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!