Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nail Salon Neon

Somewhere along the way, neon window signs became an essential staple of nail salons.  Is it just me?  Or do mani-pedi parlors seem to have multiplied like rabbits (or Thai restaurants) all over the Tristate in the past ten or fifteen years?  They are EVERYWHERE.  Though I don't often get my nails did, I have become something of an admirer of these places, if only for their signs.

New York Nails - not in NYC but upstate, on Route 9 in Hyde Park, Dutchess County. (T. Rinaldi)

Like snowflakes, no two seem alike.  The signs range the gamut in style and complexity.  The simple signs, reading just NAILS, demonstrate the range of fonts that are putty in the hands of a skilled neon tube bender.  The more sophisticated signs often feature some variation of the Lady-with-Rose motif.  Sadly, but inevitably, these ladies too seem to be going to LEDs.  For now at least, nail salon neon remains an inescapable part of New York's urban landscape.

Nail salon signs display an endless array of neon letterforms. (T. Rinaldi)

Crazy Nails, at 146-07 Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica, Queens. (T. Rinaldi)

Several iterations of the ever-classy "Lady with Rose" motif. (T. Rinaldi)

38 Nail Studio Inc.,  6 East 38th Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Blue Nails Inc., 443 3rd Ave., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

1 Fortune Nails Inc., 201 East 33rd Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)
Casablanca Nails, 2729 Broadway, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Susies Nail Salon,  252 West 72nd St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)
Crystal Nails  2144 Broadway, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)
M & K Nail Inc., 1487 York Ave, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Madison Nails, 44 East 50th St, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Nails & More, 256 West 27th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

King Suki Nails, 229 West 231st St., Bronx. (T. Rinaldi)
Somewhere in Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Sunny Smile Nail's, 322 W 49th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

No idea where I shot this. (T. Rinaldi)

 Nailed in LEDs: Fordham Road in the Bronx.  (T. Rinaldi)

The uglya$$ scaffolding has at last come down from in front of Murray's Sturgeon, revealing one of my favorite signs in the city after more than two years of obstructed view!  Now if only they'd light it up...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ancestry of Neon: Panel Reflector Signs

Before neon signs began to proliferate in New York during the 1920s, another type of electric sign predominated throughout the city.  These were the so-called "panel reflector" signs.  The concept behind them was extremely simple: they were comprised only of a painted signboard, illuminated by incandescent bulbs housed in a hooded fixture mounted to the top of the sign.
Early advertisements for panel reflector signs by the C.H. Lush Sign Works and the Salzinger Sign Co., from Signs of the Times Magazine.  (ST Media Group, used with permission)

Panel reflector signs are almost ubiquitous in early twentieth century street scenes of New York.  New York Edison's 1927 Electric Sign Survey found nearly 6,000 of them in Manhattan below 135th Street, making them the most common electric sign typology in the city that year.  They advertised all sorts of businesses, from independent shops and stores to chain businesses, like Nedick's

Panel reflector signs around New York in the 1930s.  From top: Nedick's, at 6th Avenue and West 8th Street in Greenwich Village (NYU); Bernarr McFadden's One Cent Cafeteria, on Bleecker near Mercer; the Famous Coffee Shop, on 125th Street near Madison Avenue; the Sidney Garage at 69th and West End (NYPL).

Today, however, they are very scarce indeed.  Of traditional examples, I can cite just three in Manhattan.  The St. Paul's House ministry on West 51st Street in Manhattan is known for its glorious neon cross, but its ancient panel reflector sign goes overlooked. 

St. Paul's House Ministries, at 335 West 51st Street in Hell's Kitchen. (T. Rinaldi)

Heading downtown, another classic panel reflector can be found at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, on East 30th Street just off Madison.  This very handsome sign is one of my favorites of any variety in New York, with great blackletter and script lettering, and stainless steel and porcelain enameled sheet metal. Its style and materials relate to the neon signs that largely replaced panel reflectors by the Second World War.

The Madison Avenue Baptist Church, at 30 East 31st Street.  (T. Rinaldi)

Still further downtown, another fine panel reflector sign hangs over the door of the venerable Pete's Tavern, which traces its opening back to 1864.  This sign has been updated somewhat, with fluorescent rather than incandescent lighting and what appear to be cut plywood letters. In its basic form, though, this example retains the classic characteristics of an electric sign typology that once characterized the New York streetscape, now nearly extinct.  

Pete's Ancient Tavern, at 18th and Irving.  (T. Rinaldi)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Harlem YMCA

The Harlem YMCA is among the more sparkly gems on the neon book's cutting room floor.  In fact, it wasn't supposed to be there.  I had photographed it and even written the following caption for the book: 

Harlem YMCA: 180 West 135th Street, installed c. 1932 

"The great roof signs of the Harlem YMCA date to the building's opening on New Year's Day 1933, making them among the oldest functioning neon signs in New York today. (A vertical sign over the main entrance, not pictured, is a very convincing facsimile of a sign installed around 1950.) Determined not to lose business to movie houses and other less wholesome amusement venues, YMCAs across the United States almost invariably hung large illuminated signs high on their facades by the early years of the twentieth century." 

Two dusky views of the Harlem YMCA's roof signs, which have beamed out over East Harlem from their perch on 135th Street since 1933.  (T. Rinaldi)

The vertical sign over the door of the YMCA seems to have appeared around 1950.  The existing sign is a very convincing facsimile of the original, installed by Silverescent Neon around 1996.  (T. Rinaldi)

Somewhere along the line, the Harlem Y was accidentally dropped from the book. I realized this, to my acute horror, only once it was too late to squeeze it back in.  

As noted in the would-be caption text above, illuminated signs almost invariably hung over the doors and rooftops of YMCAs in New York and elsewhere.  Surviving examples in cities in towns all across the USA still attest to this, but the Harlem YMCA boasts New York's last bit of YMCA neon - with one exception.   

Electric signs became standard equipment for YMCAs across America in the early 20th century. 

Through the basement windows of an old brick building on West 23rd Street, just across from the Chelsea Hotel, passersby can glimpse one other surviving vestige of Y neon.  The sign once hung high aloft from the facade of the same building, formerly the McBurney YMCA, now home to the David Barton Gym.  Only the letter M comes alight today, casting its red glow over the gym's well heeled, well formed patrons writhing on elliptical machines weight benches.   

The McBurney YMCA's old neon sign, now decor at the David Barton gym. (T. Rinaldi)

The sign's innate coolness would surely have sufficed to justify the enormous effort of moving it down here.  But this sign has a special place in history, too - namely, its starring role in a certain music video . . .  

I refer, of course, to the Village People's 1978 gift to humanity, "YMCA".  The video is well worth a look not just for an idea of what the old McBurney YMCA sign looked like in place (or for a good pep talk, should you need one), but for a whole series of shots showing Chelsea and Greenwich Village in the heady days just before the AIDS crisis.  The sign remained in place through it all, until the McBurney branch moved from 23rd Street to its current location (on West 14th Street) in 2002.

No man does it all by himself. (YouTube)

• Further down West 23rd Street, a facsimile has replaced the Westside Tavern's old blue BAR sign.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Hotel Neon: The Cavalier Hotel

In the lengthening late summer shadows of a hot August evening in 2006, the finely patinated sign of the Cavalier Hotel caught my eye.  I was en-route to the East River Water Taxi for some farewell photos of the grand quartet of smokestacks that stood over ConEd's Hudson Avenue power plant, three of which would vanish from the skyline later that year.  Plodding my way down East 34th Street toward the docks, I paused for two point-and-shoot photos of the Cavalier, then turned and headed for the waterfront.

The Cavalier Hotel, formerly at 200 East 34th Street, pictured in 2006. (T. Rinaldi)

The Hudson Avenue Power Station, pictured on the same day, with its Aquitania-like quartet of smokestacks, now reduced to one.  (T. Rinaldi)

The Internet has surprisingly little to say about the Cavalier, which seems to have opened as the 34th Street Hotel in 1901.  Walter Grutchfield compiled some details on the hotel's history back in 2003, shortly before it closed.  "It is still in operation," he wrote then, "but it is difficult to say to what extent it operates as a hotel in today's sense of the term."

200 East 34th Street in January 1939, seen through the shadows of the Third Avenue El. (NYPL)

Six years earlier, the Cavalier turned up in a short piece in the New York Times.  "21 Face Drug Charges in Midtown Hotel," read the headline.  The Cavalier, it seemed, had become a "stash house" for enthusiasts of such tasty treats as cocaine, crack, and heroin.  The story described one particularly irascible dealer who apparently plied his trade in the building's dim hallways:  "One night the man grew angry when a customer would not buy drugs and stabbed the customer and the customer's dog."  

200 East 34th Street today. (New York Budget Inn)

I went back to the Cavalier on a summer morning in 2009 to see if I couldn't get better photographs of its old neon sign.  Too late: it was already gone, together with the hotel's "flagrant illegal activity," and its dog-stabbing crackheads.  Today the former Cavalier Hotel is up and running again, as the evocatively named New York Budget Inn, a "newly refurbished budget-priced boutique hotel" that offers "the best price to stay in NYC that doesn't involve your buddy's futon."  Since it has no neon sign to beckon would-be guests, the New York Budget Inn has a suave, come-hither web site instead.  Like the sign, the web site's job is to draw in customers.  But unlike the sign, the hotel's internet presence leaves no physical trace on the streetscape.  It casts no red glow across the ceilings of the rooms within. 

THIS IS THE THIRD in a series of stories entitled "Hotel Neon," exploring the unique resonance of neon hotel signs in the American psyche. See also: 

Hotel Neon, Part 2: Hotel Neon


• I am really enjoying the typeface for the 2012 London Olympics, and am fantacizing about seeing these letters rendered in neon.
• Have you been following Debra Jane's roadside blogging?
• Lascoff's sign is still hangin' in there as of July 31, 2012.
• By of JVNY, some old signs in Borough Park at the One More Folded Sunset Blog.