Monday, December 27, 2021

Lights Out 2021: Signs We Lost This Year

Well, it has come to this: my one and only blog post for an entire year is this annual doomsville round-up of vanished or vanishing signs.  In my defense, I did manage to crank out another book during that time!  Anyway - for all the obvious difficulties of the past year, 2021's list of neon casualties is mercifully short. (Please let me know if I've missed any.)  In a few cases, the signs are gone but the old businesses they advertised have survived.  That's the good news.  The bad news is that the list includes some real bitter pills, none harder to swallow than the loss of the Clover Deli on 34th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.  As with previous round-ups, the list below includes a few that disappeared prior to 2021 but whose loss only came to my attention this year.  With that, let's dim the lights for our funerary feature. 

Angelo's of Mulberry St., 126 Mulberry St., Manhattan. c. 1955

Angelo's ancient Italian restaurant was one of the real stalwarts of Little Italy.  Opened in 1902, the restaurant never bobbed back to the surface when others started to re-open after pandemic closures.  While there are rumblings that new management might bring it back to life, its fantastic swing sign has already vanished.  The sign was a simple beauty, with stainless steel channel letters mounted to a stainless steel box - stainless-on-stainless being a classic hallmark of New York sign shops.  All that stainless steel was beautifully offset by the icy blue hue that glowed within its fantastic mid-century script lettering.  Hopefully the sign found a good home somewhere.  

Patriot Saloon, 110 Chambers St., Manhattan. (Vertical sign only)

The Patriot Saloon on Chambers Street was home to one of New York's dwindling population of classic vertical BAR signs mounted high up over its storefront.  With only a one story "taxpayer" building next door, the sign seemed free and clear of zoning ordinances that precluded such installations outside residential windows.  But when the little taxpayer building got itself torn down and replaced with luxury apartments recently, the Patriot's old BAR sign suddenly found itself in harm's way - it's a goner now, though the bar's fascia neon remains.

Clover Delicatessen, 621 Second Ave., Manhattan. Globe Neon, 1956.

The Clover Deli bit the dust last year, after a more than 70-year run in east midtown.  Opened after WWII, urban renewal displaced the deli from its original location after just a few years.  But the business landed on its feet at the prominent corner of 34th and 2nd, where it stayed for 65 years before finally closing amid the pandemic in 2020.  For a while there was talk of a new business moving in and keeping the signs in place, but that never came to pass: the deli's owners donated the signs to the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, which came and picked them up in late August.  The signs are now in safe hands, but need some TLC (you can make a donation towards their restoration here). Still, Manhattan just isn't the same without the Clover.  

Goldberger's Pharmacy, 1200 First Ave., Manhattan. c. 1960.

Like the great Clover Deli, Goldberger's was particularly exciting as one of the few remaining neon-bedecked corner storefronts left in New York, with especially evocative period letterforms beaming out in two directions from its perch at 65th Street and First Ave. It was one of the very few neon storefronts to even get a shoutout in the AIA Guide to NYC ("The Old New York, still dispensing").  Sadly, @sign_of_the_time reported on Instagram this past August that the store had to pack up and move down the block.  The signs were partially salvaged for display inside.  And happily the business, around since 1898, survives.  But one of Manhattan's best neon landmarks is no more. 

Rose Wine & Liquor, 449 Columbus Ave., Manhattan. 

This age-old Upper West Side liquor store is still around but their fantastic old sign has vanished and been replaced with an approximation of the original, for reasons that at the very least are far from obvious to the vested observer.  The original featured blue porcelain sign faces framed in stainless steel edging and accented by stainless channel letters tracing classic "pre-Helvetica" squared-off block letters, each rendered in four-count'em-FOUR strokes of red neon, all of it vested with the hard earned patina of probably 70 years reigning over this stretch of Columbus Ave.  The new sign is still neon - fine! - but the neon has gone from four strokes to two, the tubes are too deeply recessed in the channels, the stainless and porcelain has yielded to aluminum, the patina is gone-daddy-gone, and all you can say for the letterforms is at least they're not Arial. Some things I'll just never understand. If anyone needs a case study for the merits of an old sign purely in aesthetic terms, here it is on a silver platter.  

Columbus Hardware, 852 Ninth Ave., Manhattan.

Another case of an old business that had to give up its longtime storefront and lost its neon in the process.  Columbus Hardware has moved just a few doors down but abandoned its lovely old vertical sign in the process.  Unforgiving zoning ordinances and other cold hard realities apparently complicated the prospect of installing the old sign over the new storefront to the point of practical impossibility.  What will become of the old sign, a glowing glory of pink fluorescent neon over canary-yellow porcelain, remains unclear.  

(Google Streetview; NYCMA /

Mercer Street Parking Garage, 165 Mercer St., Manhattan. 

A lovely sign, if not so old, this vertical neon still had a classic flavor to it, and was likely the descendant of an older sign that probably hung in the same spot, though none appears in the c.1940 tax photo for this property.  One of New York's last big flashers, it blasted out its not-so-subtle mating call to Manhattan motorists with the words PARKING and GARAGE cast aglow in alternate sequence from a very old cast iron SoHo facade.  Interestingly, what the old tax photo does show is that the painted signage on that facade hadn't changed much in at least 80 years.  But in a land of red hot real estate such as SoHo, something so prosaic as a parking garage behind that beautiful historic facade was on borrowed time: sure enough, the garage got the boot for luxury residential circa 2017-18.  The facade is resplendent now.  It dripped in neon-lit bird doo before; it drips in something else now. 

Schmidt's Candy, 94-15 Jamaica Ave., Woodhaven, Queens. 

Still another case of an old business still around but without its venerable neon: @sign_of_the_time reported the loss of Schmidt's sign this past February; the business owners said the city Dept of Buildings forced them to take the sign down due to non-compliance issues.  The sign was demonstrably if not certifiably old - it shows up in the city's circa-1940 tax photo - which is normally enough to get some clemency.  Somehow that didn't happen here.  Prewar storefront signs are exceedingly rare in New York today, and sadly, they're even rarer now.  Bits and pieces of the old sign have been hung on the wall inside - let's go pay them a visit in 2022.