Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lights Out 2011: Signs We Lost This Year

They get harder and harder to find each year, these old neon signs of New York.  Their disappearance is what prompted me to undertake this project five years ago.  Here's a look at some we lost in 2011.  (I have included a few that disappeared in the latter months of 2010.)

About 50 of the signs I've photographed for this project have disappeared since September 2006.  More vanished in the same period before I could get to them.  In the coming weeks I hope to add a complete gallery of "los desaparecidos" over at  I'll mark that occasion with a post here as well.  Meantime, enjoy these photos of this year's casualties.  In most cases, photos are all that's left.
Faber's Arcade, 1230 Surf Ave., Coney Island, Brooklyn
Silverescent Neon Sign Co., c. 1948 
Lost courtesy of Thor Equities along with the historic Henderson Music Hall over the winter of 2010-2011. (Neon tubes that outlined the letters vanished years ago.)

Surf Hotel, 1230 Surf Ave., Coney Island, Brooklyn
1997 (Prop for Spike Lee's "He Got Game")
Lost courtesy of Thor Equities along with the historic Henderson Music Hall over the winter of 2010-2011.  Please tell me this found a good home. (Thanks to Amusing the Zillion for origins of this sign.)

696 Gourmet Deli, 696 Third Ave., Manhattan
c. 1965
Hadn't worked in years.  Tubes removed and sheet metal apparently covered over with new sign faces.

Morscher's Pork Store, 5844 Catalpa Ave., Ridgewood, Queens
c. 1950 
Replaced with a new sign (LED?) that more or less imitates the original, but without the panache of its veteran predecessor. 

Jade Mountain Restaurant, 197 Second Ave., Manhattan
1954 (raceway sign); Laster Neon Engineering Co., 1960 (projecting)
The restaurant closed down back in 2006, but the signs hung in there until this past summer, when they finally vanished amid many a hue and cry. 

Tout Va Bien Restaurant, 311 West 51st St., Manhattan
Midtown Neon, c. 1955 
Replaced with a new sign for this old restaurant sometime around Thanksgiving 2011.  The restaurant, fortunately, is alive and well.

McSwiggan's Bar, 393 Second Ave., Manhattan
Taken down for repair or replacement, fate yet to be determined. DOB records indicate this went up along with a long-vanished fascia sign for an establishment known as Mullin & Swain's in 1956. 

Mayfair Chemists, 21 Seventh Ave., Manhattan
c. 1965
Old independent drug store closed some years ago.  Sign finally disappeared with expansion of neighboring Duane Reade this past fall.

Milford Plaza Hotel, 700 Eighth Ave., Manhattan (roof sign)
Artkraft Strauss Sign Corp., 1958
Taken down around October, 2011, amid reports a new sign is in the works.

R.H. Macy Co., 441 Seventh Ave., Manhattan (Seventh Ave. marquee signs)
c. 1932
DOB records suggest a very early installation date for this pair of emerald gems, which disappeared around Thanksgiving 2010.  A new pair neon signs with Macy's current logo appeared in their place.

Rainbow Cafe Restaurant, 3904 Fifth Ave., Brooklyn
c. 1955
Restaurant closed down a few years ago, signs remained until being taken down this past summer.  Reportedly put into storage for possible restoration.

Alex Liquor Store, 1598 St. Nicholas Ave., Manhattan
c. 1960
Felled for an LED replacement sign in November.  Original now in a private collection.

Fedora Restaurant, 239 West Fourth St., Manhattan
c. 1946
Vanished around New Year's 2010-11 to make way for a facsimile amid a somewhat controversial retooling of the restaurant within. 


Rocco Restaurant, 181 Thompson St., Manhattan
One of the oldest neon signs in New York, poised to disappear when the restaurant packs up on January 2, 2012, after an 89 year run.

R.H. Macy Co., 441 Seventh Ave., Manhattan (fascia signs at corner of 34th & Seventh)
c. 1948
A pair of reverse channel beauties at Macy's southwesterly corner.  Will these survive Macy's impending renovation?

Milford Plaza Hotel, 700 Eighth Ave., Manhattan (vertical signs)
c. 1980 
The signs have been dimmed for the past few months as the hotel undergoes a major renovation. Hotel to rebrand itself simply "The Milford." Maybe they'll just lop off the PLAZA from the signs?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Travler's Bar & Restaurant

You will pardon, I hope, the brevity of my posts this month.  It's the holiday season.  I'm busy, you're busy, so I will keep my remarks to the point.  Not to mention – it’s time to make final edits to the neon book!  I promise a more holiday-themed post next Christmas.

Being pressed for time, I stopped by the McDonald's near Penn Station the other day for some "fast" food.  Not really, but I couldn’t think of a decent segue.  Those familiar with this establishment may have noticed a change here lately: the restaurant reopened last month after a complete gut-renovation.   The work has brought this franchise up to date with the parent company's Apple store-inspired "new look."  "No more clown-red roofs," says USA Today of the nationwide overhaul masterminded by design consultants Lippincott. "If the new look proves to be a hit, it could redefine America's biggest restaurant chain and nudge competitors at all ends of the spectrum to find some way to respond."

McDonald's, old look versus new, at 490 Eighth Ave. (Google Street View, top; T. Rinaldi, below) 

What does this have to do with New York Neon?  Two things. First, it makes the point that neon signs are part of a continuum of commercial design that continues to evolve, embodied by different materials and technologies as time passes.  Second, it gives us an opportunity to admire the signs that held court here when 490 Eighth Avenue belonged to the Travler's Bar and Restaurant.  The signs vanished long before my time, but happily not before being immortalized in a splendid Wurts Bros. photograph preserved at the New York Public Library.  A quick internet search yields nothing on this business.  From the photo, we can tell that Travler's offered cocktails and seafood for voyagers passing in and out of Pennsylvania Station, a block away, and the bygone Greyhound Bus Terminal, then located just around the corner.

The Travler's Bar & Restaurant, December 10, 1946. The signs were installed in 1936 for the previous occupant, the Red Seal Restaurant, and later re-lettered for the Travler's.  DOB records suggest they survived until 1955.  McDonald's opened here by 1980. (NYPL / Wurts Bros.)

I have long noted with a certain pleasure how businesses in this part of town tended to name themselves for their proximity to Penn Station.  As the city declined in the 1960s and 70s and the old Penn Station yielded to that "monumental act of vandalism," these old places, with their names almost invariably articulated in aging neon signs, lent the area a uniquely gritty ambience.  The Penn Bar & Grill, the Railway Bar, the Penn Terminal Hotel, the Pennsylvania Liquor Shop, the Penn-Post Hotel, the possibly-doomed Hotel Pennsylvania . . . the Travler's Bar.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Shop, long gone, at 33rd and 7th, c. 1955. ("The Once & Future Pennsylvania Station")

The one and only Penn-Post Hotel (behind the bus), at 31st and 8th, Sept. 3, 1973.  The site is now a parking lot. (Joe Testagrose /

They're all gone now, save for the Hotel Pennsylvania, a McKim Mead & White landmark that may or may not be poised for the wrecking ball.  Things to reflect on over a cappuccino and Fruit-n-Yogurt Parfait at 490 Eighth Avenue.


• Tout Va Bien's classic swing sign has vanished.
• New entries added to the sign inventory at
   - Willie's Liquors
   - Point Pharmacy
   - DeVito Paints
• And makers identified for three more:
   - Bay Ridge Animal Hospital (Higger)
   - Catania's Shoe Store (Globe)
   - M&L Liquors (Super)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ol' Number 98

Greenwich Village has seen a number of great old signs disappear in recent years to make way for facsimiles.  Fedora, the Village Vanguard, the Waverly Restaurant... some of the replacement signs are better than others.  But the lovely old swing sign at Casa Oliveira Liquors, at 98 Seventh Avenue South, seems likely to be with us for some time to come, thanks to a new coat of paint applied over its old sheet metal work.

Ol' Number 98, before and after.  (T. Rinaldi)


The sign appeared here in 1935, just two years after the repeal of prohibition, to mark the spot of a liquor store run by one A. Rossano.  (It never ceases to amaze me how many New York liquor stores can trace their roots to the 21st Amendment.)  The store's porcelain enamel fascia sign came later, probably around 1950, when the business was taken over by a certain Mr. Oliveira.  The shop later changed hands again, but the new owners retained its old name, and, thankfully, its great pair of neon signs, which have been Greenwich Village landmarks for generations. (Check out Project Neon to admire the flashing fascia sign in action.)

The swing sign's new paint job glossed over the white border around the perimeter, which is too bad.  And of course, we can no longer admire the beautiful weathered patina the sign had with its old coat of paint faded and peeling.

Old sign, new paint. (T. Rinaldi)

But left unpainted, the sign's delicate sheet metal would have gone the way of all flesh, hastening its demise.  And, because the sign has been freshened up using the same materials and methods that went into its original fabrication, we can rest easy knowing it may one day don the handsome patina it had before the paintjob. The painted border detail can always come back the next time around.  So this New Year's, stop into Casa Oliveira and pick up a bottle to ring in ol' number 98's 77th year of service.  

• Speaking of facsimile signs in the Village - the Waverly Restaurant is back in business.
• Lost City blog spots one I've never seen: Willie's Liquor in Brooklyn.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sign Safari: Cross Bay Boulevard

On a recent Sunday before Thanksgiving I ventured out to a far away place I'd never really been before: Howard Beach.  Since December 2003 this place-name has been familiar to many as the southern terminus of the AirTrain serving JFK International Airport.  My accomplice and I, however, came for the neon.  So while most of our fellow disembarkees wheeled their suitcases off the A train and headed for the tarmac, we turned and headed toward Cross Bay Boulevard.

New Park Pizza, installed c. 1960. (T. Rinaldi) 

Joe Kunkel of Franklin Neon had tipped me off to three old signs here that he thought I'd like to see.  Joe thought right.  The short hike from the A train brought us first to New Park Pizza, at 156-71 Cross Bay Boulevard.  New Park has occupied this corner since 1956.   Its wonderful neon sign, I was excited to discover, is the work of the LaSalle Sign Corp. of Brooklyn, whose surviving works include the Papaya King sign at 86th and 3rd in Manhattan.  "Pizza pie is original," I am told by Justin Langsner, LaSalle's third-generation proprietor, of the big pizza pie with flashing plumes of steam at center.

LaSalle's other surviving works include the Papaya King sign on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  (T. Rinaldi)

New Park has the unfortunate distinction of having been the scene of the tragic hate crime that put Howard Beach on the map back in December 1986 - 25 years ago this month.  (Long story short: a racially-motivated scuffle between patrons resulted in the death of a 23-year-old black man, prompting a period of heightened racial tension throughout the city.)  The incident is recalled in director Spike Lee's 1989 film Do The Right Thing.  The film's dramatic climax takes place in the glow of a fictitious neon sign heralding Sal's Famous Pizza – a subtle reference, perhaps, to the New Park (though the sign in the movie bears a distinct resemblance to that of the V&T Pizzeria by Columbia University in Manhattan).   

Neon sign over Sal's Famous figured prominently in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. (T. Rinaldi)

The bad business of '86 is but a distant memory at the New Park today.  Maybe it was just my state of feverish hunger after a day spent gallivanting amid the ruinous splendor of the nearby Bayside Acacia cemetery, but I found the pizza at New Park to be exceptionally pleasurable. 

New Park Pizza. (T. Rinaldi)

Sufficiently fortified, we saddled up for the short march over to our next destination, the fabulous Lenny's Clam Bar.  Some readers may remember Lenny's for its charming televised advertisements that graced the late-night airwaves throughout the tri-state area back in the 1980s. Lenny's is easy to find, thanks to a force-multiplying assemblage of neon signs that make its presence known up and down the boulevard. The joint was jumping, valets busy shunting shiny cars in and out of the little parking lot next-door. I suggested a glass of wine at the bar, but my traveling companion complained of a late-onset hangover (5pm).  We decided to come back on a quieter night.

Full-tilt neon at Lenny's Clam Bar.  (T. Rinaldi)

From there it was on to the other Lenny's of Howard Beach: Lenny's Pizza, at 164-02 Cross Bay.  I had hoped to report on a New Park-versus-Lenny's taste test challenge; sadly, this was not to be, as Lenny's burned down just a few weeks before our visit.  We found the windows boarded, signs dark. Of the signs, there are two: one older, facing the side street, and a more recent number fronting the boulevard.  The newer (and I suspect the older) is (are) the work of Super Neon of Bensonhurst.  The good news is that both signs have survived the fire intact and will hopefully live to glow another night.  Meantime, we concluded our Howard Beach neon safari with some unfinished business on Cross Bay Boulevard.  

Get well soon, Lenny's Pizza!  (T. Rinaldi)


• Cambridge Liquors' great vertical sign on 39th and 8th in Manhattan glows anew.
• Casa Oliveira Liquors' 80-year-old swing sign in Greenwich Village is wearing a new coat of paint.
• Mayfair Chemists' relic sign has vanished from Seventh Avenue South.
• Thanks to Project Neon for a great lecture at LandmarkWest! this Monday.