-05 Lefferts Blvd., Jamaica / The Kew Gardens Cinema was formerly the Austin Theatre, as recalled by these weathered, streamlined letters now hung in the theater's lobby.

Steven Sondheim Theatre (ex-Henry Miller's Theatre) / 124 W43rd St., Manhattan / Neon sign left over from the Sondheim's days as Henry Miller's Theatre now hangs over the stage door entrance, visible from the arcade west of the theater.


  I will be leading another walking tour of East Village Neon, this time for the Municipal Art Society.  Tour date is Friday, August 15.  Sign up here!
  From ScoutingNY, a little background on one of midtown's more prominent ghost signs.
  Unhappy news from Chelsea: the lovely neon fascia sign of the former Home of Cheers Liquors at 8th Ave and 18th Street has been destroyed.  A fancy gelateria is set to open in the space.  Maybe the sign will re-appear inside?  The vertical sign is still there, for now.

Home of Cheers Liquors big fascia sign before it disappeared (T. Rinaldi)

  From the far west side, Debra Jane brings us a portfolio of ancient signs found on a recent trip to Stockton and Sacrament.
  From the up-for-grabs department: the Mini MiniMarket sign in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, could be yours.  (Thanks to Kerensa Wood for the link.)
  Via the NY Times: it seems we nearly lost Katz's to a giant sinkhole this week.
  A San Francisco neon hunt, from Neon Hunting.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Luminous Advertising Sketches

One of the great relics of the neon era is a book of design suggestions for neon shops called "Illuminated Advertising Sketches," by Philip DiLemme.  First published in 1935, the book offers an incredible trove of art deco commercial design and midcentury lettering.  


Like the authors of architectural pattern books in the nineteenth century, DiLemme intended to influence and improve the work of his colleagues in the sign business.  The book ran in several editions; it was re-printed under the title "American Streamline" in the 1970s, and has been referenced by just about every latter-day retrospective of the American neon business, including my book New York Neon.

Remarkable as DiLemme's sketchbook is, it remains unclear just how influential it actually was, and little is known of DiLemme himself.  In promotional spots for his book, DiLemme described himself as "one of New York's leading electrical advertising sketch artists."  He does not appear to have run his own sign company, at least not in New York.  He may have worked as a hired gun, and likely belonged to Local 230 of the Sign Pictorial & Display Union, as many neon sign designers in New York did during this period.  But surely sign makers in New York and elsewhere lifted his designs from the pages of his Advertising Sketches, with varying degrees of interpretation.  

The Coliseum Theatre, formerly on 4th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, featured in Signs of the Times Magazine, October 1935 (ST Media Group, used with permission)

Photographic evidence survives of at least one example of DiLemme's work in New York: the neon marquee of the Coliseum Theatre, formerly on Fourth Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  DiLemme's design for the Coliseum marquee shows up in his book in Plate No. 10, drawn to advertise a (probably fictitious) "Harlem Theatre," which may or may not have been actually fabricated.  Signs of the Times magazine tells us that the Coliseum sign was produced by the S&E Electric Sign Co.  It used 1,000 feet of neon tubing and forty transformers. 

(DiLemme, Luminous Advertising Sketches)

The Coliseum marquee is long gone, but another, more prominent theater marquee of identical design survived until somewhat recently at the former Metro (ex-Midtown) Theatre on the Upper West Side, albeit in altered form.  Although there is no documentation to confirm that this was indeed a DiLemme sign, old photos show that the two marquees were clearly based on Plate No. 10.


The Midtown Theatre's original marquee was installed by the United Signs Corp., which also installed the neon marquees at Radio City Music Hall.  The design appears to be DiLemme's. (

Meanwhile, out in Staten Island, one last bit of DiLemme's handwork survives in the unlikeliest of places.  Unlikely, that is, because the fifth borough has precious little in the way of old neon.  But hanging over the old storefront of Mom's Liquors on Richmond Terrace, one finds the only remaining sign left in New York that seems to have come out of DiLemme's sketchbook. The details of the two designs aren't quite a perfect match, but close enough.  Could this have been the work of DiLemme himself?  Or is it just an inspired interpretation?  

Mom's Liquors, 2045 Richmond Terrace, Staten Island. (Photo by Paul Shaw)

(DiLemme, Luminous Advertising Sketches)


 By way of Bowery Boogie: some new neon deposed from Pulino's on Houston St.
 Also by way of BB - everyone's favorite Russ & Daughters sign on Houston St now has a twin down on Orchard.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bulb Signs

The time has come to post an homage to that other icon of illuminated signage: the incandescent bulb sign.  As this blog nears its end, I had to get this one off my chest.  For reasons about which we can only speculate, incandescent bulb signs have enjoyed a renaissance of late.  Though they've been hopelessly obsolete since neon gave them the boot in the 1930s, bulb signs have a certain appeal that has kept them around to this day. 

Blub signs of yore (top) and today (bottom).  (Signs of the Times, top; Brooklyn Bown, bottom) 

In the neon book, I explore how incandescent bulb signs became icons of obsolescence in the 1930s.  Before Hollywood hung flickering neon signs outside dingy, disreputable hotels and bars in the 1940s and 50s,  film directors used bulb signs to bring audiences into the demimonde establishments of drifters and grifters, gangsters and conmen as early as the 1930s.

"Backfire," 1950.

The incandescent bulb sign had its heyday in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Thomas Edison gave us the incandescent lamp in 1879, and bulb signs became a signature part of New York's urban landscape by the 1890s.  Sign makers found ingenious ways of arranging untold numbers of bulbs into hyper-elaborate contortions almost unimaginable today, animated spectacles that soon came to define the frenetic pace of urban life.  

Typical incandescent bulb signs for storefronts, as illustrated in an early 1920s brochure for the Reynolds Electric Company. (Signs of the Times Magazine, used with permission)

Bulb signs held sway for 30 years or so, until neon blew them away with its lower maintenance and energy costs in the late 1920s.  Within a few years, the bulb signs were gone.  Well, almost gone: in New York, they became so closely associated with the iconography of roaring-twenties gaiety that Broadway theaters almost universally re-installed bulb signs on their marquees, even after many had gone neon in the 1930s.
Bulb Signs over Broadway.  (T. Rinaldi)

In the last few years, bulb signs have become what one might call "a thing," cropping up in retail establishments and trendy restaurants all over town.  The new signs are typically vague approximations of their predecessors: in their lettering and other details, they don't seek to fool us into thinking they're the real thing.  

(New York Magazine, Nov. 3, 2011)

Yet with their latent ability to conjure up the aura of all things way-before-our-time, the new bulb signs fall in with similarly old-timey details (from penny tile floors to mustached bar tenders to those beautiful if ubiquitous lacy-filamented incandescent bulbs) that have become de rigueur decor for even the most slightly aspiring new restaurants.  

Rare Bar & Grill, 152 W25th St.  (T.Rinaldi)

That these signs buck the otherwise overwhelming Mad Men tendency toward all things midcentury begs some reflection:  is the appeal of the bulb signs just that they offer some visual stimulation amongst the drab monotony of our vinyl-awninged streetscapes?  Or is there something more cerebral going on here, perhaps that these signs herald little makebelieve respites from a city where anything actually old doesn't stand a chance against the locust-swarm of glassy highrises casting ever darker shadows over Central Park?  

Peel's, 325 Bowery (T. Rinaldi)

The history of bulb signs in their glory years is worthy of a book unto itself, and their revival merits at least a good anatomy-of-a-trend type dissertation.  Alas, the bulb sign revival will likely expire before anyone puts finger to save button on either of the above, so for now, lets enjoy them while they last.  

P.J. Clarke's, 250 Vesey St. (T. Rinaldi)

Comedy Cellar, 117 Macdougal St. (T. Rinaldi)

Mickey Spillane's, 350 W49th St. (T. Rinaldi)

Bowlmor Lanes, 222 W44th St. (T. Rinaldi)

Toshi's Living Room, 1141 B'way (T. Rinaldi)

Lucy's Cantina Royale, W34th St. (T. Rinaldi)

Bounce Fitness, 55 W21st St. (T. Rinaldi)

Joe Coffee, 9 E13th St. (T. Rinaldi)

Ace Hotel, 20 W29th St. (T. Rinaldi)

 It's not too late to sign up for my neon walking tour of the East Village TONIGHT (May 8, 2014)!
• Did anyone catch the virtual Kentile re-lighting in Gowanus, Brooklyn?  It happened this past weekend.  If you missed it (as I did!), get caught up with a few links, here and here.  (For some background on the Kentile sign, check out this NYNeon post.) 
• Controversy stalks the neon "WELCOME TO THE BRONX" sign in the South Bx.  Just light it back up already!
• Debra Jane serves up a few more batches of neon beauteousness from SoCal.
• Some interesting appreciation and exploration of Italian neon from Paul Shaw.