Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Allen and The White Horse

One of the most recognizable signs in New York is the work of a particularly obscure sign company.  The modest neon sign of the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street seems to be the lone surviving installation of the Allen Sign Company of Manhattan.  

The White Horse Tavern, at 567 Hudson Street, Manhattan. January 7, 2007. (T. Rinaldi)

Detail showing the mark of the Allen Sign Co., emblazoned on the sign's porcelain enamel faces.  (T. Rinaldi)

I know of no other surviving works by Allen, and have come across no other details on the firm - almost.  By some good fortune, I ran across a passing reference to the company in the December 1946 issue of Signs of the Times magazine, which names the firm's proprietors as Al (Allen?) and Sidney Rosenbloom, "both formerly with Claude Neon Lights in New York."  Claude, of course, was the veritable mothership of neon shops, having launched the commercial neon trade first in Paris before World War I and then in New York in 1924.  The blurb mentions another of Allen's works, a long-vanished vertical sign for the Manhattan Towers Hotel on the Upper West Side, which at 67 feet high was said to be the "tallest sign north of Times Square." 

Display ad from the 1950 Manhattan Classified Telephone Directory. (NYPL)

With the owner's names in hand, I then consulted the 1930 U.S. Census to see what I could turn up on the Rosenblooms.  Al Rosenbloom proves elusive: of several persons by that name, none can be clearly identified as the future proprietor of the Allen Sign Co.  Sidney, however, turns up living in Laurelton, Queens, age 34, his occupation listed as "Salesman – Sign" some fifteen years before the Signs of the Times blurb.  The Allen Sign Company appears in the Manhattan yellow pages from about 1945 through the mid-1970s, then vanishes.

Signs of the Times, December 1946.  (Signs of the Times, used with permission)

Today, the last surviving work of the Allen Sign Company may be this solitary sign that has hung over the door of the famed White Horse Tavern since 1946.  According to Jef Klein's History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York, the tavern itself began life in 1880 - it had already been around 64 years when its owners decided to go neon.  In the 1950s, the White Horse became known as a haunt for some of Greenwich Village's better known bohemians, lending the place the legendary status it enjoys to this day.

White Horse aglow, November 19, 2010. (T. Rinaldi)

The bohemians are mostly gone now, but the sign that beckoned them remains.  Its blackletter script and little white horse head reference the ye-old-pub signs of Great Britain.  For the color scheme, the Rosenblooms went for porcelain enamel sign faces with white lettering and border trim over a solid blue background, a standard palette more commonly used for wayfinding signs of the porcelain enamel era than for neon storefront displays.  The lettering glows in simple red neon, with fluorescent white for the horse (of course).

White Horse in the window, November 19, 2010. (T. Rinaldi)

As fine a work as it indubitably is, the White Horse sign likely owes its prominence to the notoriety of the tavern beneath it as much as to its own charm.  Even so, if the winds of attrition have carried off all but this one example of the Rosenbloom's handiwork, the Allen Sign Company can still lay claim to one of New York's finest old signs.  The Rosenbloom boys did good.

Outtakes from evening photoshoots at the White Horse on November 19 and December 21, 2010.  (T. Rinaldi)

Please drop me a line if you know anything more about the Allen Sign Company.

• An exciting update on the Beatrice Inn sign restoration, at JVNY.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Maiman's Pharmacy

Last week came truly depressing news (by way of Project Neon and Brownstoner) on the disappearance of Maiman's Pharmacy and its splendid sign, which wrapped the corner of Franklin Avenue and  Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for six decades.  This is the seventh classic neon sign to go dark or disappear so far this year in New York (as far as I know), all of them vanished with old independent businesses that have bitten the dust.

Maiman's Pharmacy, formerly at 821 Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

Maiman's had what I considered to be one of the best old signs in all of New York: first rate midcentury block and script letterforms, outlined in stainless steel channels and neon tubes in vibrant hues of pink, turquoise and white that set each other off beautifully. 

Maiman's Pharmacy, on a balmy summer night in June 2009. (T. Rinaldi)

The sign appeared around 1951, the work of the Silverescent Neon Sign Co. of Brooklyn.  Some time ago I interviewed Al Higger, the retired former president of Silverescent, who recalled that the Maiman's sign was an example of a somewhat standardized design scheme the company deployed for drug store jobs throughout the city in the 1950s.  The design was developed by Silverescent's longtime layout man Charlie Klein, whom Mr. Higger recalls as a talented draughtsman and, like most neon layout men in New York during those years, a member of the Sign Painter's Local 230. Klein's drug store signs usually involved script lettering for the owner's name, block letters for DRUGS or PHARMACY, and some variant of the traditional "Rx" prescription symbol for full effect.  

Silverescent manufacturer's plaque, formerly on the corner of Eastern Parkway and Franklin Ave. (T. Rinaldi)

When Mr. Higger told me this, another sign popped almost immediately into my head: that of the Antelis Pharmacy on Elm Avenue in Midwood.  Here survives another example of the Silverescent/Klein drug store sign.  Like Maiman's, the Antelis sign features the owner's name in script, set against block letters reading PHARMACY and a fine Rx symbol, illuminated in three shades of neon.  The script and the Rx symbol differed slightly between the two signs, but the block lettering was the same.  Interestingly, Mr. Klein seems to have employed the same sans-serif letterforms for another vanished Silverescent sign, at the old Faber's Arcade on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, which disappeared over the winter of 2010-2011.

Two iterations of the Silverescent/Klein drug store sign, at Maiman's (above) and the Antelis Pharmacy (below), at 1502 Elm Ave. in Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

Block lettering at Antelis (above) and Maiman's (below). (T. Rinaldi)

Silverescent seems to have used the same letterforms at the former Faber's "Fascination" arcade in Coney Island. (T. Rinaldi)

I first photographed the Maiman's sign back in June 2009, during an epic all-day neon appreciation schlep that took me and a friend from Manhattan to Bed Stuy to Ozone Park to Far Rockaway then back to Crown Heights and finally Coney Island (we bade a grand farewell to the old R40 series subway cars that same day).  I came away with nice shots of Maiman's all aglow that night, but I wanted dusky shots for the neon book, so I eventually returned only to find the sign partially dimmed, apparently with a few transformer outages.  I tried again some months later but found the place closed for the night and the sign completely dark.  I had better luck this past December on my next (and last) trip, but then – after all that – I wound up using shots from that first visit back in 2009 for the book.

Maiman's in October 2010. (T. Rinaldi)

Somewhere along the way the owners gave the sign a good sprucing up, perhaps around the time the place changed hands a few years ago.  Someone cleaned and painted the porcelain enamel sign faces (painting porcelain enamel is like painting brick – sort of senseless but hey, points for TLC).  Whoever did this clearly had an appreciation for the sign:  the old Silverescent manufacturer's tag was carefully removed, cleaned and reinstalled, instead of just being painted over as usually happens.  This left me with the sense that Maiman's was in good hands and would be around for some time to come.  Alas, a grizzly photo at Brownstoner confirms the bad news that the sign and store have gone, leaving a dark and dreary sight in their wake.  Could it be that the sign found a good retirement home somewhere?  Fingers crossed.  Meanwhile, we still have at least one classic Silverescent/Klein drug store sign over at the Antelis Pharmacy – run out and admire while the admiring's good. Satisfy your pharmaceutical needs while you're at it.

Above: A series of photos from December 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

• Every so often, some good news: at JVNY, progress on the Beatrice Inn sign restoration.
• At Ephemeral New York, some forgotten signs under awnings.
Word from the Lost NY blog that Sokol Furniture in Red Hook, Brooklyn is closed and the sign likely gone or going soon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Kentile and the On-Premise Spectaculars

If one were to poll admirers of New York neon, the great Kentile sign in Brooklyn might well emerge as the city's best-liked heirloom sign.  Yet at the outset of my quest to document New York's historic neon signs, this magnificent relic proved a trifle difficult to categorize:  I often describe my scope as limited to "storefront" signs, as opposed to the big Times Square spectaculars that have already been covered at length and that typically do not survive more than a few years anyway.

Kentile Floors: slab serifs on high. (T. Rinaldi)

Kentile, however, is hardly a storefront sign.  Thus, it would be more correct to characterize the subject of my study as "on-premise" signs.  In advertising parlance, this term denotes signs that announce goods or services procurable in the immediate proximity of the actual sign (as storefront signs typically do), as opposed to "off-premise" signs (like billboards or some painted wall signs) that remind us to buy things like Coke or Kleenex at the next opportunity. 

Spectacular!  A 1954 advertisement  for Time-O-Matic switch equipment featuring Brooklyn's newly built Kentile spectacular. Among other things, Time-O-Matic made "flashers" that allowed signs to come alight in animated sequence, which leads one to wonder - did the Kentile sign once perform such stunts? (Signs of the Times, March 1954, used with permission)

Kentile is therefore what might properly be called an "on premise spectacular".  It is one of a small handful of these giant antiques that survive around town, most of them perched over old hotels or factories.  I have recently added this family of signs to the database over at nyneon.org, for your enjoyment and/or edification, and will periodically chose one to profile here at the New York Neon blog.

A 1944 advertisement for Kentile from the Architectural Forum. (Architectural Forum)

For all its prominence, details on the big Kentile sign are elusive.  It likely appeared here in 1953 or 1954 to advertise a now-defunct maker of floor tiles.  The sign has a nearly identical twin over a former Kentile facility in Chicago.  The Brooklyn sign (and probably the one in Chicago, too) is the work of the White Way Neon Sign Company, which also produced the nearby Eagle Clothes spectacular at around the same time.  Both of these signs were positioned to distract travelers on the nearby viaducts of the Gowanus Expressway and the IND Subway. 

For true Kentile afficianadoes, Live Poultry Industrial Clothing offers t-shirts featuring the sign in a range of colors.  (Live Poultry Industrial Clothing)

The wealth of photographic tributes to the sign on flickr testifies to Kentile's intense appeal. (flickr.com)

The Municipal Art Society some years ago added the Kentile sign to its honorary list of "Places that Matter".  An even greater measure of its popularity can be found at flickr.com, where a quick search produces an almost unbelievable volume of photographic love letters to this big old sign that hasn't come alight in many moons.  There is something about Kentile that turns us into compulsive photographers.  Is it the sign itself?  Its ruinous state?  Or perhaps its urban industrial context?  In the end, it's probably some mixture of these things that makes us lift our lenses to this landmark of reliquary neon.

Detail from a 1944 Kentile advertisement. (Architectural Forum)


• Over at Project Neon, a real heartbreak - Maiman's Pharmacy is gone, along with one of my favorite signs in the city.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Globe Neon Sign Co.

No backward glance at New York's heritage of neon would be complete without paying tribute to the Globe Neon Sign Co. of the Bronx.  During its five decades of operation, Globe issued some of New York's finest storefront neon.  More than 35 years after the company disappeared, Globe signs can still be found in at least three of the five boroughs.

Display ad from the 1960 Manhattan yellow pages. (New-York Historical Society)

Like most neon shops of its stature in New York, Globe vanished with little record of its origins.  Known variously through the years as the Globe Sign Co., Globe Neon Tube Corp., Globe Neon Signs, the Globe Sign Co., Globe Signs and finally as the Globe Sign Corp., the firm was established in 1924, the same year neon signs likely first appeared in New York.  Originally headquartered in Manhattan, by 1935 Globe set up shop in the south Bronx, where it remained at several addresses for the next forty years. Its prominent early works included the diabolically appealing vertical sign of the evocatively named Barrel Of Fun nightclub on West 51st Street, which appeared in a lesser-known photograph by Andreas Feininger.

An early sign by Globe for a Columbus Avenue eatery, c. 1934 (top).  The Barrell of Fun, at 133 West 51st Street, installed c. 1935 (middle).  Dynamic Appliances, 65th Street and Broadway, installed c. 1950, featured an animated illumination sequence and scintillating incandescent bulbs (bottom). (Signs of the Times Magazine, Feb. 34, Apr. 35, Aug. 50, used with permission)

For most of its life, Globe was run by a legendary signman called David Cheifetz. Mention his name to any veteran of New York's neon business and you'll get a guffaw and an eye roll and the stories will start flowing.  "If you look up the word 'shyster' in the dictionary, his picture is the first thing you see," one former colleague told me.  A wily character, Cheifetz is said to have changed the legal spelling of his name to dodge a record number of unpaid parking tickets.  One story holds that he would spring unannounced "installation fees" on customers after unveiling their newly completed signs at his shop, effectively holding the signs for ransom until the client paid him to release the job for installation.  Another tale has it that he would wait for a new sign to pass its required city inspection and then substitute used transformers for the new ones that had just passed muster with the inspector.

Globe manufacturer's tags on signs at Catania Shoes in the Bronx (top) and at the former Weathervane Inn on East 29th Street in Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Still, looking at the impressive body of work he left behind, one gets the sense that these stories may have evolved from friendly jibes at the expense of an indomitable personality as much as from actual deeds or misdeeds. "When he talked, his eyes blinked and his lips flapped a thousand times a minute," recalled Jack Saraceno of Lettera Signs in the Bronx, who worked under Cheifetz in the early 1970s.  If Cheifetz were alive today, he might answer his accusers simply by pointing to the significant number of his works that can still be found around the city.  Prominent surviving works by Globe include the inventive sign for the Carnegie Deli in Midtown, and the instantly recognizable sign for the Clover Delicatessen on Second Avenue and 34th Street. 

Clover Delicatessen, 621 Second Ave., Manhattan, installed 1956. (T. Rinaldi)

Cheifetz ran Globe through the early 1970s, when he retired and sold the company to an outfit called the Award Sign Co, thus ending Globe's 50-year run.  (Award was later bought out by the West Side Neon Sign Co. of the Bronx, which itself was swallowed up by Artkraft Strauss in 1988.)  What became of Cheifetz afterward is unclear.  Some say he retired to Florida.  Others say he lived into his 90s, investing in a number of Queens liquor stores near the end of his life.  For now, the details of his final disposition are as murky as those surrounding his entry to the sign business (perhaps someone out there knows more?).  But his mark on the city remains here to see, a legacy in light that comes aglow each evening when the sun goes down. 

Please drop me a line if you know anything more about Mr. Cheifetz or the Globe Neon Sign Co.

Catania's Shoe Shop (at 3015 Westchester Ave. in the Bronx.) boasts what is likely Globe's oldest surviving work, installed c. 1945. (T. Rinaldi)

V&T Italian Restaurant, 1024 Amsterdam Avenue, Manhttan, c. 1963. (T. Rinaldi)

Il Campanile Restaurant (ex-Weathervane Inn), 30 East 29th Street, Manhattan, installed c. 1960. This sign enjoys a split-second cameo in the opening minutes of the 1966 film Valley of the Dolls. (T. Rinaldi)

Lenox Liquors (ex-Paris Liquors), 100 West 124th Street, installed in 1959 (left), and Home of Cheers Liquor Store, 261 West 18th Street, Manhattan, installed c. 1960 (right). (T. Rinaldi)

The M&G Diner, 383 West 125th Street, Manhattan, installed c. 1966.  As at the Carnegie Deli, neon tubes installed over back-lit plexi sign faces.  The M&G closed in 2008 but the sign survived a few years longer, finally disappearing in 2011. (T. Rinaldi)

Cavalier Restaurant, 85-19 37th Avenue, Queens, installed c. 1960.  This sign featured what appears to be a wood grain porcelain enamel sign face, something I have seen nowhere else.  Both restaurant and sign went bye-bye in 2009. (T. Rinaldi)

Globe's best-known surviving work, at the Carnegie Delicatessen, 854 Seventh Ave., Manhattan, made c. 1960.  Like the M&G diner, this sign featured neon tubes mounted over a back-lit plexiglas fascia, making it a bit of a hybrid. (T. Rinaldi)


• The final proofs are here for the neon book!  One more round of revisions and then that's it...