Monday, October 31, 2016

Signs Inside

In my book New York Neon, I point to the use of old neon signs as objects of decor as one of the most vivid illustrations of the complex and contradictory nature of our relationship with neon through the years. Neon signs have been dismissed as tatty clutter on the one hand, and welcomed into restaurant dining rooms on the other.  True, this could be just a question of there being a time and a place for everything.   But the fact remains that while some have sought to have neon signs banned outright, others have gone to great lengths to ensure their preservation.  

Holland Bar / 532 9th Av., Manhattan.   Buildings Department records indicate a 1949 installation date for this sign at its original location on West 42nd Street.  The sign bears the mark of the Higger Electric Sign Co.  (T. Rinaldi)

My favorite place to reflect upon this irony is on a wobbly barstool at the Holland Bar, on Ninth Avenue just below the Port Authority Bus Terminal.  When circumstances forced the bar to relocate from its original home in the former Holland Hotel on 42nd Street years ago, its owners took their sign along with them.  Too large to hang over the bar's new storefront, they found room for it inside.  An urn nested between the letters O and L holds the ashes of Charlie O'Connor, a longtime regular.  

Emmett O'Lunney's (Sign formerly belonging to McHale's Bar at Eighth Ave and W46th Street) / 210 W50th St., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

All over New York, old signs have been brought indoors to brighten bars, stores, lobbies and other spaces.  While this is a happy byproduct of our appreciation for these old signs, the downside is that it takes the signs away from their proper context - the city streets whose character they helped define for most of the 20th century.  And of course, they are liable to disappear without warning when a space changes hands.  A number of the signs pictured in this roundup have vanished since these photos were taken.  But where they can be found, these signs inside are like a scattered, un-curated museum of New York neon, perhaps the best demonstration of neon's infectious appeal.  

Emmett O'Lunney's / 210 W50th St., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

HousingWorks Books / 126 Crosby St., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Farrell's Bar / 215 Prospect Park W., Brooklyn (T. Rinaldi)

Mr. Wright Fine Wines & Spirits / 1593 3rd Ave., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Times Square Museum (Closed) / 1560 Broadway (Times Sq.), Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Crunch Gym (ex-David Barton Gym, ex-McBurney YMCA) / 215 W23rd St., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

The 13th Step / 139 2nd Av., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Museum of the Moving Image / 36-01 35th Ave, Astoria, Queens (T. Rinaldi) 

Duke's (Closed) / 99 E 19th St, Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

IFC Theater Cafe (Closed) / 323 Ave. of the Americas, Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Kew Gardens Cinema (ex-Austin Theatre) / 81-05 Lefferts Blvd., Jamaica (T. Rinaldi)

Steven Sondheim Theatre (ex-Henry Miller's Theatre) / 214 W43rd St., Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Cafe Pedlar (Sign formerly at the Delightful Coffee Shop at 116th and First in Manhattan) / 210 Court Street, Brooklyn (T. Rinaldi)

Bone Lick BBQ (Closed) / 75 Greenwich Ave, Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)

Streetbird (sign formerly belonged to the M&G Soul Food Diner on 125th Street) / 2149 Frederick Douglass Blvd, Manhattan (T. Rinaldi)


Untapped Cities will sponsor one more Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tour this fall:

 Wednesday, November 16, 2016 (7:30 PM)

Tickets available here!


 It's actually happening:  Jeremiah pays a farewell visit to the Carnegie Deli.
 Also via Jeremiah's Vanishing New York: lots of neon in the backdrop of the Gay Gotham exhibit up at the Museum of the City of New York. 
 Via Brooklyn Magazine: "Noble Signs is Making New York Glow Again."
 Way out west, Debra Jane has been busy making glorious galleries of old neon and other related eyecandy.
 From the Upstate New York Neon department: a great neon restoration at the Hotel Saranac in Saranac Lake.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Little More Loft's

In writing two weeks ago on the discovery of a long-entombed Loft's Candy storefront down on Nassau Street, I described the sign as using the chain's "midcentury logotype."  By sheer coincidence, while thumbing through a musty backissue of Interiors magazine up at Avery Library the other day, I stumbled upon the origin of said logotype, which belonged to a comprehensive rebranding that encompassed everything from the company's packaging to its delivery trucks to - yes - its storefronts.
(Interiors Magazine, November 1945)

The Loft's logo unearthed on Nassau Street can be credited to a now largely forgotten industrial designer called Charles C.S. Dean.  Dean is obscure today, but pulled quite a bit of weight in his day.  Interiors featured his work for Loft's in its November 1945 issue under the headline "Old Candy Chain Modernizes."  Started in lower Manhattan back in 1860, Loft's was going full tilt after WWII, with stores at 175 locations. 

Loft's storefront at an unspecified address on 42nd Street in New York.  (Interiors Magazine, November 1945)

Dean's new design for the company's standard storefronts called for facades of "Rembrandt blue Carrara glass" divided by horizontal strips of stainless steel.  The slanty crosspiece of the logo's stylized letter "F" evoked candy stripes.  The storefront design evolved somewhat by the time of the Loft's facade at 88 Nassau, but the basic pattern remains easily recognizable there today.  

Loft's ghost sign on Nassau St.  (T. Rinaldi)

Of Mr. Dean, from we learn the following: "Charles C. S. Dean emigrated to the US in 1925. ... In Chicago he worked for Kuppenheimers, designing packaging and other materials. He relocated to New York and studied at the Art Student's League and the American and National Academies of Design. After a year studying in Europe he returned to New York and worked for Newell-Emmett advertising and spent evenings studying at NYU and the Beaux Arts School of Design. He designed trademarks, brochures, packaging and booklets."

(Interiors Magazine, November 1945)
Dean appears to have left no design patents for us to gauge his body of work by, but his logo for Loft's can still be found in the annals the US Patent and Tradmarks Office, where it was filed in April 1946 - and, for now, it can still be admired down on Nassau Street.  Whether it will stay around for us to keep admiring it is up to Two Boots Pizza, who will open in the space in the coming months.  


What better way to fortify yourself for Wednesday night's Presidential Debate than by marinating in the bohemian neon glow of Greenwich Village?  The tour will start at 7:30 and wrap up about an hour later so that those of us with the strength for another debate can get to our respective viewing locations.  

Tickets are available here - hope you can make it!  Next tour will be on Wednesday, November 16.  Tickets for that tour are avilable at the same link.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Loft's Lost And Found

Two Boots Pizza, a NYC-based chain, will open a new location where one of New York's most remarkable neon storefronts was recently unearthed on Nassau Street.  

Loft's reliquary neon recently unearthed at 88 Nassau Street. (T. Rinaldi)

Since reporting on the old Loft's sign last week, a modest proposal has come to mind.  Dear Two Boots: don't take it down, don't cover it up...  re-light it!  Crazy?  Not really, and here are some reasons why:

1) The old Loft's sign covers a large part of the tiny building's facade.  Cleaning and preserving the existing Loft's sign could substantially offset costs for demolition and installing a whole new facade.  

A Loft's relic sign preserved on Church Street in New Haven, CT.  (Greg on Flickr)

2) Two Boots wouldn't be the first to re-use a historic sign in this way.  Numerous other examples come to mind:  from the the J Crew Men's Shop in TriBeCa to another Loft's sign on Church Street in New Haven, to the Odeon (also in Tribeca), whose salvaged cafeteria storefront neon dates all the way back to 1933. 

Old neon saved for posterity at the J. Crew Men's Shop in TriBeCa and The Odeon, 145 West Broadway, Manhattan.  (T. Rinaldi)

3) Inasmuch as a sign's job is to attract attention, absolutely nothing does the job better than an old neon storefront.  Where they survive, these signs are not just the brightest things in sight: they are iconic local landmarks that become known far beyond their immediate surroundings.  In recent years they have become Instagram magnets (the Loft's sign on Nassau Street scored almost 800 likes on one account since its unveiling).  

Likes for Loft's. (sign_of_the_time on Insta)

So come on, Two Boots, save the sign!  You'd be doing a good turn for the cultural fabric of the city, preserving an irreplaceable icon of New York's 20th century streetscapes, potentially saving yourself some cash, and coming out of it with a showstopper of a storefront that will become an instant neighborhood landmark, camera-ready for books, magazines and social media.  And I'll promise to line up for a slice and blog your praises from the neon mountaintop.


Untapped Cities will sponsor two more Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tours this fall:

 October 19, 2016 (7:30 PM)
 November 16, 2016 (7:30 PM)

Tickets available here - hope to see you there!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Loft's on Nassau

Surveying New York's old signs for the neon book, I identified somewhere around 400 pre-1970-ish neon storefront signs scattered throughout the five boroughs - a paltry number, considering how many there once were.  In fact there are probably many more, hiding under newer signs or awnings all over town.  Among these, my absolute favorite has been one belonging to a long-defunct Loft's Candies franchise that lay hidden under a vinyl awning for Lilly's Boutique, a ladies' discount dress shop down on Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan.  

Loft's undercover.  (T. Rinaldi)

The Loft sign came to light again in recent weeks, unveiled with the closure of Lilly's cut-rate dress emporium at 88 Nassau.  The sign is a marvel, featuring prime specimens of pre-Helvetica block and script letterforms outlined in metal channel letters mounted to an old vitrolite storefront facade.  No record of an installation date appears to be on file at the Buildings Department, but the sign has the look of something that likely appeared here circa 1960.  "Will the future excavation of an ancient Starbucks be as elegant?" wondered Jeremiah Moss last week. 

Loft's "desnuda".  (T. Rinaldi) 

Loft's exhumed neon is noteworthy on several counts.  In the early 1920s, another Loft's outlet installed the earliest storefront neon in New York City for which any photographic documentation has yet surfaced.  As I wrote in the neon book, in those early years, neon signs were the domain of big corporations - besides Loft's, early neon signs in New York were installed by auto manufacturers like Willys-Overland, and chain shoe stores like John Ward.  It was only later that neon storefront signs became associated with independent businesses - from neighborhood corner stores to seedy old hotels - ultimately lending a bohemian mystique to neon as a medium.

Could this be New York's first neon storefront sign?  Signs of the Times Magazine ran this photograph under the headline "Luminous Gas Lights New Electric Sign" in October 1924.  (Signs of the Times Magazine, October 1924)

The Loft's sign on Nassau Street features the company's midcentury logotype.  Graphically, it is somewhat unusual in that the business name is rendered in block letters (behold that fabulous slashy F), while the generic CANDIES is spelled out in a jaunty script.  Typically, sign makers took the opposite tack, using script for the business name and block letters for generic copy.  An almost identical sign could once be seen on Times Square, where Loft's had a location in the old Bond Building. 

Loft's Times Square, c. 1965. (American Classic Images)

By the mid-1960s, Loft's abandoned exposed-tube neon for typical plexiglas signs lit by off-the-shelf fluorescent tube lamps, as in this (since removed) example at Danas Flower Shop at 118-01 Queens Blvd in Forest Hills. (T. Rinaldi) 

Back around 1960, a sign of this type probably cost about as much as a new Chevy Corvair.  In other words, a significant investment, even for a chain business.  Alas, this particular Loft's appears to have lasted not more than 20 years (88 Nassau is not among the 38 Loft locations listed in my copy of the 1954 Manhattan Yellow Pages, and the store was gone by the time the city's tax photographer showed up here around 1980).  Yet its survival is testimony to an era whose aesthetic is now almost entirely vanished from the city streets.  If New York were an open air museum of old neon signs, its holdings would be spread frightfully thin; Loft's on Nassau would be one of the most significant pieces in the collection.  

Loft's on Nassau.  (T. Rinaldi)

Let's hope the new tenant (rumored to be a new TwoBoots Pizza joint) will keep it in place under whatever new signage comes here, perhaps to one day resurface for the amusement of future passersby on Nassau Street.

Loft's on Nassau.  (T. Rinaldi)


Untapped Cities will sponsor two more Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tours this fall:

 October 19, 2016 (7:30 PM)
 November 16, 2016 (7:30 PM)

Tickets are available here.  Hope to see you there!


 Awful news that NYC is about to lose one of its most legendary, neon-clad institutions:  The Carnegie Deli will shutter in December.
 On October 15-16, Open House NY will offer a chance to check out Lite Brite Neon in Gowanus, Brooklyn - a must-see for any neon enthusiast.
 Thursday Night Neon - glassbending classes at Urban Glass.
 I have no hair, and somehow I still managed to have a bad hair day chatting on the old History Channel sign for Bronx News 12.
 Let us pause for a moment to admire an institution still with us: the Lexington Candy Shop on the Upper East Side, hommaged at Untapped Cities and ProjectNeon.
 In Sacramento, they're doing what we should be doing here in NYC - an exhibit featuring historic Sacramento neon opened on October 1, 2016.
 Not neon, but a wildly cool incandescent sign by way of the Shorpy blog.
 Jeremiah remembers the late lovely Cheyenne Diner on 9th Avenue in Manhattan.