Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Billymark's White Rose

In the ever more rarified world of West Chelsea, Billymark's, at 29th and 10th, stands out as a refreshing oasis of genuine grime.  Any time I pass by this corner, I feel myself tense up with a certain anxiety:  so endangered are such places in New York today that Billymark's survival seems tenuous at best. 

Billymark's West, 232 Ninth Ave., Manhattan.  (T. Rinaldi)

For those who haven't had the pleasure, Billymark's West (its full name - good luck finding Billymark's East) is the New York dive bar from central casting.  From its armageddon-proof terrazzo to its graffiti-sprawled bathroom with no toilet seat, there's nary a hint of affectation in its diveyness.  
Yes, Billymark's seems to have all the trappings - with one great big exception:  no neon.  Along with a certain sense of disbelief that the place is still here at all, I note this lack of neon incredulously whenever I venture out this way.  The building itself, a humble one-story taxpayer with slightly art deco flourishes in its brickwork, cries out for some stylized contraption of midcentury letterforms wrought in stainless steel and neon, something a-la the Parkside Lounge down on Houston Street, or the now long-departed Penn Bar and Grill, formerly just a few blocks away.  

One day not long ago, stuck at a red light outside Billymark's whilst on a noontime errand, I decided I'd finally get to the bottom of this by turning back the clock and seeing what this place looked like around 1980.  Such limited time travel is possible thanks to the Municipal Archives, which has made the city's 1980s tax photos available online.  The scans are fuzzy, but clear enough to reveal a pair of gorgeous neon raceway signs, their copy rendered in a classic neon script.  

332 Ninth Ave c. 1980.  (Municipal Archives of NYC)

And - bonus discovery - the photo shows that before there was Billymark's, this corner belonged to one of the White Rose bars, a now-vanished varietal of New York neighborhood wateringhole along the lines of the Blarney Stones (now also nearly vanished - one of them recently shuttered just up the block from Billymark's).  White Rose bars turn up in the backdrop of old New York street scenes by photographers such as Andreas Feininger, Charles Cushman, W. Eugene Smith, and others.

White Rose, Whitehall and Front Streets, c. 1960. (Charles Cushman)

My fleamarket copy of the 1954 Manhattan yellow pages lists about ten White Rose bar-restaurants that year.  They're all gone now, but at Billymark's one can still listen the faint flicker echoing off the terrazzo - for now.  Gather ye white neon rosebuds.

White Rose, Yellow Pages. (1954 Manhattan Yellow Pages / T. Rinaldi)


 More New York Neon walking tours are coming this summer: stay tuned for dates. 
 Join typography historian Paul Shaw for a lettering tour of downtown Newark on June 19, 2016.
 Check out my interview with Robert Stark at the Stark Truth podcast.
 Insanely old pawn shop S&G Gross has left its home of approximately 100 years on 8th Avenue near Penn Station, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported earlier this year.  NYNeon ran this study of Gross' classic neon-clad storefront back in 2013. 

S&G Gross, 8th Avenue and W34th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

 Garment District neon, at Ephemeral New York.
 Some delightful DC neon via Shorpy. 
 And finally we give you Kentile, inked.

(ryanroi on Instagram.)

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