Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Neon World of Pilar Montero

Last week brought sad news of the death of Pilar Montero, the 90-year-old former proprietress of the Montero Bar & Grill on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  Montero's is one of two establishments on this stretch of Atlantic Avenue whose storefronts are graced by veteran neon signs.  It so happened that Mrs. Montero was connected with both of them.  In addition to the bar she opened with her husband in 1945, there is the shuttered Long Island Restaurant up the street, which was run by her sister-in-law, Emma Sullivan.

Montero Bar & Grill, at 73 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Projecting sign c. 1949 by the Corvin Neon Sign Co.  The plexiglas fascia sign is a later addition by the Silverescent Neon Sign Co. (T. Rinaldi)

As the neighborhood changed around them, this pair of stalwart businesses acquired an almost legendary status among devotees of the vanishing city.  The Long Island closed in 2007, but seems now to be undergoing renovations that (fingers crossed) might re-light its spectacular ensemble of stainless steel neon signs.  The Montero Bar & Grill, deo gratias, is still open for business, Mrs. Montero's heirs having taken over after her retirement some years ago.

The Long Island Restaurant, at 108 Atlantic Avenue, across the street and one block up from Montero's. A superb ensemble of stainless steel signs installed by an unknown sign shop c. 1951.  (T. Rinaldi)

Montero's neon sign is the work of the Corvin Neon Sign Co. of Brooklyn.  Buildings Department records suggest an installation date of 1949.  The author Frank McCourt lived in an apartment over the bar for some years.  "Outside my window, the MONTERO BAR neon sign blazed on and off, turning my front room from scarlet to black to scarlet," he recalled in his book Teacher Man.  The sign still comes aglow each evening, but has not flashed in recent years.

Montero's neon sign bears the manufacturer's mark of the long-vanished Corvin Neon Sign Co. of Brooklyn. (Brooklyn Classified Telephone Directory, Fall-Winter 1946)

I stop into Montero's every now and then when I'm in the neighborhood.  I wish I could say I remember Pilar Montero.  I think we once exchanged friendly salutations, a nod and a "goodnight" on my way out one quiet winter evening, after enjoying a rousing round of Jeopardy on the TV over the bar. 

Raccuglia & Son Funeral Home, at 323 Court Street, about a ten minute walk from Montero's.  Signs by the Super Neon Sign Co., c. 1958. (T. Rinaldi)

Last week, Mrs. Montero's funeral was held at Raccuglia & Son Funeral Home on Court Street, about a ten minute walk from the bar.  Like Montero's and the Long Island Restaurant, the Raccuglia funeral home boasts some Brooklyn's finest classic storefront neon, one of about ten funeral homes in the city that still have vintage neon signs over their doors.  Raccuglia's signs seem not to have come alight in many moons.  Alas, such is the neon world of Pilar Montero, the fading ambiance of the twentieth century city.

Mrs. Montero's name shines on over Atlantic Avenue.  (T. Rinaldi) 


A tribute to Mrs. Montero in the NYT, and a great write-up featured in the Times back in 2006.
Another great sign by Corvin Neon, documented by Frank Jump in 2004, which has sadly since perished.


• At nyneon.org, maker identified for the wonderful wonderful United Airlines sign at LaGuardia Airport
• As of Sunday, January 22, 2012, Rocco Restaurant's ancient swing sign on Thompson Street hangs over an empty storefront, its neon tubes removed.
• The Music Box Theater's 1954-installed vertical sign has come down for a refurbishment. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Letters from Neon: Scripts

Since their advent more than 100 years ago, neon signs have had a special relationship with script letterforms.  By their sinuous nature, neon tubes lend themselves to script.  Moore tube signs used script in the early 1900s; Claude's first neon sign in the U.S. reproduced Packard's trademark script logotype. 

Claude's first neon sign in the U.S. featured Packard's script logotype.  (American Sign Museum)

Steven Heller and Louis Fili's recent book Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design's Golden Age celebrates classic script letterforms and provides some insight on their evolution and significance. "In commercial contexts, a script would never be used for, say, a railway sign or other official posting," they write, "but it was common and appropriate for virtually any other type of signage . . . which demanded an ad hoc or handwritten appearance."

Specimen sheet for Gillies Gothic Bold, from American Type Founders, 1934, reproduced in Heller & Fili's Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design's Golden Age.

"Neon Script," from Alf Becker's 100 Alphabets, 1941. First published in Signs of the Times magazine, July 1933.

Script lettering evolved stylistically through the twentieth century with changing fashions.  Midcentury scripts lend their appeal to some of New York's best old neon signs.  They have a particular ability to evoke the spirit of their time, like the stylized emblems on automobiles of the same period, or the jaunty signature of any given mystery challenger signing in on the quiz show "What's My Line."

TOP: Midcentury scripts scoped out at the 2011 Rhinebeck Car Show (T.Rinaldi); BOTTOM: Bette Davis signing in on "What's My Line."

In some cases, as at Long Island City's landmark Pepsi-Cola spectacular, the sign faithfully reproduces a logotype designed previously by others.  But in most examples, the lettering is the original work of sign painters in a neon shop's layout department.

Some New York signs that play the contrast between script and block letters. (T.Rinaldi)

Very often, sign makers played the contrast between an elegant script and matter-of-fact block letters.  This practice seems to have peaked in the 1950s.  Typically, the signs use script for the owner's name, as though the sign was a personalized invitation.   "Before the advent of modern logo design, scripts gave the illusion that the business name was a signature," write Heller and Fili:  "They made the impersonal personal."  

Smith’s Bar & Grill, 701 8th Avenue, Manhattan / DaNite Neon Sign Co., 1954

Rainbow Café (removed), 3904 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1955

Morscher’s Pork Store (removed), 5844 Catalpa Avenue, Queens / c. 1950

Kayton’s Specialty Shop, 723 East Tremont Avenue, Bronx / c. 1955*

Harold’s Prescriptions, 2272 McDonald Avenue, Brooklyn / Super Neon Lights, Inc.,  c. 1946*

Antelis Pharmacy, 1502 Elm Avenue, Brooklyn / Silverescent Neon Sign Co. (attributed), c. 1955

Katz Drugs, 76 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn / Silverescent Neon Sign Co., c. 1955

Neil’s Coffee Shop, 961 Lexington Avenue, Manhattan / c. 1966*

Beekman Theatre (demolished), 1254 Second Avenue, Manhattan / 1952

Maimain’s Pharmacy, 821 Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn / Silverescent Neon Sign Co., c. 1951*

Joe Abbracciamento, 6296 Woodhaven Boulevard, Queens / New York Neon, c. 1949* (alterations by Artistic Neon, c. 1998)

Goldberger’s Pharmacy, 1200 First Avenue, Manhattan / c. 1960

Long Island Restaurant, 108 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1951*

Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street, Manhattan / c. 1960*

Egidio Pastry Shop, 622 East 187th Street, Bronx / c. 1967*

Eltingville Prescriptions, 3948 Richmond Avenue, Staten Island / Torrone Signs, c. 1961*

Uptown Wine Shop (formerly Julius Braun Liquors), 1361 Lexington Ave., Manhattan / 1952

Hinsch’s Confectionary, 8518 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1948

Garry Jewlers, 474 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn / c. 1961

Bernard F. Dowd Funeral Home, 16520 Hillside Avenue, Queens / Grauer Sign Co., c. 1955 (alterations by Grauer Sign Co. 1982)

Sabatino Funeral Home, 321 Avenue U, Brooklyn / Super Neon Sign Co., c. 1959*

Carvel, 14901 14th Avenue, Queens / c. 1956*

Pepsi Cola, Long Island City, Queens / Artkraft Strauss Sign Co., 1938

Murray’s Sturgeon, 2429 Broadway / c. 1950

 Harold’s Prescriptions, 2272 McDonald Avenue, Brooklyn / Super Neon Lights, Inc.,  c. 1946*

Holiday Motel, 2291 New England Thruway, Bronx / c. 1965*

 40 West 55th Liquors, 40 West 55th Street, Manhattan

Jay Dee Bakery (removed), 9892 Queens Boulevard, Queens / c. 1955*

John’s Restaurant, 302 East 12th Street, Manhattan / c. 1936*

Angelo’s of Mulberry Street, 146 Mulberry Street, Manhattan / c. 1955

Carnegie Delicatessen, 854 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan / Globe Neon Sign Corp., c. 1960

Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street., Manhattan / c. 1964

Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan / United Signs Corp., 1932 (alterations, c. 1940)

From the film Dames (1934), by way of the Movie Title Stills Collection.

* = Probable date based on records at the New York City Department of Buildings.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ancestry of Neon: The Moore Tube Light

There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing.
                                                                                   Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister, 1949
For most of the 20th century, historians have credited the neon sign to the French inventor Georges Claude.  In my own research, however, I came to see this as a gross over-simplification.  Daniel McFarlan Moore (1869-1936), an American inventor who essentially developed the concept of the neon sign as we know it, has been almost completely forgotten by history.  
The Prime of Daniel McFarlan Moore.  (New York Times, Feb. 5, 1896)
To ask "who invented the neon sign" is to pose a trick question.  Neon gas exists in the air we breathe: it was discovered, not invented.  Probably half of all so-called neon signs don't use neon at all (argon is typically used for colors other than red).  Neon and argon lights meanwhile are both varieties of "luminous tube" lamps, which likewise have no preeminent inventor.   
ABOVE: Illustration showing one of Moore's first tube signs.  (Scientific American, Feb. 2, 1896)

ABOVE: The "Moore Chapel," a small chapel mock-up illuminated by Moore tubes, was a main attraction at the Electrical Exhibition of 1898, held at Madison Square Garden.  Over the door, a Moore Tube sign welcomed visitors to the "Moore Vacuum Tube Chapel".  (Electrical Engineer, May 12, 1898)

Around the year 1895, Moore began making electric signs using luminous tubes bent into the form of letters or shapes.   Previously employed by Thomas Edison, Moore set up shop on his own in the early 1890s to develop a new kind of electric lamp that he thought would improve upon Edison's incandescent bulb, which Moore called "too small, too hot, and too red".  To do this, Moore looked to an alternate technology known as gas discharge illumination.  

ABOVE: Before-and-after rendering showing Moore tubes installed over a fashionable entryway. (Cassier's Magazine, September 1894)
ABOVE: Moore tubes at an entrance canopy on Fifth Avenue in New York.  (The Technical World, May 1905)

A gas discharge lamp is a sealed glass tube with electrodes at each end; the tube is filled with a gas that glows as it conducts electricity across the gap between the electrodes.   Experiments based on this idea date back to the 17th century.   The German physicist Heinrich Geissler made headway with gas discharge lamps in the 1850s, but Moore took the concept further in the 1890s, producing luminous tubes that were sold commercially for conventional lighting and for electric signs.  Neon gas had yet to be discovered, so Moore used carbon dioxide instead. 
ABOVE:  Moore tubes installed in the main entrance lobby at Madison Square Garden in New York, c. 1905. (Artificial Light: Its Influence upon Civilization, by Matthew Luckiesh, 1920)

Moore's idea turned out to be fatally ahead of its time.  He unveiled his tube lamp in 1896, just two years before the discovery of neon gas.  To keep them lit, Moore had to fit the tubes with a pump that replenished the gas inside.  Over the next decade, Moore struggled to make his lamp a viable competitor of the incandescent bulb.  Neon remained scarce and very expensive, so Moore experimented with other gases, such as helium and nitrogen.  Moore's goal was to make a lamp for general illumination: he would have seen neon's characteristic red glow as a significant handicap.
ABOVE: Plan drawing showing Moore tube installation at Bamberger's Department Store, Newark.  (Electrical Review, Aug. 18, 1906)

Georges Claude meanwhile literally found himself with neon gas he didn't know what to do with.  Claude's company, Air Liquide, supplied specialty gases for industrial use.  In seeking a commercial use for neon, Claude eventually decided to make an improved Moore tube using neon gas.  He sought to patent the idea in France in 1910, and in the United States the following year.  Neon's orange-red glow may not have been suited for general illumination, but, as Claude discovered, it fit the bill for electric signs.
ABOVE: Rendering of a proposed Moore tube installation for a church.  (Cassier's Magazine, September 1894) 
ABOVE: Interior of the Moore Chapel at the Electrical Exhibition of 1898.  (Electrical Engineer, May 12, 1898) 
At around the same time, the introduction of tungsten filaments suddenly improved the efficiency of incandescent bulbs, thus dampening the impetus for Moore's improved electric lamp.  Sufficiently discouraged, Moore reconciled with Edison in 1912:  he sold his patents to General Electric and took a position with the company's research labs, where his later work included pioneering developments toward the advent of television. 
ABOVE: Moore proposed tube lighting for streetcar interiors and for outdoor street lighting in New York. (Boston Daily Globe, August 1, 1897)
On the evening of June 14, 1936, Moore received a visit at his home in East Orange, New Jersey from a certain Jean Philip Gebhardt, a spurned inventor who apparently felt Moore had stolen one of his ideas.  "Oh, that's that nut from Brooklyn," Moore remarked, and went to bed.   Gebhardt returned the next morning and fatally shot Moore twice in the head (Gebhardt committed suicide two days later).  GE introduced the modern fluorescent lamp – a descendant of the Moore tube – in 1938.

ABOVE: Moore tubes to light "the drawing room of the future." (Cassier's Magazine, September, 1894)

ABOVE: "The drawing room of the future," perhaps not exactly what Moore had in mind - Club Babylon, Tony Montana's hangout in the 1983 film Scarface.  
Images of Moore tube signs are exceedingly difficult to find today, and not one physical example seems to have survived anywhere.  Signs were an afterthought for Moore's purposes, and he concentrated on conventional applications such as indoor and street lighting. 

ABOVE: Rendering for a Moore tube sconce.  (Cassier's Magazine, September 1894)
But the Moore tube's most successful application seems to have been for electric signs.  "I had the impression that it was good only for illuminated signs and relatively unimportant work," remarked electrical engineer Gano Dunn of the Moore Tube in 1907.  One later account recalls that Broadway was "flanked with a double row of this new type of electrical advertising" in the early 1900s. The credit for making luminous tube signs the 20th century icons they became goes to Claude, but it was Moore who developed the concept and first made it a commercial reality.

Please contact me if you know of any Moore signs that still exist, or any images of them.

• More about Moore at the Smithsonian.
• "The Moore Electric Light," in The Technical World, May 1905 (via Google Books)
• "The Light of the Future," in Cassier's Magazine, September 1894. (via Google Books)
• Complete bibliography for this story at this link.

• The great NYPD sign in Times Square has multiplied.
• I will give a brief lecture on neon sign conservation for the Association for Preservation Technology / Northeast Chapter's Historic Lighting symposium at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT on Friday, Feb. 3, 2012. Please join if you're in the neighborhood.
• New addition to the database at nyneon.org: an unknown travel bureau sign on Austin St. in Forest Hills, Queens (for real this time).