Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lenox Lounge

As promised, 2013 dawned with the legendary loss of the Lenox Lounge.  In the neon book, I described this establishment's "moderne porcelain-enamel and stainless-steel facade" as "possibly the finest surviving example of 1930s storefront architecture in New York."  It's gone now, along with the neon sign, ripped apart amid a truly sad tenant-landlord dispute that wrought the end of a business that had become a poster child for vanishing neighborhood institutions throughout New York.  

288 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Details on the sign's specific origins evaded my research.  As one of the most compulsively-photographed old signs in the city, I really wanted to establish its provenance.  Alas, no dice.  All I could determine was that the sign was not, in fact, original to the business's oft-cited opening date of 1939, even though many of us really wished it was.  

The Lenox Lounge.  Candidate for favorite neon letterforms.  (T. Rinaldi)

Buildings Department records show that an electric sign of approximately the same size as the one that just disappeared was installed here in 1940. But the city's c. 1940 tax photos reveal that this sign was not the one that recently departed.  The records further indicate that the sign was installed for a business called the Lenox Bar-B-Q, not Lenox Lounge.  Sure enough, the grainy tax photo shows a big neon sign with LENOX BAR-B-Q set in very appealing prewar letterforms that would have looked great with the sleek deco storefront below. 

The Lenox Lounge.  (T. Rinaldi)

So where did the Lenox Lounge sign come from?  I didn't get anywhere with Alvin Reid, Sr., who ran the business from 1988 until its demise this week.  No one at Lenox Lounge ever returned my calls, and after one of Mr. Reid's bartenders tried to tell me I wasn't allowed to photograph his sign from the sidewalk, I somehow felt less enthusiastic about frequenting the place to try to ask in person.  (Fortunately I had visited once or twice before this episode - know your rights, photographers!)

Though the sign's delightfully eccentric lettering suggested something from the 1930s, we know it wasn't there as of 1940.  Though Mr. Reid cited an opening date of 1939, the New York Times has reported that the place opened in 1942.  It could have appeared then, but neon sign production in New York ground to a quick halt in that year due to the war, so it seems unlikely.  Details of the sign's assembly were consistent with others produced in New York during the 1950s, so I gave it "c. 1955" in the neon book and laid the matter to rest.

Can't see much in the crummy microfilm version of the city's c. 1940 tax photo of 288 Lenox, except that the sign wasn't there yet. (Municipal Archives)  

After its landlord reportedly slapped the Lounge with a 100 percent rent hike last year, the storefront and sign were promptly dismembered over New Year's, thus preventing any new tenant from capitalizing on the appeal of the historic neon-bedecked facade.  Mr. Reid has announced plans to re-open at another location, and has indicated that he took the sign with him, so perhaps the removed portions of the sign and storefront will re-appear one day.  Then again, if similar episodes from years past are any indication, likely not.  And even if they do, the magic smoke is gone.  Unless the little guys from Batteries Not Included come around, I'm filing this one with Humpty Dumpty.  

Hail and Farewell, Lenox Lounge.  (T. Rinaldi)

A FOOTNOTE:  One wonders who the sign and storefront facade legally belonged to.  Some business owners have told me that their signs belonged to their landlords.  But when the P&G Bar vanished in 2010, the Landmarks Commission issued a statement saying that it could not have prevented the sign's disappearance, because the sign belonged to the bar, not to the landmark-designated building.  

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