Monday, June 30, 2014

Papaya King

When I set out to write the neon book, one of my top priorities was to include historic design drawings showing how these old signs came together from a creative and technical perspective.  Much to my consternation, tracking down such drawings proved to be almost impossible.  One industry old-timer after another told me that I'd come too late: old sign shops had closed up or sold-out, trashing truckloads of the archival material I was after in the process.

Justin Langsner, retired third-generation president of the LaSalle Sign Co., and the Papaya King sign made by his company fifty years ago. (T. Rinaldi)

Then, through a series of chance connections, I managed to get in touch with Justin Langsner, semi-retired president of the LaSalle Sign Company.  As luck would have it, Mr. Langsner still had an active maintenance account with the Papaya King on East 86th Street in Manhattan, and had held onto the entire project folder since his firm first made the sign in 1964. 

Research pay dirt: the Payapa King folder. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

The drawings, sketches and various miscellanea in the Papaya King folder yield a sense for how these old signs came together.  I am often asked how much it cost to install signs like these; LaSalle's Papaya King folder tells us that the sign cost $3,500 back in 1964, about as much as that year's Buick Wildcat convertible.  There are schematic sketches showing how the designer parsed out neon tubes by the linear foot, and final design renderings bearing the hand-written approval of the business owner.   And happily, the Papaya King sign still blinks out into the night at the corner of Third Avenue and East 86th Street, looking great fifty years on.

Original signed contract, on LaSalle Sign Co letterhead.  In 1964, the contract price of $3,500.00 could have bought you a Buick Wildcat convertible. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

'64 Buick Wildcat. (Old Iron Online)

Schematic diagram, showing the linear footage of neon tube required for the sign’s various components.   (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

With the design finalized, the sign company drafted a more formal schematic sketch for the owner’s approval. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

Final scale design drawing with exact specifications for colors, dimensions and materials.  This too bears the owners signature. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

Design sketch showing "Papaya King" caricature for the sign's Plexiglas panel, facing Third Ave. (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

Reference photo showing Papaya King c. 1970.  (Justin Langsner / LaSalle Sign Corp.)

LaSalle's Payapa King signs, fifty years strong. (T. Rinaldi)

MANY THANKS to Justin Langsner for the materials reproduced in this post, and to my dad for digging up the list price of the '64 Wildcat.

•   "A Signman's Album," featuring photos and anecdotes from Mr. Langsner's 70-year career in the sign business.

•   Save the date: another NY Neon walking tour scheduled for August 15, 2014, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.  Click here for more info.
• Another one down:  as anticipated back in 2012, the Brite-Buy Liquor sign in TriBeCa has bit the dust (along with the store and the building that housed it).
• For the type-o-phile, two excellent lessons on typographic terminology from Paul Shaw, here and here.
• From the great northwest, Debra Jane Seltzer has wrapped up an epic 13-day neon and roadside Americana scavenger hunt
• By way of Jeremiah and Grub Street, news of changes afoot at the El Quijote, in the Cheslea Hotel on 23rd Street.  Put this one on the neon watch list.
• And finally, some West Village neon appreciation via Ephemeral New York.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Kentile Update

Lots of questions remain on what will become of the Kentile sign, but for now, here's what we know:

Kentile, 06/21/14. (sfspur/Instagram)

As of Sunday, June 22, 2014, the removal of the big metal letters is about half way done.  It took less than two days to dismantle the KENTILE lettering; the smaller lettering that spells out FLOORS will probably go even faster, and the whole thing will likely be erased from the skyline early next week.  What will become of the metal framework behind the letters remains unclear.  It appears to be scheduled for demolition but not included in the preservation scope.  (Perhaps they ought to stockpile those parts as well - could come in handy if the sign is to be re-erected somewhere.)

The Kentile has landed.  (gowanusalliance/Instagram)

As for the preservation efforts: the letters themselves appear to have been carefully removed, as promised.  The Gowanus Alliance, a local business improvement nonprofit, is taking custody of them and will keep them safely stored "in the warehouse" with the idea that they will be re-erected at an unspecified location when the time comes.  (Last week, the Gowanus Alliance issued a fairly thorough outline of its preservation initiative for the sign as it stands now.)  A citizens group has also formed to advocate for Kentile's eventual restoration.

(Debra Jane Seltzer)

Meanwhile, from Chicago, we have learned that Kentile's twin sign quietly vanished early last year.  What is noteworthy about this is that the Chicago sign vanished with nary a peep - quite unlike the media frenzy that has come with the loss of the Brooklyn sign.   

Rust stains on a factory roof are all that remain of Chicago's Kentile sign. (Google Maps)

While Kentile Brooklyn is memorialized to the hilt on Flickr and Instagram, photos of the Chicago sign are actually hard to find. What this tells us, more than anything, is that much of the Brooklyn sign's appeal lay in its context.  Kentile became a kind of mascot that embodied the whole found-object identity of Brooklyn in the 21st Century.   

(Live Poultry Industrial Clothing)  

The sign was a pleasure to see from the Gowanus expressway, but the real beauty of the Kentile sign, for me, was the way it batted its eyes at us as we passed by on the subway, the way it seemed to turn on axis as the train looped around it, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower and the lower Manhattan skyline screened in the distance through the latticework of those big metal letters and the structure beneath them. Riding past Kentile on the subway was something like flying around the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter.  From the train, the sign wasn't just seen, it was experienced.  If there's truly a Kentile resurrection in the offing, here's hoping the sign's new perch will do it justice by giving it the same kind of appeal that made it the iconic relic it came to be.

•   Save the date: another NY Neon walking tour scheduled for August 15, 2014, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.  Click here for more info.
•   From Frank Jump's Fading Ad blog, a neon relic uncovered in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Neon Ghost of Henri Garrou

"Appealing for its quirkiness" might best describe the ancient sign hanging over Ninth Avenue Wine & Liquor, situated on its namesake thoroughfare in Hell's Kitchen.  "Appealing" because it was one of the last old neon signs in New York that featured any kind of animation (in this case, copy reading WINES and LIQUORS that flashed in alternating sequence).  "Quirky" because the lettering doesn't quite seem to fit the sign faces behind it. 

Ninth Avenue Wine and Liquor, 860 9th Ave., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Sure enough, the photographic record confirms that the sign has been re-lettered.  In fact, at last check, the black paint on its sign faces has faded to reveal an earlier livery beneath: "H. GARROU," reads the ghostly lettering: "WINES." 

Faded lettering visible on the old sign faces.  (T. Rinaldi)

The city's c.1940 tax photo shows the sign as it looked before its re-lettering, with hand-painted detailing around the border and across a streamlined filigree up top.  Buildings Department records tell us that the sign was installed in 1934 for a certain Henri Garrou.  Like a number of other old liquor store signs around town, this one showed up just one year after the repeal of Prohibition and has been here ever since.  

The prime of H. Garrou, c. 1940.  (Municipal Archives)

A small placard still in place beneath the lettering tells us that Midtown Neon, once one of New York's more prominent sign shops, had some involvement here.  The placard's similarity to others left by Midtown on signs produced in the 1950s suggests that it probably dates to the sign's reconfiguration, not to its original fabrication. 

Midtown Neon placard beneath the lettering likely dates to the sign's midcentury makeover.  (T. Rinaldi)

Sadly, the sign's current owners seem to have let it go to seed of late.  It doesn't light up at all now, and the sheet metal desperately needs painting.  Perhaps the management will fall under the spell of that quirky appeal, get the neon going again and hire a good sign painter to bring back that handsome border detailing that shows up in the old tax photo.   Either way, now is a good time to raise a glass to this old girl, for 2014 marks 80 years since monsieur Garrou had this sign hung up over his Ninth Avenue storefront.   


•    Some anti-nostalgia from the Times: "A growing and emotional fascination with old corporate emblems in New York City has resulted in efforts to save, among other things, the sign for Kentile Floors."  
•    As anticipated last year, Comcast has proposed a new sign to top off 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the former RCA building. 
•    Debra Jane Seltzer is on the road again, documenting old neon and other commercial archeology of the midwest. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Kentile Reprieve

Anyone reading this has probably already heard the good news on a deal brokered to help ensure some kind of a future for the big Kentile sign.  Late yesterday (6/12/2014), the New York Times reported that the sign will be dismantled, not scrapped, and its components stored until a new home can be found where it can be re-erected.  This comes thanks to a deal brokered in large part by local city Council Member Brad Lander, who has been outspoken in his support of preserving the sign; a grassroots movement to save the sign led by Steven Savage and others that engendered an overwhelming media response; and the good graces of Elyahu Cohen, the building owner, who has agreed to donate the sign rather than collect the proceeds of its scrap value.


But the game ain't over yet:  storing the sign, finding a new perch that suits it and then putting it back together again won't come cheap.  And let's not forget the sad story of old Laing Stores, New York's first cast iron building, similarly dismantled for a rebirth that never came.  Or the long saga of Portland, Oregon's White Stag sign, successfully preserved (and re-lit) only after a hard-fought battle.  It may be a little too soon to take it for granted that we'll ever seen this sign again, but for now, those of us for whom Kentile has been a favorite New York landmark can breathe a momentary sigh of relief, and the impending spectacle of its downfall will be a little less painful knowing that there's a decent shot at a Kentile resurrection.

SPECIAL THANKS to Jarrett Brilliant for continued updates on the Kentile saga.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Scaffold Up, Kentile Down

In the neon book, I submit that Kentile might be *the* popular favorite among New York's old neon signs today, and the buzz generated by its apparently-impending demise seems to back this up.  Two hours after last week's post reporting the issuance of a demolition permit for the sign, Gothamist followed with its own write-up and the story has taken on a life of its own since then. Now, there's a petition circulating to convince Kentile's owners to save the sign.

 Kentile, June 9, 2014.  (T. Rinaldi)

Those owners have been cagey and evasive since the news broke, but all indications are that Kentile will come down imminently.  For all its popularity, the site is not a designated Landmark (despite efforts to do so), and with demolition permits already in place, the only hope for saving Kentile is that its owners (one Ely Cohen and Regal Home Collections) can be persuaded to incorporate it into whatever plans they may have for the site.  

#Kentile on Instagram. 

Wondering what might take Kentile's place?  The demo permit names a certain Bricolage Designs as the filing representative;  Bricolage's online portfolio is heavy on generic midrise condos, including a handful in Gowanus.  For now, the demolition permit applies only to the sign, not the building it stands on, and the owners have not announced any plans to redevelop the site.  But if this is any hint of what might be waiting in the wings, let's just say that a salvaged Kentile sign plopped down over one of these glamor girls wouldn't step on any architectural toes.  

Kentile's replacement?  Recent residential buildings in Gowanus.  (Google Streetview)

To encourage some form of Kentile preservation, City Council Member Brad Lander has launched the above-mentioned online petition (sign here).  A rally to save the sign took place over the weekend.  There's also a #SaveKentile movement gathering steam on Twitter, and the future of the Kentile site will be discussed at a community planning meeting to be held on June 25th.  But by that time, the sign could already be gone.

In the meantime, updates, memories and other thoughts on Kentile are being posted on the sign's Facebook and Twitter pages.


• The Petition to save Kentile.
• Write-ups on the sign at the Wall Street JournalGothamist, the Daily News, the NYT, and Brownstoner.
 Coverage at Curbed, including photos of the demolition plans.
 NYC Council Member Brad Lander's statement on the situation.
 Some editorializing on the sign's demise at Brokelyn
 A status check on the situation run by Gothamist this past Friday.
New York Neon's Kentile history primer.
Last summer's demolition of the nearby Eagle Clothes sign.

SPECIAL THANKS to Jarrett Brilliant for the tips and to Keith Williams at the Wall Street Journal for being the only reporter to link back to my original post.

NY NEON WALKING TOUR: Next tour scheduled for Friday, August 15, 2014, sponsored by the Municipal Art Society and Friends of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.  Book online here!

After all this crappy news, we could all use a lift:  these glorious vintage photos from Vancouver should help. (Thanks to Laurence Johnston for the link.
• JVNY on the Home of Cheers Liquors situation in Chelsea.
• From the west coast, Debra Jane recently spent three days in Vegas.  She wasn't there to play the slots.  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Kentile Coming Down?

This morning, a reader alerted me to scaffolding going up at the Kentile Sign in Gowanus, Brooklyn.  A quick check of the Buildings Department web site confirms the worst:  on April 17, 2014, DOB issued a permit "to remove existing structure and sign by hand off roof."  Looks like this is it, folks.  

 Kentile.  Brooklyn.  RIP.  (T. Rinaldi)

 Screencap from

For more on Kentile, see this background on the sign, published here back in April 2012.  Even as the landmark sign came virtually back to life last month, the permits had already been issued.  

 Kentile in its prime.  (Signs of the Times magazine, used with permission)

Photo showing scaffolding, by way of Jeff Baum's twitter.

Stay tuned for updates as they come in.