Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Seagulls on 38th Street

The side streets off Eighth Avenue in the West 30s still retain a bit of that gritty flavor of old Gotham, with various one-off points of interest of the sort that seem to have been wiped clear from the rest of Manhattan.  One of the more intriguing such anomalies here is the grandiose neon-lit marquee of Ben's Kosher Delicatessen, at 209 West 38th Street.  Crowned by a square-faced analog clock, this signage strikes one as something out of another era (it could never be installed under current zoning laws).  Yet Ben's has only been here since the mid-1990s.  What gives?

Ben's of West 38th Street.  (T. Rinaldi)

Turns out Ben's clock actually belongs to the fourth generation of signage to hang over this storefront in more or less the same configuration since the mid-1920s.  And happily, the previous incarnations are all documented in photographs, making Ben's a fascinating evolutionary case study in Manhattan storefront neon.   

An evolutionary study of storefront signage at 209 W38th Street.

Many native New Yorkers will remember Ben's predecessor, Lou G. Siegel's Hebrew National Restaurant and Delicatessen, which operated from 1917 until Ben's took over in 1996.  By the time it closed, "Lou G's" was widely considered one of New York's major culinary landmarks, something in league with Katz's down on Houston Street today.  The New York Times issued a sentimental send-off upon the restaurant's closure after 79 years: "It's like they're knocking down Yankee Stadium," remarked one longtime customer back then.  (As it happened, Lou G. Siegel continued in business as a kosher caterer based in Brooklyn - they're still around today - while Ben's revived the West 38th Street restaurant under a new name.  Yankee Stadium was bulldozed after the 2008 season.) 

"Meet Me At Lou G. Siegel's": spiritual ancestor of Ben's clock appeared on West 38th Street around 1925.  Siegel's opal glass sign was made by Nedelman & Schoenfeld of New York.  (Signs of the Times Magazine, May 1926)

Lou G. Siegel installed the spiritual ancestor of the present clock around 1925, as part of an incandescent-lit "opal glass" display that hung about where Ben's sign hangs today.  Opal glass signs were an enormously popular typology of electric signage before neon displaced them beginning in the late 1920s.  Only one genuine opal glass storefront sign survives in Manhattan today, at Barbetta Restaurant on West 46th Street.

Last of its kind:  Barbetta's opal glass sign on W46th dates to 1931. (T.Rinaldi)

Lou Siegel's opal glass signage is described in a write-up published in Signs of the Times Magazine in 1926.  The sign featured a stylized seagull - Siegel's clever logo - above the clock.  "The sign is . . . erected on the Art Craft building in the very heart of New York's newest garment manufacturing center, where literally multitudes of people congregate daily to do business," wrote ST.  "A clock of the very finest workmanship, electrically wound and timed, was also included to make this a most complete day and night sign.  Thousands of people get accustomed to seeing the time of day in a certain place, and while sub-consciously seeking this information, the advertising message in this sign is put across to them in a most effective and direct way."

Dynamic as it surely was, Siegel's opal glass sign probably looked dated after just a few years, as neon spread across the city in the late 20s and early 30s.  Records at the NYC Department of Buildings show new signs going up here in 1936, and Lou Siegel's new and improved neon marquee is illustrated in promotional postcards given out by the restaurant in the 1940s. 

Lou G. Siegel's neon extravaganza, installed c. 1936.

Siegel's spectacular neon marquee appears to have lasted about 30 years, by which time it too would have looked somewhat dated.  Buildings Department records show new signage installed in 1962. In keeping with the popular trend away from exposed tube neon, the new sign featured plexiglass faces backlit by off-the-shelf fluorescent tubes.  The new sign lacked the exuberance of its predecessor, but the clock and stylized seagulls remained, at least thematically. 


Lou G. Siegel's 1960s clock and seagulls remain in place today.  (Hungry Gerald, above; T. Rinaldi, below)

Ben's current sign is actually only a slight alteration of Siegel's 1960s signage, even retaining the very same seagull logo below the clock.  One wonders how many passersby notice this subtle tribute to the bygone kosher king of 38th Street, a man the Times remembered as "a Damon Ruynon character," a "flashy man about town who favored three-piece suits and custom-made shirts, lived at the ritzy Eldorado apartment house on Central Park West and hung around with entertainers like Eddie Cantor and George Jessel" - "he would love to pin a carnation on the ladies whenever they came in." 

• The NYT's well-written tribute to Lou G. Siegel from 1996.
Lou G. Siegel Kosher Catering of Brooklyn.
Ben's of West 38th Street.
• Lou G. Siegel memorialized at Ephemeral New York.
• Lou G.'s remembered in an interesting write-up on kosher nostalgia at Hungry Gerald.

• My next Neon Walking Tour will take place on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015.  New West Village itinerary!  Tickets available at the Municipal Art Society via this link (scroll down to "Neon Neighborhood").

• San Francisco Neon, a new book by Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan, written-up in the SF Chronicle.
 Has anyone visited Berlin's Museum der Buchstaben (Museum of Letters), where "Hundreds of signs have already been rescued from decay and the scarp heap"?
 In Brooklyn, the Kentile "K" came out of hiding (briefly) for a holiday photo-op over the holidays.

 An uncertain future for Albany's massive rooftop Nipper dog.
 For the smartphone set, there is now a "Roadside Americana" app.
 Via Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, there is new neon in place at the former Back Fence bar spot on Bleecker Street.
 And finally, many thanks to CasaCara for this nice review of my December neon tour.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I feel like I'm walking through history. What luck that all of the signs were photographed and preserved! One question -- why is the seagull logo facing the opposite way on the Ben's sign? Is it just a different side of the sign that was photographed?