Monday, November 28, 2011

Sign Safari: White Plains Road

I recently took advantage of the disconcertingly-balmy weather we've had lately to follow up on a few leads that had been sitting on my desk for a while.  Most of these tips go only to dead ends and heartbreak.  But this time I got lucky – a whole clutch of great old neon I hadn't seen before.  Here's what I found.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I set out for Dante's Pastry Shop, in the Wakefield section of the Bronx.  Helvetica and the NYC Subway author Paul Shaw tipped me off on this gem, on White Plains Road at the end of the 2/5 train.  I wasn't sure what kind of confections Dante might have in store for me, but it sounded pretty promising so I brought my appetite along for the ride.   

Dante's Pastry Shop, 4715 White Plains Road (RIP).  Fascia sign, porcelain enamel with red lettering, probably installed around the mid-1960s.  (T. Rinaldi)

Bad news: Dante's has bit the dust.  I arrived to find workmen carting debris out the front door from the bakery's gutted interior.  But Dante's sign was still up, so in this regard it was mission accomplished, apparently not a moment too soon.  

Dante's in detail.  (T. Rinaldi)

Fortunately I hadn't trusted Dante with my caffeine dependency (some things you just don't fool around with).  Fueled by a big cup of coffee acquired previously, I headed down White Plains Road to see what else I might have missed.  Right across from Dante I found some of the best old neon I've seen in a long time, over the storefront of Peerless Cleaners.  One of the taxi hawkers out front suggested I go in and ask the owner to light it up for me.  This I did, but the friendly proprietress inside told me the sign doesn't work anymore.  The tubes are intact and the lettering is, well, without peer, at least in this neighborhood, so hopefully they'll get the old girl fired up sometime soon.  I promise I'll even bring my dry cleaning up here if they do.

Peerless Cleaners at 4706 White Plains Road.  DOB records indicate an installation date of 1957 for this sign, the work of Union Shop No. 16.  (T. Rinaldi)

White Plains Road has a great bustle to it that makes walking down this street under the el like reading a book you can't put down.  I'd gone more than 20 blocks by the time I came to my next old neon sighting: a great, porcelain enameled fascia sign heralding the premises of Anetta Green Liquor, Inc., in Williamsbridge.  The owner, his curiosity understandably piqued, came out to ask why the hell I was taking so many photos of his storefront.  I explained; we had a friendly chat and he happily turned the lights on for me.

Anetta Green Liquor Inc., 3775 White Plains Road.  This fascia sign is the work of the Albee Sign Co.  DOB records suggest an installation date of 1941 but I wonder if it may be more recent than that. (T. Rinaldi)

About 15 blocks further south, in what the map tells me is a place called Ollinville, I came to another great LIQUORS sign, this one at Irmon Wines & Liquors on Burke Ave. 

Irmon Wines & Liquors, 718 Burke Ave.  Stainless-on-porcelain; installation date c. 1956, per DOB.  (T. Rinaldi)

One of Irmon's customers, apparently a regular, interrupted his sidewalk lunch (a 1/5-gallon bottle partially concealed within a brown paper bag) to inquire about my interest in the sign.  He agreed that it was without a doubt the oldest and most interesting sign on the block.  Older, even, than that of the nearby Burger Barn Restaurant, right under the el at the corner of White Plains Road and Burke, whose storefront is crowned with a raceway sign of blackletter characters outlined in exposed neon tubes that sadly, like Irmon's, don't appear to have come alight in a good long while. 

Burger Barn Restaurant, in the shadow of the el at 3092 White Plains Road.  Installation date c. 1972, per DOB.  (T. Rinaldi)

Five new finds in one day was pretty good, but I wanted more.  Sunday found me on the hunt in Queens, where another slew of great new finds lay in store.  Alas, these will have to wait for another post.  Meantime, when on White Plains Road be sure to take a moment and scope out some of the best old neon in the Bronx, right there below the el.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

You've Got Bail

No one puts the "Thanks" in Thanksgiving quite like a bail bondsman.  I was reminded of this during a three-day stint at the Manhattan Criminal Court for jury duty this week.  In addition to reuniting families all across the land this holiday season, bail bondsmen brighten the side streets around our halls of justice with some great neon window signs.  This is true in the outer boroughs as well as in Manhattan.  Should you need their services, these signs make them easy to find.  Alas, LED signs are gaining ground here, too, so let's enjoy the BAIL BONDS neon while it lasts.  Happy Thanksgiving and stay out of jail, people!
Spartan Bail Bonds at 81 Baxter Street in Manhattan, with the Whiskey Tavern beyond. (T. Rinaldi)
  75 Smith Street, Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)
 American Liberty Bail Bonds, Queens Blvd, Queens. (T. Rinaldi)
Little LED handcuffs, at 75 Smith Street, Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

Monday, November 14, 2011

M is for Missing

The big M over the Milford Plaza is gone.  It appears to have come down sometime in the past few weeks.  With the old hotel undergoing a major renovation, I wondered what would become of its nice ensemble of old neon signs, which preside over 8th Avenue just west of Times Square.  In addition to the roof sign, part of which remains, the hotel also has a pair of large vertical signs, one on each side.

The late, great M, recently departed from the roof of the Milford Plaza. (T. Rinaldi)

A little history: as installed, the giant M stood not for "Milford", as one might suppose, but for "Manhattan" – Hotel Manhattan, to be exact.  It first appeared here in 1958, the work of none other than the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp, which had installed the great Pepsi-Cola spectacular over the Bond Building at Times Square just two years earlier.   

One of the Milford’s two vertical signs, each 8 stories high. (T. Rinaldi)

The Manhattan's big M was the spiritual descendant of an earlier roof sign erected in the same spot when the building first opened as the Hotel Lincoln three decades earlier. Designed by architects Schwartz & Gross and built by Irwin S. Chanin (developer of the great Chanin Building, among many others), the Lincoln opened its doors on February 13, 1928, in commemoration of what would have been Honest Abe's 119th birthday (actually the day before).  Then-Governor Al Smith pressed a button to light the building’s original mast-like roof sign from the state capital in Albany during the opening ceremony.  

 The Lincoln’s original roof sign. (Signs of the Times, May 1932)

The Lincoln's original roof sign scored a brief cameo in the title sequence of the 1933 film adaptation of 42nd Street.  It was engineered by Sol Oberwager, a longtime fixture in the New York sign business who later became one of the city's most active sign-and-awning permit expediters, handling paperwork for a significant percentage of all illuminated signs erected throughout the city from the 1930s through the 1950s (including the Apollo Theater and Hotel New Yorker, among many others).   

The Lincoln’s original roof sign made a cameo in the 1933 film adaptation of 42nd Street.  The “H” at bottom belongs to the Hotel Times Square. (Frame enlargement, 42nd Street)

The original sign made way for the big M in 1958, when the Lincoln re-opened as the Hotel Manhattan.  Though it looked a little dull in recent years, the sign must have been a sight to behold when it debuted, clad in more than a mile of neon tubing that changed color in animated sequence.  A horizontal sign reading HOTEL MANHATTAN stood at its base.  "The Hotel Manhattan . . . has several beautiful signs to mark its spot," reported Signs of the Times magazine: "one on the roof has a 31-foot wide and 12-foot deep 'M' visible for 20 miles, [with] 6,500 feet of neon tubing in colors changing from white and gold to shades of blue." 

The Lincoln became the Manhattan in 1958. 

The roof sign survived the hotel's transformation into the Milford Plaza in 1980 (the new management simply removed the letters MANHATTAN from beneath the big M and left the rest).   At some point, the M was stripped of its neon and lit by floodlights shining up from below.  The old vertical signs on the north and south facades meanwhile were re-lettered to reflect the hotel's new name.  As neon hotel signs in New York grew increasingly scarce, the Milford remained one of the last places in the city where you could book a room with that iconic glow out your window.  

The Milford’s neon signs seen from Sardi’s on 45th Street in 2006.  (T. Rinaldi)

What comes next for the Milford's roof sign remains unclear.  Under new management (Highgate Holdings), the place is undergoing an extensive makeover, with slick new décor – some of it even incorporating a big capital "M" very much like the one that just came down from up top.  Does this hint at a new big M for the roof?  A restoration to the sign’s 1958 splendor, perhaps?  Or a replica of Sol Oberwager's 1928 original?  Word from the Milford's new management is that a revamped sign of one form or another is on its way, but the design is still in the works.  For now, it's wait and see.


• "Smith to Light 8th Av. Sign."  New York Times, February 13, 1928.
• "Along Broadway."  Signs of the Times,  March, 1958.
• Special thanks to Ross Savedge for coming up with this week’s headline.

• Fedora Dorato, former proprietor of Fedora Restaurant on West 4th Street, has passed away (from Marty via JVNY).
• Rocco Restaurant, at 181 Thompson Street, poised to disappear after 89 years, leaving the future of one of New York’s earliest neon signs (installed 1934) in doubt.
• The lovely vertical sign at Alex Liquor Store in Washington Heights has gone to a private collector.

• Cambridge Liquor's classic vertical sign appears to be getting a facelift, tubes removed and sheet metal painted black.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Neon At One-Hundred

This Wednesday, November 9, 2011, will mark exactly one hundred years since Georges Claude filed his "System of Illuminating by Luminescent Tubes" at the U.S. Patent Office.  This event arguably marked the birth of neon illumination in the United States (Claude filed the same patent in his native France in November 1910).  "Arguable" is the operative word here:  despite their immense impact on the built landscape, the origins of neon signs are murky at best. 

Georges Claude's claim as the originator of neon signs in the United States rested on Patent No. 1,125,476, filed November 9, 1911. (; click here to see the whole patent)
The U.S. Patent Office had multiple reservations about Claude's application, and did not issue his patent until January 19, 1915, more than three years later.  By his own account, Claude did not exhibit his neon lights in the U.S. until 1913.  Claude's signs appeared in Paris before World War I, but his first American sale did not come until 1923.  His U.S. patents were besieged by law suits all through the 1920s: various inventors claimed to have created neon signs in the U.S. as early as 1909, and Claude's system was predicated on developments by the American inventor D. McFarlan Moore.

"Outshines the Sunshine." (From Claude Neon advertisements in New York Times, 1927-28)

But this is hardly the occasion to dwell on doubts over Claude's status as the "inventor" of neon signs, or other silly details, like his collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War, and subsequent imprisonment (we'll get into that another day).  On this anniversary, I thought it would be nice to tally up some of Claude's signs that still survive in New York, or that survived until recently.  

In a 1927 advertisement, Claude Neon Lights of New York claimed to have produced 611 of 750 neon installations that then existed in New York.  Claude fabricated some signs at its own plant, which was located in Long Island City, and some in collaboration with other sign shops that operated as Claude-licensed affiliates; non-licensed shops were invariably sued by Claude.   The most prominent Claude licensee in New York was Strauss & Co., predecessor of the famous Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp.  A number of early neon signs by Strauss / Artkraft Strauss survive and can be partly attributed to Claude.  Strauss had a contract to do signs for all Loew's movie theaters in the New York area, and a few Loew's signs from this period survive in the city.  Only one of these – the sign at the Loew's Paradise Theatre in the Bronx, possibly New York’s oldest neon sign – remains functional.

Fascia sign of the Loew's Paradise Theatre in the Bronx, likely the work of Claude Neon / Strauss & Co. Installed in 1929, this is possibly the oldest surviving neon sign in New York today.  (T.Rinaldi)
Until relatively recently, one Claude sign (at least I think it was made by Claude) hung over a former Longchamp's restaurant on Madison Avenue and 49th Street.  I couldn't quite make out the lettering on the tiny plaque at the bottom of the sign, but it looked like it said "Claude Neon", and this helpful tidbit from the internet seems to back that up.  The sign disappeared in 2006, taking its little manufacturer's tag with it.

This great relic sign vanished in 2006. (T.Rinaldi)

At least two other Claude signs remain in New York: the long-dark roof sign over Tudor City on East 42nd Street, which Claude erected in 1939 (more on this in another post), and the great neon clock at the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower in Brooklyn, installed in 1929.  In Claude Neon's house organ, the Claude Neon News, the company described this latter installation as "the largest four-faced illuminated clock in the world," with hour- and minute-hands 12- and 17-feet long, respectively, and a total diameter of 27 feet.  The Loew's Paradise not withstanding, this is probably the last functioning Claude display in the five boroughs today (when it functions, that is).  

Two surviving works by Claude Neon Lights of New York: the long dark roof sign over Tudor City on East 42nd Street (top) and the great four-faced clock of the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower in Brooklyn. (T.Rinaldi)

If Claude may not have truly invented the neon sign, he unquestionably deserves credit for making neon illumination a commercially viable industry, one that made an indelible mark on the built landscape of the 20th century.  Yet his dominance of the neon business was short-lived: in the 1930s, Claude's critical patent expired.  In New York, smaller sign shops soon wrested the lion's share of the neon trade from Claude. One such shop, the Serota Sign Corp., purchased Claude's New York operation in the midst of the Second World War.  Claude himself died in 1960, aged 89, his record as an inventor still overshadowed by his collaboration with the Nazis during the War.  But traces of his work survive.  In addition to the signs pictured here, there are a handful of old Claude Neon franchises around the world that actually still retain the Claude name in 2011.  And Claude Neon's parent company, the French industrial gas supplier Air Liquide, is still alive and well, Fortune 500-listed nearly 110 years after Georges Claude co-founded it in 1902.


• Word (by way of Jeremiah's Vanishing New York) on salvation for the Coney Island Bialy Bakery, and for its great neon sign, made by the Salzman Sign Co. c. 1959. 


• "Claude Neon Lights, Inc" (Advertisement). New York Times, Oct. 18, 1927.
The Claude Neon News, Aug. 1929., p. 2.
• "Fluorescent Coloring." Signs of the Times, June 1939.
• Morris, Mel. The Neon Patent Situation. Houston: Mel Morris Neon Laboratories, 1930.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Grauer Sign Co.

Shame on me for taking so long to actually patronize the great D'Aiuto bakery on 8th Avenue!  I could come up with a litany of excuses, but they're all pretty lame.  Anyhow, I finally made it there over the weekend for a coffee and a sfogliatella and I must say, it's my own loss for not having stopped by sooner.  

D'Aiuto's Pastry Corp. at 405 8th Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

It's not like I didn't know about the place.  I first shot D'Aiuto's great neon sign back in October 2006.  The sign is unique, and very likable.  I especially like it because it's one of very few signs I was able to learn anything about from the insane number of hours I spent going through old Building Department filings looking for records on old signs and their makers.  

Advertisement for the Grauer Sign Co. from around the time the D'Aiuto sign went up.  (1960 Manhattan Telephone Directory)

Turns out D'Aiuto's sign is the work of the Grauer Sign Co. of the Bronx.  Based on the number of their old signs still kicking around, Grauer must have been one of the busiest neon shops in the city for much of the 20th century. 

Grauer manufacturer's tag on the fascia sign of Post Road Wines & Liquors in the Bronx. (T. Rinaldi)

Grauer advertised itself as "Fabricators and Manufacturers since 1928."  Telephone directories list them at various addresses in the Bronx through the 1960s, then in Flushing, Queens in the 1970s.  They disappear from the yellow pages by the mid-1990s.  Some of their signs bear "Union Made" tags with the code number 3.

Two Grauer signs installed c. 1957: Post Road Wines and Liquors at 3429 Boston Post Road, and the Maryland Furniture Co. on East Tremont Ave., both in the Bronx.  (T. Rinaldi)

Grauer seems to have been most active in the Bronx, but their signs can also be found in Manhattan and Queens (and probably Brooklyn, too).  Some of the signs are fairly ordinary, but others are more elaborate, displaying a variety of midcentury letterforms and sign faces in angular, abstract shapes highly characteristic of popular advertising graphics of the 1950s and 60s.

Grauer installed this sign for the Palomba Academy of Music at 974 East Gun Hill Road in 1956. (T. Rinaldi)

The variety of Grauer neon that survives is a good case study in the range of businesses that advertised with neon.  Detractors of neon signs tend to associate the medium with unseemly enterprises, but in fact, neon signs served all kinds of businesses:  surviving Grauer signs advertise everything from fuel oil to funeral homes.  

Surviving signs by Grauer advertise everything from fuel oil to funeral homes.  Top: Stratford Fuel on East Tremont Ave. in the Bronx, installed c. 1952; Bottom: sign for the Bernard F. Dowd Funeral Home on Hillside Ave. in Jamaica, Queens, adapted by Grauer c. 1982 from an earlier Grauer-made sign advertising the Quinn Funeral Home, which operated here previously.  (T. Rinaldi)

The sign Grauer made for D'Aiuto is one of my favorites.  Installed in 1960, it is the centerpiece of a great period storefront façade that probably dates to the same year.  The sign itself is trapezoidal in shape, with fluorescent pink neon tubes outlining unique letterforms that flare out at the top, like the sign.  A back-lit acrylic panel runs across the lower portion of the sign, making it something of a hybrid.  James and Karla Murray's great book Storefront tells us that the business has been run by the same family since it opened in 1924. Previously it had operated out of a storefront a few blocks down the street, at 311 8th Avenue.  That block was cleared in the late 1950s for the construction of the Penn South houses.

Top: D'Aiuto's storefront today. (T. Rinaldi); Bottom: An old photo taped to the wall inside the store shows D'Aiuto's original home at 311 8th Avenue. (D'Aiuto)

Like so many of New York's old neon signs, this one speaks for family-run institutions deeply rooted in the identity of the city and its neighborhoods.  The Grauer Sign Co. is gone, but at D'Aiuto and a handful of other old businesses around the city, its work is with us still.

Please drop me a line if you know anything more about the Grauer Sign Co.


• Word that the lights are back on over at the Subway Inn, after a brief scare.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK for a post commemorating the centennial of Georges Claude's momentous patent filing for a "System of Illuminating by Luminescent Tubes" ...