Friday, February 22, 2013

S. & G. Gross Co. Inc.

S. & G. Gross, a pawn shop at 486 Eighth Avenue (just above Penn Station), always ranks highly on my list of favorite places in town.   I like its three-story porcelain enamel facade.  I like that it lends an element of noir-ish grit to an increasingly over-sanitized city.  And, of course, I like its neon sign, though I've never seen it come aglow.

S&G Gross, Loans, 486 8th Ave., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

The sign is the centerpiece of the afore-mentioned three-story porcelain enamel facade, which is otherwise unadorned, apart from big white letters announcing S. & G. GROSS CO. INC., emblazoned over the storefront.  Such facades appeared across the country in the 1930s, very often with concomitant neon signs, as landlords or shop owners sought to modernize aging commercial buildings in American downtowns.

S&G Gross. (T.Rinaldi)

As I learned while researching the neon book, many of these modernizations appeared thanks to financial assistance from the federal government, which offered low interest loans through National Housing Act of 1934 as a way of stimulating the economy during the Great Depression.  The perplexing irony of these facades now is that many of us (myself included) who fawn over them today wince at the sight of similar alterations made in our own time.  Many of these great facades, now historic, obscure or obliterate even more historic facades beneath them. 

Cover from a catalog for Enameling Sheets issued by the Republic Steel Corp.  (Jester, 20th Century Building Materials / Library of Congress)

So typical are such facades of the 1930s that I always assumed the S. & G. Gross facade to be a product of that era.  But lo, what happens when we assume!  Turns out the Gross facade came quite a lot later: records at the Buildings Dept (DOB) indicate a surprisingly latter-day installation date of 1959, the handiwork of architects Telchin and Campanella.  

S&G Gross through the years. (NYC DOB)

As for the sign, the DOB dossier yielded no information (of course).  It did however serve up an unusually interesting evolutionary study of the little building from which it hangs.  Architectural drawings dated 1875, c. 1920 and 1959 provide snapshots in the life and times of this modest midtown address as it changed through the years, making the S. & G. Gross building a prime case study for many thousands of buildings like it across the city and providing a peek at what lies beneath that porcelain facade. 

Gross Loans sign, with maker's placard painted out. (T. Rinaldi) 

The sign, however, remained unattributed, until one day I noticed that the paint covering its maker's placard had receded just enough to reveal the telltale lettering of the Grauer Sign Co. of the Bronx.  Grauer's work also includes the sign over D'Aiuto's bakery three blocks down Eighth Ave, which appeared around the same time as the Gross storefront.  Gross and D'Aiuto occupy but one layer of the great palimpsest that is the urban landscape of New York.  Sadly, this particular layer seems to grow ever thinner as time goes by.  

S&G Gross Co. Inc. (T. Rinaldi)


A visit to S&G Gross by NYTimes writer Chris Grey back in 2009.
More fun facts on S&G Gross from Walter Grutchfield at 14to42.


 The Rchive, nos. 3 & 4 - neon typography gets its due at Paul Shaw Letter Design.
After a brief scare apparently sparked by an anonymous comment on this blog, word that the Kentile sign is here to stay - for the time being, at least...


March 11, 2013, at the National Arts Club
March 21, 2013, at the Friends of the UES Historic Districts
July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Gotham City Video, 687 8th Avenue. (T. Rinaldi)

Valentine's Day love, brought to you by the good folks at Gotham City Video.  Gotham City's heart was broken this time last year, so I couldn't include it in my VD post for 2012.  Happily, it's back in beating order this year.  There's hope for us all.

SEE ALSO (If you haven't already):

 My Valentine's Day post from last year


 March 11, 2013, at the National Arts Club
 March 21, 2013, at the Friends of the UES Historic Districts
 July 22, 2013, at the NYPL / Mid-Manhattan Branch

Thursday, February 7, 2013

To Fluoresce, Or Not To Fluoresce?

To fluoresce, or not to fluoresce?  This is the eternal question every true admirer of neon must eventually confront.  The difference between fluorescent (or phosphor-coated) tubes and non-coated neon tubes goes basically undetected by almost everyone outside the small cadre of neon practitioners, professionals and enthusiasts.  But once recognized, the two kinds of tubes are a world apart.

A burger joint on White Plains Road in the Bronx.  Pinkish tubes above demonstrate uniform glow of fluorescent/phosphor-coated neon; uncoated tubes below show the classic look of clear glass tubes.  (T. Rinaldi)
Up through the early 1930s, neon signs used clear or tinted glass tubes that offered a limited range of colors.  This changed in about 1933, when tubes lined with fluorescent or phosphorous coatings became available to sign makers.*

Display wall at Let There Be Neon.  The introduction of fluorescent/phosphor coated tubes gave neon shops a much wider range of colors from which to choose.  (T. Rinaldi)

I confess that I don't have a particularly great handle on the science involved here.  Scientists had long known of minerals that could be made to glow under the right conditions.  In the 1920s and 30s, researchers developed a means of applying a pulverized coating of these minerals to the inside of glass tubes used for neon signs.  When energized, both the gas within the tube and the applied layer of phosphorous minerals would come aglow. This innovation presaged the development of what are now known as fluorescent lamps, first introduced commercially by GE in 1938, which work on a similar principle.

Da-Nite Neon display ad from the 1940 Manhattan Classified Telephone Directory, featuring fluorescent tubes. (N-YHS)

The neon industry quickly embraced fluorescent coated tubes for two reasons.  First, they glowed more brightly than uncoated tubes.  Second and more significantly, the coatings could be made to glow in a range of colors.  New phosphorous colors have been continuously introduced since the 1930s, giving neon shops hundreds of colors and hues to choose from.  In the 1930s, the neon industry typically referred to coated tubes as "fluorescent."  The introduction of standard fluorescent lamps in 1938 muddled the nomenclature a bit, and now coated tubes for neon signs are more commonly referred to as "phosphorous" or "phosphor coated," probably to avoid confusion with off-the-shelf fluorescents.

Uncoated tubes on a c. 1930 Flexlume sign at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. (T. Rinaldi)

Despite the obvious advantages of fluorescent/phosphor-coated tubes, uncoated tubes never went away.  In fact, somewhat counterintuitively, neon professionals and enthusiasts almost universally seem to prefer their tubes uncoated.  While coated tubes glow in bright uniformity, uncoated tubes offer more visual complexity, glowing with more brilliance in the center of the tube where the gas is most dense, the candlepower dimming toward the periphery as the gas thins out.  From up-close, I sometimes find myself captivated by the light of an uncoated tube in rather the same way that one gazes into the open flame of a campfire.  Often, one can observe pulsing fluctuations in the light: the science, though less sophisticated than that at play in a coated tube, seems somehow more accessible.

Radio City marquees emerged from restoration with fluorescent tubes. (T. Rinaldi)

Customers, however, more often prefer the brightness and color range of coated tubes.  In sign restorations, the more marketable appeal of fluorescent tubes sometimes trumps historical accuracy.  This was the case in the restoration of the Radio City Music Hall marquee, whose red and blue tubes emerged from restoration some years ago somewhat brighter and more vivid than they had been originally, thanks to the use of fluorescent tubes that were not available when the sign was first installed in 1932. 

The Wonder Wheel. (T. Rinaldi)

In Coney Island however, two of New York's oldest signs retain their original look with clear glass tubes intact.  The tubes themselves have likely been replaced many times over, but the uncoated blue and red glow of the old-old signs at Nathan's and the Wonder Wheel are true to their period form, each installed around 1930.  (Later signs at both establishments make a good contrast with fluorescent tubes in various colors.) 

Nathan's. (T. Rinaldi)

With their unadulterated hues of classic red and blue, these two early signs demonstrate the look of the first generation of neon signs installed before the early 1930s.  As of February 2013, Nathan's remains closed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Here's hoping they'll both come back to light in time for summer.
*In a 1976 article, William Anthony, Jr. cites a 1933 patent issued to a German inventor called Erich Koch; Arthur Bright, Jr.'s book The Electric-Lamp Industry of 1949 dates the innovation to a French patent issued to Jacques Risler in 1926.

• "Sales Advantages of Fluorescent Tubing," by J. Kurtz in Signs of the Times Magazine, April, 1938.
• "A Brief History of the Sign Industry," by William Anthony, Jr., in Signs of the Times Magazine, September, 1976.
• "The Electric-Lamp Industry," by Arthur Bright, Jr.,  1949.

• Bad news from upstate NY, by way of Rob Yasinsac: In Canajoharie, the Beech-Nut sign, high point of interest on the New York State Thruway, is no more.
• And, via Project Neon and elsewhere, more bad news from Brooklyn: Hinsch's seems poised to bite the dust once and for all by the end of February.