Monday, January 28, 2013

Newsweek Remembered

The cover of Newsweek's recent "last print issue" reminded me that it's time to file another installment in my series covering New York's on-premise roof signs.  Back in the dusty corners of my mind I still harbor one or two childhood memories of the old Newsweek sign, a midcentury fixture of the midtown skyline which graced the parapets of the magazine's old headquarters building, an art deco office tower at 444 Madison Avenue.


Though the tower dates to the 1930s, the Newsweek sign only showed up around 1960, just before restrictive zoning ordinances kicked in that basically put an end to new illuminated roof signs in New York.  A blurb in the March 1960 issue of Signs of the Times magazine identifies the sign's designer as the redoubtable Douglas Leigh, the fabricator as Artkraft Strauss.  The letters were 8 and 10 feet high, made of stainless steel with faces of porcelain enamel, outlined in white neon.  An incandescent "jump clock" and temperature reading sat nested below the sign itself.

A handy graphic in the last print edition (which I impulse-bought at Duane Reade for a whopping seven dollars) shows that the sign employed the slab-serifed letterforms Newsweek adopted for its masthead in 1939, but curiously NOT the lettering as re-designed in 1949. (Newsweek)

Shortly after the Newsweek sign went up, new zoning ordinances prevented the installation of any more big roof signs like this, except where such signs were already in place.  Thus Newsweek passed the baton to New York Magazine, whose florid italic banner beamed out from 444 Madison in three directions from 1996 to 2009 (the west-facing sign, pictured on the Newsweek cover above, went bye-bye when a new tower blocked it from view).  

New York on a chilly evening in 2008. (T. Rinaldi)

The Newsweek sign lives on today, if only in spirit: New York Magazine yielded the spot to Burberry in 2009, the new sign making its debut with a ceremony held on the roof of the neighboring New York Palace hotel in May of that year.  Designed by Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey, the new sign was fabricated by Spectrum Signs of New York, the latter descended from New York's original Claude Neon outfit and the venerable Serota Sign Corp

444 Madison's new Burberry crown.  (T. Rinaldi)

Like the Newsweek sign that preceded it, Burberry glows in white neon - yes, real neon, not LEDs.  The incandescent display below meanwhile remains essentially unchanged from its installation in 1960.  The more things change, perhaps, the more they change the same.  Then again, while those old bulbs still broadcast the time and temp as they have for the past 53 years, a more telling barometer may be the sign above, whose most recent re-lettering speaks both to the travails of print media in a digital age and the proliferation of luxury retailers in the streets below.

New York remembered. (T. Rinaldi)

 A timelapse video of the Burberry installation at (click at lower right).
 NYT coverage of Burberry's neon debut (from 2009).
 Newsweek's farewell to print.

 NYNeon featured in a "glowing" (sorry) review by Brendan Perring at SignLink-UK

STAY TUNED for upcoming NYNeon lecture engagements this spring, summer and fall.

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