Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mitchell's Liquors and Other Neon News

The recent disappearance and reappearance of the neon storefront at Mitchell's Liquors up on West 86th Street in Manhattan made a bit of a stir earlier this summer.  Mitchell's had one of New York's most evocative midcentury neon storefronts, a real favorite among photographers of the city's vanishing neon signs.  It appeared in my book New York Neon, and in James and Karla Murray's books Store Front and New York Nights.  Inasmuch as a sign's job is to make a storefront stand out, Mitchell's had some of the most effective signage in New York City.

The neon glory of Mitchell's Liquors on West 86th Street.  (T. Rinaldi)

So the owner's threat to pull the signage down seemed just utterly senseless.  Alas, the signs came down in June, amid a complete renovation of this very old neighborhood business.  Normally, the disappearance of old storefront signage like this means that an old mom-n-pop has also bit the dust, pushed out by the usual rent hike.  Such signs have come to be treasured by their owners like mascots that mark their businesses as true survivors and neighborhood anchors.  But occasionally, a small business owner comes along who just doesn't share the enthusiasm the rest of us have for old neon.  The signs are finicky, expensive to maintain - time to renovate.  

Mitchell's Liquors, June 5, 2016. (T. Rinaldi)

The disappearance of Mitchell's beautiful old neon raised many a hue and cry in the internet chatterbox.  The store's old signs were gorgeous:  a fascia sign (installed 1946) composed of archetypal midcentury letterforms of the kind that inspired type designer Tobias Frere-Jones' now immensely popular font Gotham.   The lettering was wrought in red neon encased in stainless steel channels mounted to a backing of black Carrara Glass, and punctuated by a diacritical dot of ethereal blue neon that seemed able to transfix even the most impassive passerby.  A vertical sign off to one side (installed 1949) offered a bonus of pre-Helvetica lettering rendered in an appealingly-contrasting hue of green neon, similarly framed in stainless steel.  Things of utter beauty in their own right, their charm was amped up into the stratosphere by contrast with the pretty boring signage of just about every other storefront in the neighborhood.  Surely whatever the owner had on deck to replace them would pale by comparison.

Mitchell's, Then-and-Now.  No more blue dot.  (T. Rinaldi)

Then, a twist:  Mitchell's new signage debuted a few weeks later, matched so closely to the original that some casual observers weren't even sure whether these were new signs or just the old ones going back up.  The new signs are indeed new, as is given away by a few clues.  On the fascia sign, the new sign maker did a pretty good job matching the original lettering.  The new letters are a little fatter than the originals (they fill out a slightly larger space with the reconfiguration of the storefront below), but are rendered in a silvery metal (probably aluminum) that makes a good match for the old stainless, and are mounted to some kind of mystery material that does a pretty good job of approximating the old Carrara Glass.  They even replicated the little chrome strip in the glass backing.  The spacing of the neon tubes within the metal flanges gives this away as a fake-old sign (the new tubes are more deeply set within the metal "cans") but we'll give that a pass.


Mitchell's Then-and-Now. (T. Rinaldi)

The vertical sign meanwhile is a fairly dismal and uninspired rehash of its predecessor, the lettering apparently a digitally stretched and skewed Helvetica.  But maybe the biggest letdown for the sign stickler is that diacritical dot, which has utterly inexplicably gone from blue to red.  I mean - the humanity!  In the end, the final outcome here is about 1000% better than what those of us who so loved Mitchell's old signs had feared.  Far better, though, would have been to see the old signs properly restored, like a Buick of similar vintage, as has been done at places like Gringer's down in the East Village, or more recently at the Long Island Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  Instead, an authentic artifact of the streetscape, seasoned by nearly 70 years of New York's sooty soul, has gone to neon's great beyond.


My next Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tour has been calendared!

  WHEN:   Weds, September 21, 2016, 7:30PM
  WHERE:  Greenwich Village NYC
  HOW:    Tickets available at UntappedCities here
  WHY:    To bask in the glow of the best preserve of old
          neon left in NYC!

Check out Allison Meier's awesome review of the last tour here.


• No news is good news: S&G Gross's recently abandoned LOANS sign by Penn Station has vanished.

S&G Gross, then-and-now.  (T. Rinaldi)

 And yet more bad news: Campanile Restaurant on East 29th Street in Manhattan has bitten the dust, leaving its sign poised to disappear.

Campanile in better days.  (T. Rinaldi)

• And still more bad news: Antelis Drugs over in Midwood Brooklyn has moved out of their longtime location at Elm Ave and E15th St, leaving their really beautiful old Charles Klein-designed signage to its fate. (Reports on the closing of nearby M&M Drugs appear to be erroneous.)

Antelis then-and-now. (T. Rinaldi; GooglePlus)

• Boston is set to Landmark the famous Citgo Sign.

 Old neon in chronological situ at the Shorpy blog here & here.
 Some vintage NYC signage appreciation at the Ephemeral NY Blog.
 Way out west, sign chronicler Debra Jane Seltzer has been making the rounds.
 And, with sadness, we note the passing of John Margolies in May of this year.  Mr. Margolies began documenting vanishing signs and storefronts back in the 1970s.  His 1981 book "The End of the Road" set the tone for the formal and informal documentation of commercial archeology around the world.