Thursday, September 27, 2012

Long Island City

The recent installation of JetBlue's new roof sign over its LIC headquarters is a very slight return to glory for what could aptly be called the cradle of New York's neon industry.  LIC's sprawling wonderland of early 20th century industrial lofts has been home to some of the city's most important neon shops – including Claude Neon's original neon plant, opened in 1924.  And more visibly, for most of the 20th century, these buildings hosted New York's greatest concentration of rooftop spectaculars outside of Times Square. 

The new JetBlue sign presides over the Queensboro Plaza subway station. (T.Rinaldi)

Picture the view from an east-facing office in the Chrysler Building on a dusky midcentury evening.  The Long Island City skyline must have looked like a glowing garden of great roof signs, some beaming out steadily, others blinking in animated sequence, in a range of colors.  When some proposed removing the signs with the opening of the new United Nations headquarters across the East River in the late 1940s, the Queens Chamber of Commerce protested that "the signs serve a useful purpose to the manufacturers and merchants of Queens, and, as such, are quite necessary."   
 

Map showing locations of Long Island City roof signs, past and present. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
 
Ultimately, however, the anti-sign interests won out when the city enacted restrictive zoning in the 1960s that prevented the installation of large new roof signs.  One by one, almost all of the old signs disappeared, sometimes leaving just their massive empty steel framework behind. 


Empty steel skeletons remain like husks to mark the locations of Long Island City's bygone rooftop spectaculars.  (T.Rinaldi)

The JetBlue sign appeared here only after the airline worked with the Department of City Planning and the City Council to change the zoning regulations.  (The City Council eventually approved an amendment that allows large roof signs in a delineated area of Long Island City, with some caveats.)  Unlike the giant LED billboards that crowd over the Long Island Expressway like oversized flatscreen TVs, the JetBlue sign looks more like the signs that once typified the skyline here, with giant channel letters mounted to an open steel armature.  Though the new sign uses no neon (it's all LED), it is a stirring evocation of LIC's mostly-lost landmark spectaculars, some of which are memorialized here below. (See the map above for locations of the signs described in this post.)


1: PEPSI-COLA

(T.Rinaldi)
(Very Lutter / Whitney)

Erected 1938 by Artkraft Strauss.  Refurbished 1997 by Artkraft Strauss.  Relocated to park after Pepsi bottling plant demolished 2004-2005.  Relocated again subsequently. 


2: SILVERCUP / 42-02 22nd Street
(T.Rinaldi)
Original construction drawings for the Silvercup sign are preserved in the Artkraft Strauss papers at the New York Public Library.  (NYPL)


Erected 1961-62 by Artkraft Strauss.  Originally lettered to read SILVERCUP BREAD.  Copy altered after building taken over by Silvercup Studios around 1982.  Tubes removed, sign floodlit at night.


3: EAGLE ELECTRIC / 23-10 Queens Plaza South
(T.Rinaldi)

Faced west toward Manhattan over vehicular ramps serving Queensboro Bridge and elevated subway trains, just behind the Silvercup sign.  A particularly memorable sign ("Perfection Is Not An Accident").  Steel framework now used for ordinary billboard.


4: PAN AM / 41-43 41st Ave.
(www.nycsubway.org / Doug Grotjahn / Testagrose Collection)
(T.Rinaldi)

Erected c. 1960 to face south-west over Queensboro Plaza.  A lesser-known sister to the famous sign over Pan Am's Park Avenue headquarters, erected around the same time.  Massive steel framework now empty.

5: LOCKHEED CONSTELLATION / 41-15 29th Street (?)
The Lockheed Constellation sign's animation sequence, re-created from a series of photos printed in Signs of the Times magazine in 1946.  (Signs of the Times, May 1946 / Used with permission)
The Chatham-Phenix building today. (T.Rinaldi)

Debuted March 9, 1946, "to hit automobile and limousine traffic to and from La Guardia Airport." Positioned over the Chatham-Phenix building facing west towards Manhattan.   Designed by Elwood Whitney of Foote, Cone & Belding, advertising agency for Lockheed; built by Continental Signs Inc. in connection with A.H. Villepigue, Inc.     Sign and framework gone.  (See Signs of the Times, May 1946).

6: MAGIC CHEF GAS RANGES / Queensboro Plaza

View east from the Queensboro Plaza subway station, with the Lockheed sign visible to the left of the clocktower, and the Magic Chef spectacular seen in the distance over the train.  (nycsubway.org / David Pirmann collection)

Faced east over Sunnyside Yards, visible to commuters on the IRT Flushing Subway (the 7 train) and the LIRR. Sign and framework gone.

7: APPLE TAG AND LABEL / 30-30 Northern Blvd.



Apple Tag and Label, looking towards Manhattan with the Ravenswood power plant beyond.  (T.Rinaldi)

Roof sign mounted to four sides of the plant's water tower, visible from LIRR and the Astoria subway.  Future uncertain as the warehouse below seems to be in the midst of a suspended conversion.


8: PIERCE-ARROW / 34-01 38th Ave.

An early 20th Century sign that sat atop the works of automaker Pierce-Arrow.  The sign is long gone but the building survives.



9: BREYERS ICE CREAM / 34-09 Queens Blvd.
The Breyers Ice Cream sign over Queens Boulevard. (nycsubway.org / Joe Testagrose Collection)

Remains of the Breyers sign today.  (T.Rinaldi)


Oddly shaped framework over the Manhattan-bound platform at the 33rd Street Station echoes the handsome leaf-shaped logo of Breyer's Ice Cream.  According to Fabulous Philly Foods: "The leaf logo was designed by Henry Breyer [founder William Breyer's son].  Most people think it's a mint leaf but really it's a briar-bush leaf."

10: PACKARD / 32-02 Queens Blvd.
(Signs of the Times magazine, Jan. 15, 1914, used with permission)
The Packard plant today.  (T.Rinaldi)
Erected c. 1910 by National Electric Sign Co.  Sign 100’ long with letters 24', 17' and 12' high, "visible for four miles".  As at Pierce-Arrow, the sign is gone but the building remains. (See Signs of the Times, Jan. 15, 1914.)


11: SWINGLINE STAPLES / 32-07 VanDam Street

(Signs of the Times Magazine, April 1952 / Used with permission)
(T. Rinaldi)

Unused steel armature over the CapitalOne bank sign recalls the giant Swingline Stapler that previously occupied this rooftop.  Swingline sign was built by Artkraft Strauss, around 1952. Original dimension 110' long by 58' high, featuring animated "stapling machine" 3600 times actual size. (See Signs of the Times, April 1952.) 

12: DENTYNE CHICLETS / 30-30 Thomson Ave.

The old Adams Gum plant today, sans-signs.  (T. Rinaldi)

A tryptych of roof signs advertised products of the Adams Chewing Gum Co. from the roof of its plant on Thomson Ave., which is still one of LIC's more noteworthy industrial buildings (though Adams has long since decamped).  The center portion of the sign was updated to advertise Certs mints in later years, before all three signs vanished completely.


13: EVEREADY FLASHLIGHT & RADIO BATTERIES / 30-20 Thomson Ave.
(Signs of the Times magazine, Feb. 1928, used with permission)

A Claude Neon installation first illuminated on May 14, 1925, making it one of the first neon signs in the city.  (See Signs of the Times, February 1928.)


14: LOOSE-WILES SUNSHINE BISCUITS (ET.AL) / 
29-10 Thomson Ave.

The Sunshine Biscuits sign in its original configuration, c. 1914.  (Signs of the Times magazine, Nov. 1914, Used with permission)

Long Island City's ICDNY sign still uses Sunshine's original steel framework.  (T.Rinaldi)

"The tens of thousands of travelers on the busy highways and on the Long Island Railroad trains, as well as many residents of Manhattan, might easily wonder about the identity of this monster industrial building, if on the roof there did not appear an electric sign of unequaled proportions with the words, 'LOOSE-WILES SUNSHINE BISCUITS'" (See Signs of the Times, Nov. 1914). Built c. 1914 by the National Electric Sign Co with the George Patten Co.  Original dimensions 591 feet long, each letter 20 feet wide, lit with 3,928 ten-watt tungsten lamps.  Retrofitted with neon tubes by Rainbow Lights, Inc, 1926 (see Signs of the Times, October 1926).  Later re-lettered for Executone Intercoms after the mid-1950s.  Re-lettered again in 1985 when the building was made-over as the International Design Center New York, featuring the center's Massimo Vignelli-designed IDCNY logo.

15: THYPIN STEEL / 49-49 Hunters Point Ave.

Thypin Steel.  Stone tabet identifies the company's founder as Abraham Thypin.  (T.Rinaldi)
A modest sign facing Manhattan from a low-slung industrial building just north of the Long Island Expressway.  Stone tablet on the building dates Thypin's founding to 1910, and the building (along with the sign perhaps?) to 1950. 


16: PARAGON OILS / 29-02 49th Ave.

Paragon signs, then-and-now.  (T.Rinaldi)

Faded painted signs on the walls of this old building sandwiched between the railroad tracks and the Long Island Expressway recall the Paragon Oils spectacular that once stood on the rooftop of the Queens Subway Building.  The sign advertised Paragon heating oils on one side, and Texaco (which apparently owned Paragon) on the other.  The steel framework remains, still in use for ordinary billboards that occupy Paragon's perch today. (See the Newtown Pentacle for more on Paragon and the Queens Subway Building.) 

THE NEW JETBLUE SPECTACULAR: SOME VITAL STATISTICS

 Overall Dimensions: 75' long by 45' high (from the roof)
 Largest Letter: 25'4" high
 Made By: Going Signs (as subcontractor to Turner Construction)
 Design: HLW International, MS Signs and Going Signs
 Components: Steel channel letters with acrylic faces
 Illumination: High efficiency LED light strips

SEE ALSO:

 YouTube video posted by Going Signs showing the JetBlue installation in fast motion.
 JetBlue sign coverage at the New York Times and DNAinfo.
 The signs in old photos at the Greater Astoria Historical Society, nycsubway.org and trainsarefun.com
SPECIAL THANKS to Ross Savedge and Jillian Perrius for moral support in the production of this post.




8 comments:

  1. Could have had a better photo of PAN AM, since it was in business for 64 years and was a huge part of aviation history.

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  2. Anon: I agree - and if you find one please let me know!

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  3. Wow! I remember seeing most of these signs as a kid while riding the Flushing elevated line with my parents.
    I recall some other Long island City less prominent signs like Broadway Maintenance (they serviced the N.Y.C. street lights) and Goodman's Noodles but I believe Goodman's was lighted but not in neon.

    Thanks for the memories!!!

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    1. The Broadway Maintenance sign was visible from my living room window in L.I.C. from mid-50s to late-60s. It originally had a revolving "Sputnik" satellite globe, then it was changed to a revolving clock/thermometer sign.

      The Goodman's Noodle factory used to create some great smells throughout the neighborhood when they were baking. Also Barricini Chocolates.

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  4. Hi, I came upon your website looking for a photo of the Goodman Noodle Man sign in LIC. I grew up in LIC, on 29th street, half block away from Queensboro Plaza, or as we called it "Bridge Plaza". Do you know the sign, or where I can see a photo?
    The "Pan Am" sign was on the corner by my building, right on the Plaza at corner of 29th, I think you have address wrong on website. There was also a moving"Flying A" sign, atop the Chatham Phoenix, or as we called it in our childish phonetics (Chana Phoenix) I lived across the street from it. We used to play in the lobby, with the countenance of the elevator operator, who allowed us to run through from 29th Street to the other entrance on 41st Ave.
    In the summer, when the building was closed on weekends, neighbors projected home movies from our stoop onto the unlit building!
    We were very proud of our Neon. Silvercup, Goodman, Chiclet, Swingline, they were wonderful from a child's eyes.
    I would appreciate it if you can direct me to the Noodle Man.

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  5. What a great site this is! (Went looking for a particular building and found a favorite piece of my childhood, these wonderful signs.) I fondly recall many of these, though in my aging memory the Silvercup sign would have been there before I was a 10-year-old. I also seem to recall a large sign for Serval Zippers, but a web search turned up only a clock tower, which didn't look at all familiar. One favorite memory is of the close-in screeching turn the train made around Eagle Electric; you felt you could reach out and touch the corner of the building. Another site from the train, though not meant as a sign, I believe, was a tin man or robot figure standing on the roof of a building right next to the elevated tracks. Thanks for bringing a bit of my past back to life.

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  6. Oh, the Silvercup sign and the wonderful smell of baking bread. Fond memories of the 7 train

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  7. Tydol Flying A Gasoline had a big neon on the Chatham-Phenix building, either at the same time as Lockheed, or just after.

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