Thursday, June 30, 2016

Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tour

Please join me on Thursday, July 7, 2016 for an evening walking tour of Greenwich Village Neon.  The tour is organized by Untapped Cities - tickets are available here.

For reasons both various and mysterious, Greenwich Village is home to New York's densest concentration of vintage neon storefront signs.  Winding our way through the neighborhood, we will see some of the oldest neon signs in the city, and study their letterforms and design details to see how the look of New York's storefront signs changed dramatically through the years.  Stops will include venerable neighborhood institutions like Monte's Trattoria, open since 1918, and Bigelow Drugs, in business since 1838.  


WHAT:  Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tour
WHEN:  Thursday, July 7, 2016, 7:30pm
WHERE: Greenwich Village NYC / Location TBA
HOW:   Tickets available at Untapped Cities here

Put on your neon shoes and come take a walk!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Billymark's White Rose

In the ever more rarified world of West Chelsea, Billymark's, at 29th and 10th, stands out as a refreshing oasis of genuine grime.  Any time I pass by this corner, I feel myself tense up with a certain anxiety:  so endangered are such places in New York today that Billymark's survival seems tenuous at best. 

Billymark's West, 232 Ninth Ave., Manhattan.  (T. Rinaldi)

For those who haven't had the pleasure, Billymark's West (its full name - good luck finding Billymark's East) is the New York dive bar from central casting.  From its armageddon-proof terrazzo to its graffiti-sprawled bathroom with no toilet seat, there's nary a hint of affectation in its diveyness.  
Yes, Billymark's seems to have all the trappings - with one great big exception:  no neon.  Along with a certain sense of disbelief that the place is still here at all, I note this lack of neon incredulously whenever I venture out this way.  The building itself, a humble one-story taxpayer with slightly art deco flourishes in its brickwork, cries out for some stylized contraption of midcentury letterforms wrought in stainless steel and neon, something a-la the Parkside Lounge down on Houston Street, or the now long-departed Penn Bar and Grill, formerly just a few blocks away.  

One day not long ago, stuck at a red light outside Billymark's whilst on a noontime errand, I decided I'd finally get to the bottom of this by turning back the clock and seeing what this place looked like around 1980.  Such limited time travel is possible thanks to the Municipal Archives, which has made the city's 1980s tax photos available online.  The scans are fuzzy, but clear enough to reveal a pair of gorgeous neon raceway signs, their copy rendered in a classic neon script.  

332 Ninth Ave c. 1980.  (Municipal Archives of NYC)

And - bonus discovery - the photo shows that before there was Billymark's, this corner belonged to one of the White Rose bars, a now-vanished varietal of New York neighborhood wateringhole along the lines of the Blarney Stones (now also nearly vanished - one of them recently shuttered just up the block from Billymark's).  White Rose bars turn up in the backdrop of old New York street scenes by photographers such as Andreas Feininger, Charles Cushman, W. Eugene Smith, and others.

White Rose, Whitehall and Front Streets, c. 1960. (Charles Cushman)

My fleamarket copy of the 1954 Manhattan yellow pages lists about ten White Rose bar-restaurants that year.  They're all gone now, but at Billymark's one can still listen the faint flicker echoing off the terrazzo - for now.  Gather ye white neon rosebuds.

White Rose, Yellow Pages. (1954 Manhattan Yellow Pages / T. Rinaldi)


 More New York Neon walking tours are coming this summer: stay tuned for dates. 
 Join typography historian Paul Shaw for a lettering tour of downtown Newark on June 19, 2016.
 Check out my interview with Robert Stark at the Stark Truth podcast.
 Insanely old pawn shop S&G Gross has left its home of approximately 100 years on 8th Avenue near Penn Station, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported earlier this year.  NYNeon ran this study of Gross' classic neon-clad storefront back in 2013. 

S&G Gross, 8th Avenue and W34th Street. (T. Rinaldi)

 Garment District neon, at Ephemeral New York.
 Some delightful DC neon via Shorpy. 
 And finally we give you Kentile, inked.

(ryanroi on Instagram.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Talking Storefront Neon

I am very excited to be lecturing this week with James and Karla Murray, photographers and authors of the landmark books "Store Front," "New York Nights" and most recently "Store Front II."  

Please join us on Wednesday Evening (May 18, 2016) at the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.  Here are the details:

WHAT:   Mom-and-Pop Storefronts and 
        the Art of Vernacular Design:
        NYC's Lower East Side & Chinatown

WHEN:   Wednesday, May 18, 2016 6:30-8:30 pm 

WHERE:  The Neighborhood Preservation Center 
        232 East 11th Street, Manhattan (betw. 2nd and 3rd Aves.)

Click here for more info.  Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Signs by Klein

One of the happiest discoveries I made while researching New York Neon was running across a certain Charles J. Klein.  Identifying the designers of New York's old neon storefront signs was one of my main objectives in undertaking what became the New York Neon book.  But assigning authorship to the signs proved almost impossible.  Their design, I learned, typically belonged to artists from the sign painter's union.  Union sign painters often moved itinerantly from one sign shop to the next, leaving their work anonymously scattered around the city.  

Charles Klein, right, poses with Murray Higger at the Silverescent Neon shop in Brooklyn, in front of a new sign for a photographer on Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Courtesy of Phyllis Kramer)

Charles Klein was an exception, working steadily for the Silverescent Neon Sign Co. of Brooklyn during the 1950s and early 60s.  For all my research, Klein was just about the only designer I was able to definitively associate with any of the old signs I photographed for the book.  I first learned of Mr. Klein thanks to Al Higger, whose family ran Silverescent for decades. "Charlie was a great mentor for me and taught me a lot," he recalled. "The day prior to his death he took me to the local hospital to get my hand stitched.  I had a large cut on my finger, still have the scar."   

Mr. Higger remembered Klein for having masterminded the distinctive letterforms and graphic compositions that characterized Silverescent's work in those years, and for having developed a kind of a formula for drug store signs such as that of Maiman's Pharmacy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

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

Maiman's unfortunately disappeared back in 2012, taking its old sign with it.  For its handsome letterforms, its appealing juxtaposition of three colors and its prominent location at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway, Maiman's was a real favorite among fans of New York's old neon signs.  Eulogizing the sign here at the New York Neon blog, I was able to name Mr. Klein as its designer.  In a lucky turn of fate, Mr. Klein's surviving adult children discovered the post and sent me an e-mail.  His daughter Phyllis consented to an interview providing a biographical sketch of one of New York's otherwise largely anonymous midcentury sign designers.

Antelis Pharmacy, 1502 Elm Ave., Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

"Charles Jacob Klein was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on May 8, 1907," Phyllis wrote me.  "He died on May 4, 1963 at the age of 56. Way too young."

"He was proud of his work."  (Courtesy of Phyllis Kramer)

Like many in New York's sign business, Mr. Klein was the son of immigrants.  His father, Morris Klein, came to the US from Romania in the early 1900s.  An uncle, Jacob, was among those killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, when Charles would have been just four years old.

Katz's Drugs, 76 Graham Ave., Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

"Charles married Edna Nosoff in 1937," writes his daughter. "They had three children, Allen, Ira and myself, Phyllis. He spent most of his married life living in Boro Park Brooklyn. He attended High School in Bushwick, I think. There I believe he got training in drafting and possibly mechanical arts and probably sign painting, etc. Before WW2 he did some sign painting professionally.

Maiman's Pharmacy, Brooklyn.  (T. Rinaldi)

"He did not serve in the Armed Forces. During WW2 he worked as an aeronautical engineer / draftsman for Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, Long Island. He was an essential part of the group that designed the P-47 bomber. At the American Airpower Museum (a fabulous place to visit, with retired flyers as guides) there is a photo of him and his group discussing the development of this plane. His love of flying started very young. We have photos and stories of him flying in the twenties, scaring his parents by flying overhead in an open biplane. 

(Courtesy of Phyllis Kramer)

"After the War, he continued for a number of years at Republic as many planes were being converted from military to commercial use. Then in about 1948, the work at Republic ended and he went to work for Murray Higger at Silverescent Sign Company. I think he was originally hired as an electrician. But his obvious talents and artistic capabilities led him to become the chief designer there. He had a talent not just for drafting and design, but also for dealing with customers, sales and follow-up.  

(T. Rinaldi)

"Dad was always busy. He had many interests. There were the planes, always. Then in an unfinished attic room (we lived in the attic of an old three story walk-up that was really quite charming) he built a huge layout of first O gauge, and then HO gauge trains. With towns and mountains and all the adorable miniature trimmings. We all worked together on building it out of papier-mache and painting the scenery. My father would put together all the cars from kits, with all the decals on the boxcars, coal cars, flatbeds, and locomotives. I loved the caboose.

(Phyllis Kramer)

"Besides the planes and the trains, he built televisions from kits on the kitchen table. And repaired them too. He built a radio, turntable and stereo unit in the same way. Plus the cabinets to house them. He built beautiful pantry cabinets. I remember a particularly beautiful blue glass and chrome fold-away tray table that he designed. Boy, I wish I had that now. He repaired his own car. 

"We had a porch on this top floor attic. Set among sloping roofs of green Spanish roofing tiles was a lovely aerie. He painted the waist high walls as trompe-l'oiel fieldstone and built a short wooden fence so his children wouldn't tumble over. Then at the sign shop, using sheet metal, he built flower boxes painted green. They ringed the edges. Every summer we had gorgeous flowers and roses spilling over, shaded by an awning and roll-up bamboo shades. He would sit for hours and cross-pollinate petunias to get new varieties. I got my love of botany and horticulture from him. He would take me on many weekends to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. 

"He would also take Ira and I to Coney Island, most every Saturday in the summer. We got to choose five rides that we wanted to go on, and then we would go to Fabers arcade. I think that that was my favorite sign. 

Faber's Fascination, Surf Ave., Coney Island.  Made and installed by the Silverescent Neon Sign Co.  (T. Rinaldi)

"I was 13 when he died. But he had a lasting impact on his children's careers. My oldest brother Allen became a leading set and costume designer for grand opera all over the world. My brother Ira became an electrical engineer and pursues interests in aeronautics. I became a textile designer, which I did for 35 years. We were all very influenced by my father's work, always having access as we grew up to art supplies, drafting equipment and that wonderful attic to mess up.

"As a child I gave him credit for every sign in NYC. He did point out certain signs that he had designed, and was proud of his work."  Work, happily, that has endured to be admired generations after his death.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pepsi and Other Neon News

First, the big news, which happens also to be good news: the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has voted to prioritize Landmark Status (i.e. legal protection based on heritage value) for the Pepsi Sign in Long Island City, Queens.  Pepsi thus seems poised to become New York's first and only sign to be Landmarked in its own right (some other historic signs are protected incidentally if they happen to hang from Landmarked buildings).  The decision is pending confirmation by the Commission later this year.

Pepsi Ablaze.  (T. Rinaldi)

While this is basically good news, the actual ramifications of the designation remain somewhat murky.  Per Curbed: "even if the sign is landmarked, the Commission will have no say on the lettering. For example, as a commissioner wryly pointed out during the meeting, a beer company could purchase the sign from Pepsi and put up its own lettering. Where the Commission would step in would be the actual movement of the sign, so, continuing with the same beer example, if the beer company wanted to move the sign to install its own lettering it would have to come before the Landmarks Commission."

The Pepsi sign is one of just 30 sites prioritized by the Commission from its list of 95 "calendared" sites earlier this year.  65 other sites have been left to their fate.  


• More big news, also good, from LA:  the Museum of Neon Art has re-opened in its new permanent home in Glendale.  

• Related:  Blogger and sign-documenter extraordinaire Debra Jane Seltzer reports on MONA's Grand Opening.

RIP to the Stage Deli, long-time neon neighbor of the Orpheum Theatre on Second Avenue in Manhattan's East Village.

(T. Rinaldi)

• From the why-God-why department, news that one of New York's greatest ghost signs was recently senselessly obliterated on Eighth Ave by Times Square.  

Rooms 1-2-3, pre-desecration.  (T.Rinaldi)  

• A sliver of happy neon news from upstate:  the old signs of Troy's sadly-deceased South End Tavern have been preserved, restored and now displayed (scroll down) at the Rensselear County Historical Society in Troy.  The RCHS crowdsourced funding to acquire the signs last year.

(Rob Yasinsac)

• Enjoy this short video tribute to Vegas neon and the efforts to keep it alive.

• Sign art:  a gallery of sign photography by Tim Davis.

Philnea 1924 - an early neon curiosity unearthed at the Design-is-Fine blog via Memory of the Netherlands


• Ending on an up note:  New York's Carnegie Deli, a neon landmark among neon landmarks, finally re-opened last month after a prolonged closure.

(T. Rinaldi)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Hotel Neon: the Hotel Allerton

The Allerton's big neon sign, a relic of the bohemian fringe if ever an old sign was, retained its place over Eighth Avenue in Chelsea well past its time.  That such a genuine remnant of urban grit could survive so unabashedly in Carrie Bradshaw's New York seemed unbelievable, which in an odd way is partly why I never paid much attention to the Allerton.  The hotel finally closed in 2007, and I am still utterly displeased with myself for not not having photographed that old sign, which seemed just too real to be real in 21st century New York.

The Allerton, at 302 West 22nd Street, in 1994.  (Walter Grutchfield)

But the Allerton was indeed the real thing, as an excerpt from Patti Smith's book Just Kids and newspaper headlines from its last years attest.  "Chelsea residents have tried to stop the noise, crime, drugs and harassment they say come from tenants at the Allerton Hotel," wrote David Kirby for the New York Times after a murder took place there behind the flickering neon in 1998.  "The victim . . . and the other man checked into a room at the Allerton Hotel at 3:10 a.m. Monday," reported the Daily News of that particular incident.  The pair had apparently met at the legendary Limelight disco on Sixth Avenue earlier that night.  "Cops believe they went to the hotel for a sexual liaison . . . They were there for less than 20 minutes when a loud argument broke out."  One man was stabbed in the chest and abdomen; the other disappeared down West 22nd Street into the night.  

The Allerton flickering away in the mid-1990s. (Gregoire Alessandrini / NYC in the 1990s)

Patti Smith's account of the scene at the Allerton a quarter century earlier provides a sort of be-all-end-all summation of the dark world of the neon hotelJeremiah's Vanishing New York featured Smith's remembrance of the hotel in a post entitled "Patti's Allerton" back in 2011.  The Allerton passage from Just Kids serves here to provide as graphic a window into the "hotel neon" milieu as anything since Raymond Chandler first cast Philip Marlowe in that menacing red glow back in 1940.  Having run out of options, Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, then young artists struggling to catch a break, checked into the Allerton as a last resort:  "We left most everything behind . . . traveling across town to the Hotel Allerton on Eighth Avenue, a place known for its very cheap rooms,"  writes Smith:

These days marked the lowest point in our life together.  I don't remember how we found our way to the Allerton.  It was a terrible place, dark and neglected, with dusty windows that overlooked the noisy street.  . . . The springs of the ancient mattress poked through the stained sheet.  The place reeked of piss and exterminator fluid, the wallpaper peeling like dead skin in summer.  There was no running water in the corroded sink, only occasional rusted droplets plopping through the night . . . .

The place was filled with derelicts and junkies.  I was no stranger to cheap hotels. . . .  There was nothing romantic about this place, seeing half-naked guys trying to find a vein in limbs infested with sores.  Everybody's door was open because it was so hot, and I had to avert my eyes as I shuttled to and from the bathroom to rinse out cloths for Robert's forehead. . . . His lumpy pillow was crawling with lice and they mingled with his damp matted curls.
I went to get Robert some water and a voice called to me from across the hall.  It was hard to tell whether it was male or female. . . .  He had once been a ballet dancer but now he was a morphine addict, a mix of Nureyev and Artaud.  His legs were still muscled but most of his teeth were gone.  How glorious he must have been with his golden hair, square shoulders, and high cheekbones.  I sat outside his door, the sole audience to his dreamlike performance, drifting through the hall like Isadora Duncan with chiffon streaming as he sang an atonal version of 'Wild Is the Wind.'

He told me the stories of some of his neighbors, room by room, and what they had sacrificed for alcohol and drugs.  Never had I seen so much collective misery and lost hope, forlorn souls who had fouled their lives.  

The Allerton, still hangin' in there in 1999.  ( / Verplanck)

The horrors of the Allerton drove Smith and Mapplethorpe to seek refuge at another neon-crested hotel around the corner - the Chelsea Hotel - where things took a turn for the better.  

The Allerton had opened its doors in a very different era, back in 1912.  Its origins are traced by historian Walter Grutchfield at his superb web site  Grutchfield relates that this was actually the first in what grew to become a chain of at least five hotels by the 1920s, run by one James S. Cushman, a member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants, who named the enterprise for a Mayflower ancestor called Mary Allerton.  Architectural historian Christopher Gray tells us that in their day, the hotels offered "club-type lounges, gyms and laundries" intended to serve a clientele of white collar workers, "but by the 1930s, the Allerton corporation faltered, and the buildings were converted to conventional hotels."

By the late '90s, the 22nd Street Allerton had become a make-shift shelter for the city's Department of Homeless Services.  Its crumbling neon sign made way for a nondescript replacement around 2003.  The beleaguered old hotel finally succumbed a few years later, by then starkly out of place in a city that seemed hellbent on shaking off all traces of its wayward past with the fervor of a born-again zealot.  The building was subsequently gut-renovated and reopened as the Gem Hotel, a boutique hostelry whose rooms offer "down pillows, free WiFi, flat screen TVs, coffee makers and free bottled water."  Foragers Market, a "gourmet grocery store" on the ground floor, sells 45-gram packs of spaghetti for $7.99. 

Walter Grutchfield notes that a remnant of the Allerton's old signage remains in place on the facade.  One wonders if that old neon sign, had it survived just a few years longer, might have been kept around as a nostalgic gesture to bygone grime, now just a flickering memory. 

The Allerton reborn, sans-neon. (T. Rinaldi)

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


 If you haven't gotten to it yet, Just Kids is a must-read.
• Jeremiah's Vanishing New York visits the Allerton, here and here.
• Walter Grutchfield on the Allerton's origins.
 Gregoire Alessandrini's photographic timeport back to New York in the '90s.
 A fantastic field guide to other backdrops from Just Kids by Alison K. Armstrong and Fiona Webster.