Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ratner's Ghost Neon

The recent closure of a Sleepy's Mattress franchise down on Delancey Street has brought to light one of the city's more noteworthy neon ghost signs.  Ratner's, a kosher dairy formerly situated on Delancey between Norfolk and Suffolk streets, was an anchor of Lower East Side Judaica for nearly 100 years. In business from 1905 to 2002, Ratner's was a New York institution in league with Katz's or Sylvia's.  Its classic storefront was crowned by a pair of especially appealing neon signs. 

Ratner's exhumed.  (T. Rinaldi) 

After Ratner's closed, the neon came down (I'm told it survives in a warehouse somewhere) and Sleepy's moved in.  But the mattress retailer made almost no changes to Ratner's old storefront.  This invariably pleased me any time I walked by: the projecting display window, patterned terrazzo floor, and high-hat lights all remained - you could almost smell the onion rolls and hear the buzz of the neon.  Apparently, the ghost of that old sign was there too, tucked under newer signage. 

Ratner's ghost sign. (T. Rinaldi)

The neon (and the rest of the storefront) dated to a 1957 facelift that apparently coincided with the restaurant's takeover by Harold Harmatz, whose father co-founded the establishment with Alex Ratner in 1905 (says Wikipedia).  An older neon sign appears in a 1934 photo at the NYPL.  

Ratner's pre-facelift neon in 1934.  (NYPL)

Ratner's commemorated its grand re-opening with a large display ad in the New York Times in December 1957.  The ad names a small army of "artists and artisans who planned and executed this ambitious alteration."  These included the Salzman Sign Co. of Brooklyn, maker of the restaurant's new "neon displays."  As noted in a previous post on this blog, Salzman was one of New York's most active neon shops for much of the 20th century, producing the signs still in place at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, Gringer's appliances on First Ave., and many others.  

Ratner's grand-reopening display ad.  (New York Times, Dec. 10, 1957)

For Ratner's new storefront, Salzman created a bold, distinctive installation featuring a dynamic neon script encased in deep stainless steel channels mounted to a stone-clad storefront - a particularly sophisticated creation that the restaurant was justifiably proud of.  A very visible landmark just off the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg bridge, Ratner's neon scored a cameo in Bill Friedkin's 1971 film "The French Connection."  

Ratner's ghost script.  (T. Rinaldi)

Ratner's French Connection cameo, 1971. 

The sign was bold enough to leave an impression that survived both Ratner's and Sleepy's.  Whether it will survive the empty storefront's next incarnation remains to be seen.  If the actual neon indeed survives as the proverbial little birdie says it does, perhaps we will see Ratner's shine again.


• I am working with the Municipal Art Society to schedule more neon walking tours.  Dates to be announced here when they are set.


• Over on the east side, the neon is glowing again over the Subway Inn's new location on Second Ave.

(Timothy Fadek)

• On 125th Street, the huge old Blumstein Department Store sign has finally disappeared completely.  

RIP: Blumstein neon on 125th Street back in 2008.  (T. Rinaldi)

#SaveNYC, an organized movement to stem the extinction of New York's independent businesses, not coincidentally features a whole lotta neon on its online masthead.

• Via Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, another ancient ghost sign (not neon) unveiled on 9th Ave in Chelsea.
• Also via JVNY, check out (and consider sponsoring) this upcoming documentary on the Automat.
• At AnimalNewYork, a nice write-up on the new neon documentary film "Gasper & Son."
• Over at Shorpy, some classic neon street scenes on Broadway NYC and in Clinton, Iowa.  
• In Appleton, Wisconsin, a very cool looking neon exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle.  (Now if we could just do this in New York…)
• Finally - in Chicago, "Neon Signs Throughout the City" named to a list of Chi-town's most endangered historic resources.

Friday, February 20, 2015

La Parisienne

Yesterday, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported the disappearance of La Parisienne, a classic New York coffee shop (young folks would call it a "diner") at 910 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.  Despite its grandiose name, La Parisienne was a bastion of affordability, comfort and normality, hidden in plain sight just around the corner from Carnegie Hall.  

La Parisienne, July 28, 2010. (T. Rinaldi) 

The restaurant is featured in my book New York Neon with the following caption: "La Parisienne offers a haven of down-to-earth hospitality in a part of midtown Manhattan where ultra-high rents leave almost no room for even remotely ephemeral parts of the urban landscape.  Open since 1950, La Parisienne's sign appeared roughly two decades later."

July 28, 2010. (T. Rinaldi) 

The sign featured a jaunty script rendered in tricolor-esque red and blue neon, swaddled in anodized aluminum channel letters; my best guess is that it corresponds to a 1968 sign permit on file at the Buildings Dept, though there are also permits dating from the late 70s for this address.  The manager (when asked by me) had no idea when the sign went up.  The restaurant itself dated its origins to 1950 (though no establishment by that name turns up at this address in my copy of the 1954 Manhattan Yellow Pages).

July 28, 2010. (T. Rinaldi) 

With middle-finger towers of oligarch housing rising all around it, even the most naive among us had to know this place was on borrowed time.  Au revoir, Parisienne: borrowed time expired for a last sliver of New York's New York in a part of town where the city seems less itself than ever.

SEE ALSO: A Parisienne send-off at

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Subway Inn's Orphaned Neon

As reported elsewhere, the Subway Inn has happily found new digs after developers evicted the venerable neighborhood watering hole from its longtime home at 60th and Lex in Manhattan.  And the bar has taken its neon with it - some of it.  Encouraging photos posted at the Subway Inn's Facebook page show the old fascia sign in the process of restoration; the bar is slated to re-open at its new home sometime soon.  

The vertical sign however, which once beamed down 60th Street all the way to Central Park, has been left behind.  In my research for the neon book, I found that the vertical neon is actually the older of the two signs, installed in 1950.  It's a sad sight to behold now.  

Subway Inn's orphaned vertical neon, February 2015.  (T. Rinaldi)

The bar's ownership didn't reply to an e-mailed query in time for this post, but word on the street is that they were daunted by the high cost of properly dismounting and restoring the old sign, which was fully functional up until the place closed in December 2014.  Current zoning codes would likely also restrict them from installing it over their new storefront at 2nd Ave. and 60th Street.  

February, 2006. (T. Rinaldi)

Still, I would suggest that the old sign can and should be saved.  Other bars have installed signs like this indoors as decor (McHale's neon on display at Emmett O'Lunney's, for one).  

Is this perhaps the stuff of a neon kickstarter?

September 2014.  (Photo by Nick McManus / Impossible Project Prints)


• A more comprehensive Subway Inn update at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Don't miss this great short film by Zagat, featuring the Subway Inn and the struggle of small independent businesses to stay afloat in today's New York.
• Previous coverage of the Subway Inn story at this blog, here and here.


• "Retro Signs of NYC" via AMNY and Rolando Pujol. 
• A new tenant has emerged for the former DiRobertis Pasticerria space in the East Village, via JVNY.  The new business pledges to keep much of the historic interior finishes.  No word on the neon.
• From the west coast: artist Michael Hayden's neon installation in downtown LA has just been restored and re-lit.
 Also in downtown LA: the storied Clifton's Cafeteria, home to what may be the world's longest continuously-lit neon, is set to re-open after a long rehabilitation.
 When in Orlando, FL, skip the theme parks and visit one of the country's best galleries of preserved neon at the Morse Museum of American Art.
• And finally, two old views from New York's neon heyday from the our friends at the Shorpy blog:
   ~  A westward view featuring the Hotel Dixie on 43rd Street, today's glamorous Hotel Carter, whose neon still survives.  Note too the West 43rd Street Garage neon partially at right in the photo, also still extant - just about the last vintage neon near Times Square.
   ~  A streamlined trifecta of neon, terrazzo and stainless converge in this 1950 view of an un-located NYC newsstand.

SPECIAL THANKS to Eric Evavold of the Museum of Neon Art and to Kyle Supley for some of the links above.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A. Blank Office Furniture

While strolling down Broad Street in lower Manhattan just before Christmas, something caught my eye - an old sign, of course.  A big vertical sign, lording over the corner of Broad and Stone streets, a remnant, apparently, of a vanished pizzeria called Giuliano's.   

The mystery sign at Broad and Stone, December 2006.  (T. Rinaldi)

One look at this old sign and just about anyone can tell there's more to the story.  The sign faces are relatively new; they've clearly been tacked onto an older sign beneath them.  The sides of the framework are clad in stainless steel - that classic sign material of the neon era, unseen in signs made for most of the past 50 years.  To my twisted mind, relics like these are almost more interesting than those old signs that remain unmolested.  Here, in a part of town with little else to offer in the way of neon archeology, I suddenly had a little lunch hour mystery to solve.  

The corner of Broad and Stone in 1999. (Dylan StoneNYPL)

Minutes later, mystery solved - thanks to the New York Public Library's newly-revamed Digital Collections archive.  The magic bullet photo came from an archive curiously called  "Drugstore Photographs, or a Trip Along the Yangtze River," featuring the work of photographer Dylan Stone.  This particular collection, says the NYPL, is a "comprehensive recording of . . . the buildings existing below Canal Street" as they existed in 1999.  As for the title, says Mr. Stone: "I take the shot film to be developed at a drugstore, which returns the processed film in an envelope advertising 'A Trip Along the Yangtze River.'"

A. Blank's relic sign, photographed by Anthony Cortese in 2006.  (Anthony Cortese / Flickr)

Getting back to that mysterious sign: Mr. Stone's photo reveals that it previously advertised a business called A. Blank Office Furniture, which, as the sign formerly proclaimed in neon, had been around since 1899.  The Internet (ahem) draws a bit of a "blank" on Blank's.  The business seems to have made way for Giuliano's by the time Mr. Stone passed by here in 1999. 

DOB records indicate a 1958 installation date for the sign, which looks about right. It featured stainless steel channel letters mounted to a canary yellow porcelain enameled sign face, just like the still extant sign at the Papaya King on the Upper East Side.  Blank's sign appears to have remained in its original neon form at least as late as 2006 - a handful of photos taken that year show it with neon still intact.  Somehow I never noticed it until that day this past December, by which time the old letters had been stripped and those cheap new sign faces slapped over the old framework.  Is it possible that I really never strolled past here in all these years?  Or did this old thing just get lost in the busy backdrop of lower Manhattan?  

In any case, the building behind it is in the midst of a gut-reno, suggesting that Blank's reliquary neon may not be long for this world.


• In Long Island City, Silvercup Studios is plotting a billion-dollar expansion.  What this means for the landmark Silvercup roof sign is unclear - some renderings show it relocated to the waterfront a-la Pepsi - but the local Community Board has gone on record with a request that the developer "use original and not modern materials when constructing the Silvercup sign to preserve the historic nature." The sign is not a protected New York City landmark.
• Check out Recapturist, a commercial archeology documentation project by Bill Rose.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Postcards from a Lost City

A gallery of lost New York storefronts is preserved in old promotional postcards, given out by restaurants and other businesses in decades past.  Even as an avid collector of stuff like this, it never occurred to me that such an accidental archive might be out there.  Until one day, I chanced upon an old postcard featuring the neon marquee of Paddy's Clam House, formerly housed in the old Penn Terminal Hotel on 34th Street.  It dawned on me there might be more where that came from.

Paddy's Clam House / 215 W34th Street, Manhattan

Now after a few years of hunter-gathering, I have compiled a decent collection of these remnants from New York's lost neon past.  They fill an album that sits on my bookshelf as a sort of companion volume to my book New York Neon, and to James and Karla Murray's book Storefronts.  Intended to traverse intervals of space, today these cards more potently span distances of time.  Every single one of the shops and restaurants in this album is gone now, leaving behind just these postcards from a vanished city.

Horn & Hardart Automat / 57th Street and 6th Avenue, Manhattan

Solowey's Restaurant & Bar - "Never Closed" / 431-433 7th Avenue, Manhattan

Solowey's again.  It's a McDonald's now.

Topps Cafe & Bar / 42nd Street, "Largest and Friendliest Bar in Times Square" / 145 W42nd St., Manhattan

Toffenetti Restaurant - "1,000 seats for breakfast, lunch, dinner and after theatre" / 43rd and B'way, Manhattan

Drake's Restaurant Bar, "Opposite Gimbel's" / 116 W32nd Street, Manhattan

The Brass Rail, "An Eating Place of International Fame" / 7th Avenue at 49th Street, Manhattan

Lindy's Restaurant, "Favorite Eating and Drinking Spot of the Theatrical World" / Broadway at 51st St., Manhattan

Lou G. Siegel / 209 W38th Street, Manhattan (see last week's story on Lou G's)

The Center Theatre / 1236 Sixth Ave., Manhattan

Sal's Italian American Restaurant,  "An Eating Place of Distinction" / 751 Sterling Place, Brooklyn 

Chez Ami Furniture / 8402 18th Ave., Brooklyn 

Murray's Restaurant, "Radio Artists' Rendezvous" / Sixth Ave opposite Radio City, Manhattan

Ho-Ho Restaurant - "The Most Famous Chinese Restaurant in Times Square" / 789 7th Ave., Manhattan

Roth's Grill & Restaurant / 1599-1601 Broadway, Manhattan

Jimmy's Chop House & Clam Bar / 1973-75 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn 

Harvey's Sea Food House / 409-411 3rd Avenue (at 34th Street), Manhattan

Fanny Farmer Candies / 50th Street at "Avenue of the Americas," Manhattan

Kelly's Stable, "At the Gateway to Swing Lane" / 137 W52nd Street, Manhattan

Hector's Cafeteria - "New York's Most Fabulous Self-Service Restaurants" / Times Square vicinity, Manhattan.

Luchow's Restaurant / 110-112 E14th St., Manhattan

Canton Village / 163 W49th Street, Manhattan

Lignan Restaurant / 2512 Broadway at 94th St., Manhattan

Roth's Grill - "The Most Famous Eating Place in Times Square" / 725 7th Avenue, Manhattan

Jack Delaney's, "Now Air-Conditioned" / 72 Grove Street, Manhattan

"The World Famous" Reuben's Restaurant, 6 E58th Street / Manhattan

Raymond's Fashion Shoppe - "Smart Dresses, Coats, Suits" / 14 Graham Ave., Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Queen of the Sea Restaurant "and the Excelsior Cocktail Lounge" / 45-12 Queens Boulevard, Sunnyside, Queens

Harvey's Chelsea Restaurant / 108 W18th St., Manhattan

• 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").


• From downtown LA, a bit of a post-facto news item here on the re-lighting of the Globe Theatre marquee on South Broadway.  A really nice neon restoration story.
• Meanwhile, back in New York, the anticipation drags on regarding the fate of Smith's Bar on 8th Avenue in Midtown.

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.