Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Say Pepsi, Please

This week is your chance to speak up in support of the proposed designation of the historic Pepsi Sign in Long Island City as an official New York City Landmark.  New York's Landmarks Preservation Commission will convene on Thursday, October 8 to decide whether or not to protect the Pepsi Sign, which has been calendared for a hearing since 1988.  Built by the prolific sign makers Artkraft Strauss c.1936, Pepsi is now among the very last of many similar signs that once characterized the New York waterfront for most of the 20th century.

Pepsi-Cola, a landmark in all ways but one.  (T. Rinaldi)

To date, not a single historic sign in New York has been granted Landmark status in its own right, though other cities from Boston to Los Angeles have protected signs of similar scale.  For want of Landmark status, Brooklyn's iconic Kentile Floors and Eagle Clothes signs vanished in recent years.  You can voice your support for the Pepsi Sign by sending a short e-mail to Commissioner Meenakshi Srinivasan at:


You can read the text of my letter to Commissioner Srinivasan below.  Stay tuned for word on the Commission's decision.

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan:

I write to support the proposed designation of the historic Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City as a protected New York City Landmark.  In researching my book New York Neon (W.W. Norton, 2012), I found that enormous illuminated spectaculars such as the Pepsi Sign were once character-defining features of the New York City waterfront.   Today, it is one of the very last surviving examples of similar structures that once beamed out across the harbor from all five boroughs and New Jersey. 

For want of designated status, similar signs (Kentile Floors and Eagle Clothes, to name two) have vanished from the skyline in recent years, much to the regret of New Yorkers for whom these unique structures had stood as familiar beacons for generations.  While cultural heritage agencies in cities from Boston to Los Angeles have acted to protect historic signs like these, New York has yet to designate any such sign as a Landmark in its own right. 

Though un-designated, the Pepsi Sign has demonstrated its unique appeal as a cultural landmark in unusual ways.  It has been replicated at Citi Field, has outlived the building upon which it once stood, and has been installed as the focal point of a new public park.  Many New Yorkers, I have found, wrongly assume it has already been Landmarked.  In fact, of course, it remains unprotected, leaving it vulnerable to vanishing as Kentile, Eagle and so many other signs have vanished through the years. 

I hope you will agree that losing the Pepsi Sign would be a regrettable blow to our city’s cultural landscape.  Please act to extend protected status to a structure that today stands as a landmark in every sense but one.   


Thomas E. Rinaldi

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Papal Neon

In honor of Pope Francis' visit to our fair city, please enjoy this re-post from March 29, 2013.

It might not feel much like springtime in New York, but with Easter Sunday nigh upon us, the time seems right for an homage to those most sacred of signs.  The classic neon crucifix is a rare sight indeed these days.  Seeking out old signs for the neon book, I could find only about a dozen of them scattered across the five boroughs.  

St. Paul's House, 335 W51st Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Among these, the big neon cross that hangs over the St. Paul's House mission on West 51st Street in Hell's Kitchen is surely the best known.  SIN WILL FIND YOU OUT, it admonishes passersby in particularly in appealing midcentury letterforms from one side; the reverse is emblazoned with the somewhat more optimistic imperative to GET RIGHT WITH GOD.  The existing sign is a surprisingly faithful facsimile of an earlier iteration that had been dark for many years. 

New Covenant Holiness Church, 512 W157th Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

With its heavily commercial overtones, neon and religion seem rather odd bedfellows.  "We smile, a bit condescendingly, when we see churches bearing signs that promise 'JESUS SAVES' and similar good tidings," wrote the architecture critic Peter Blake in 1964.  But this was not always so.  Electric signs for churches began to appear early on, a response to the glittering marquees of movie houses, bars and restaurants.  Like the overwhelming ornament of baroque and rococo churches of centuries past, the intent was to dazzle the flock into submission, or at least regular attendance. 

"Electrical Signs for Church Organizations Rapidly Gaining in Popularity," reported the August 1927 issue of Signs of the Times magazine. (ST Media Group, used with permission)

New York's largest illuminated crucifix may have been one that once stood atop the Seaman's Church Institute in lower Manhattan, which was switched on by President Calvin Coolidge in a ceremony on Good Friday, 1927.  That same year New York Edison tallied more than 100 electric signs for churches in Manhattan below 135th Street alone. 

Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, 59 E2nd Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

The mass migration toward fluorescent-lit plexiglas signs after the 1960s has left precious little sacred neon in New York today. Those few neon crosses that survive are especially appealing not just for their rarity, but because they recall the lost innocence of neon's longago youth, before the signs became so indelibly linked with high consumerism and the film noir world of midway grit as to seem better suited for Saturday night than Sunday morning. 

Father's Heart Church, 545 E11th Street, Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Manor Community Church, 348-350 W26th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Manor Community Church by night. (T. Rinaldi) 

Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal, 563 W187th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Iglesia Gethsemani Pentecosta, 112 E104th St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi)

Bethel Baptist Church, 265 Bergen St., Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

Trinity Assembly of God, 138 Henry St., Manhattan. (T. Rinaldi) 

Washington Temple Church, 1372 Bedford Ave., Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi) 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Neon News and Links

 An interesting and thoughtful story on the recent neon revival by Christopher Ross at Punch (with some good quotes by yours truly).  

 Some really crappy news from Brooklyn: Montero's Bar on Atlantic Avenue is poised to join the ranks of the lost so that we can have more luxury condos.  (More on Montero's here.)

On the skids: Montero's of Brooklyn. (T. Rinaldi)

 Meanwhile, in Manhattan, word on the impending demise of the Raccoon Lodge bar on Warren Street (along with seven other neighboring bars and restaurants).  Says Eater: the developer "to tear all the buildings down and build a 46,000-square-foot condo development."

 In Queens, we have lost the big United Airlines sign at LaGuardia Airport, along with half of LaGuardia's original art deco hanger buildings.  

RIP: United Neon at LaGuardia. (T. Rinaldi)

 Via Debra Jane Seltzer, news of a new sign museum coming soon to The Dalles, Oregon (yes this is an actual place name), about 90 minutes east of Portland.

 At the Ephemeral New York blog, some love for the great W43rd Street Garage sign near Times Square.

 Uptown, the "Old Fashion' But Good" M&G Soul Food sign has resurfaced, at Streetbird restaurant at 116th and Frederick Douglass Blvd.

The M&G Diner sign, in situ back in 2008.  (T. Rinaldi)

 An "Unsung Architectural Oasis" - with lots of neon - from our friends at the NYT.

 From Project Neon, a photographic homage to the Georgia Diner sign in Elmhurst, Queens.

 "The Romance of Retro Cinemas" - a brilliant series of neon theater marquees by Stephanie Klavens, via CNN.com.

 When in San Francisco, be sure to check out a gallery exhibit of photographs by San Francisco Neon authors Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan - they're giving neon tours, too!  Details at this link

 The mysterious cemetery neon of Los Angeles.

 Spectacular images from Vancouver's midcentury neon heyday, at slate.com.  

 Out west, Debra Jane Seltzer has recently rounded off epic 14-day sign safari in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.  Start at Day 14 and work your way back. 

 Some good vintage neon (not NYC) from Shorpy:  
   "Snow's Laundry" - Columbus, GA, 1953
   "Desert News" - St. George, Utah, 1957
   "Coffee Shop Cadillac" - Boston, MA, 1964
   "Newstand Noir" - San Rafael, CA, 1957

 Not neon, but still pretty cool: original Whitney Museum signage recently exhumed down on Eighth Street in the Village.

MANY THANKS to Rob Yasinsac, Rick Zimmerman, Stu Gewirtzman, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, Debra Jane Seltzer and Martin Treu's "Signs Streets & Storefronts" Facebook feed for the leads above.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Neon Walking Tour (Plus Neon News & Links)

I'm happy to announce that I will lead two Neon Neighborhood walking tours this summer for the Municipal Art Society!  Our East Village tour will take place next Sunday, June 14, 2015.  The West Village tour is scheduled Sunday, August 2, 2015.  Book your spot through the MAS at this link (scroll down to the "Neon Neighborhood" listings) - tickets are $20 per person ($15 for MAS members) and tours proceed rain or shine.  

Greenwich Village Neon Montage. (T. Rinaldi)

Each tour lasts about two hours, during which we will make stops to admire some of the oldest neon signs in the city, discussing their origins, technical development, design history and their place in the city today.  Participants get to take part in a lively Q&A on all things neon throughout the tour, so please come along and bring your questions too!


• Belated bad tidings on the closure of Reynold's Bar up in Washington Heights.

Quietly vanished: Reynold's Bar on Broadway and 180th St. has bit the dust.  (T. Rinaldi)

• New York Neon Noir: Times Square in 1947, spectacularly depicted at Shorpy.
• Debra Jane's Roadside Architecture Blog hits the Bay Area.
• A scene from the heyday of Bay Area neon, via Shorpy.
 For the typophile: "Alphabets of Wood," a cool new book on 19th century woodcut lettering. 

"Alphabets of Wood" (ILoveTypography.com)

 Via Jeremiah's Vanishing NY, sad news on some great old signage recently trashed in Greenwich Village.

RIP Yormark Shoes. (Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)
 More typographic love: check out the "Lettering Library," a "Comprehensive Catalog of Lettering Books."
• "Written in Neon" - a luminous tube tribute a Slate.com. 
• When in Poznan, Poland, be sure to stop by this very cool looking exhibit of preserved neon signs at the National Museum of Poznan. Now if we could just do this in New York


• And finally, from the WTF department: the Federal Government recently ordered the removal of all illuminated signage in Times Square, by accident, sort of.  The Federal mandate actually contradicts city ordinances that require illuminated signs in Times Square.  Local, state and federal officials are now hard at work untangling a web of bureaucratic red tape that I imagine looks something like the giant pile of wires behind my desk at work.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ratner's Ghost Neon

The recent closure of a Sleepy's Mattress franchise down on Delancey Street has brought to light one of the city's more noteworthy neon ghost signs.  Ratner's, a kosher dairy formerly situated on Delancey between Norfolk and Suffolk streets, was an anchor of Lower East Side Judaica for nearly 100 years. In business from 1905 to 2002, Ratner's was a New York institution in league with Katz's or Sylvia's.  Its classic storefront was crowned by a pair of especially appealing neon signs. 

Ratner's exhumed.  (T. Rinaldi) 

After Ratner's closed, the neon came down (I'm told it survives in a warehouse somewhere) and Sleepy's moved in.  But the mattress retailer made almost no changes to Ratner's old storefront.  This invariably pleased me any time I walked by: the projecting display window, patterned terrazzo floor, and high-hat lights all remained - you could almost smell the onion rolls and hear the buzz of the neon.  Apparently, the ghost of that old sign was there too, tucked under newer signage. 

Ratner's ghost sign. (T. Rinaldi)

The neon (and the rest of the storefront) dated to a 1957 facelift that apparently coincided with the restaurant's takeover by Harold Harmatz, whose father co-founded the establishment with Alex Ratner in 1905 (says Wikipedia).  An older neon sign appears in a 1934 photo at the NYPL.  

Ratner's pre-facelift neon in 1934.  (NYPL)

Ratner's commemorated its grand re-opening with a large display ad in the New York Times in December 1957.  The ad names a small army of "artists and artisans who planned and executed this ambitious alteration."  These included the Salzman Sign Co. of Brooklyn, maker of the restaurant's new "neon displays."  As noted in a previous post on this blog, Salzman was one of New York's most active neon shops for much of the 20th century, producing the signs still in place at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, Gringer's appliances on First Ave., and many others.  

Ratner's grand-reopening display ad.  (New York Times, Dec. 10, 1957)

For Ratner's new storefront, Salzman created a bold, distinctive installation featuring a dynamic neon script encased in deep stainless steel channels mounted to a stone-clad storefront - a particularly sophisticated creation that the restaurant was justifiably proud of.  A very visible landmark just off the Manhattan end of the Williamsburg bridge, Ratner's neon scored a cameo in Bill Friedkin's 1971 film "The French Connection."  

Ratner's ghost script.  (T. Rinaldi)

Ratner's French Connection cameo, 1971. 

The sign was bold enough to leave an impression that survived both Ratner's and Sleepy's.  Whether it will survive the empty storefront's next incarnation remains to be seen.  If the actual neon indeed survives as the proverbial little birdie says it does, perhaps we will see Ratner's shine again.


• I am working with the Municipal Art Society to schedule more neon walking tours.  Dates to be announced here when they are set.


• Over on the east side, the neon is glowing again over the Subway Inn's new location on Second Ave.

(Timothy Fadek)

• On 125th Street, the huge old Blumstein Department Store sign has finally disappeared completely.  

RIP: Blumstein neon on 125th Street back in 2008.  (T. Rinaldi)

#SaveNYC, an organized movement to stem the extinction of New York's independent businesses, not coincidentally features a whole lotta neon on its online masthead.

• Via Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, another ancient ghost sign (not neon) unveiled on 9th Ave in Chelsea.
• Also via JVNY, check out (and consider sponsoring) this upcoming documentary on the Automat.
• At AnimalNewYork, a nice write-up on the new neon documentary film "Gasper & Son."
• Over at Shorpy, some classic neon street scenes on Broadway NYC and in Clinton, Iowa.  
• In Appleton, Wisconsin, a very cool looking neon exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle.  (Now if we could just do this in New York…)
• Finally - in Chicago, "Neon Signs Throughout the City" named to a list of Chi-town's most endangered historic resources.

Friday, February 20, 2015

La Parisienne

Yesterday, Jeremiah's Vanishing New York reported the disappearance of La Parisienne, a classic New York coffee shop (young folks would call it a "diner") at 910 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.  Despite its grandiose name, La Parisienne was a bastion of affordability, comfort and normality, hidden in plain sight just around the corner from Carnegie Hall.  

La Parisienne, July 28, 2010. (T. Rinaldi) 

The restaurant is featured in my book New York Neon with the following caption: "La Parisienne offers a haven of down-to-earth hospitality in a part of midtown Manhattan where ultra-high rents leave almost no room for even remotely ephemeral parts of the urban landscape.  Open since 1950, La Parisienne's sign appeared roughly two decades later."

July 28, 2010. (T. Rinaldi) 

The sign featured a jaunty script rendered in tricolor-esque red and blue neon, swaddled in anodized aluminum channel letters; my best guess is that it corresponds to a 1968 sign permit on file at the Buildings Dept, though there are also permits dating from the late 70s for this address.  The manager (when asked by me) had no idea when the sign went up.  The restaurant itself dated its origins to 1950 (though no establishment by that name turns up at this address in my copy of the 1954 Manhattan Yellow Pages).

July 28, 2010. (T. Rinaldi) 

With middle-finger towers of oligarch housing rising all around it, even the most naive among us had to know this place was on borrowed time.  Au revoir, Parisienne: borrowed time expired for a last sliver of New York's New York in a part of town where the city seems less itself than ever.

SEE ALSO: A Parisienne send-off at eater.com.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Subway Inn's Orphaned Neon

As reported elsewhere, the Subway Inn has happily found new digs after developers evicted the venerable neighborhood watering hole from its longtime home at 60th and Lex in Manhattan.  And the bar has taken its neon with it - some of it.  Encouraging photos posted at the Subway Inn's Facebook page show the old fascia sign in the process of restoration; the bar is slated to re-open at its new home sometime soon.  

The vertical sign however, which once beamed down 60th Street all the way to Central Park, has been left behind.  In my research for the neon book, I found that the vertical neon is actually the older of the two signs, installed in 1950.  It's a sad sight to behold now.  

Subway Inn's orphaned vertical neon, February 2015.  (T. Rinaldi)

The bar's ownership didn't reply to an e-mailed query in time for this post, but word on the street is that they were daunted by the high cost of properly dismounting and restoring the old sign, which was fully functional up until the place closed in December 2014.  Current zoning codes would likely also restrict them from installing it over their new storefront at 2nd Ave. and 60th Street.  

February, 2006. (T. Rinaldi)

Still, I would suggest that the old sign can and should be saved.  Other bars have installed signs like this indoors as decor (McHale's neon on display at Emmett O'Lunney's, for one).  

Is this perhaps the stuff of a neon kickstarter?

September 2014.  (Photo by Nick McManus / Impossible Project Prints)


• A more comprehensive Subway Inn update at Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Don't miss this great short film by Zagat, featuring the Subway Inn and the struggle of small independent businesses to stay afloat in today's New York.
• Previous coverage of the Subway Inn story at this blog, here and here.


• "Retro Signs of NYC" via AMNY and Rolando Pujol. 
• A new tenant has emerged for the former DiRobertis Pasticerria space in the East Village, via JVNY.  The new business pledges to keep much of the historic interior finishes.  No word on the neon.
• From the west coast: artist Michael Hayden's neon installation in downtown LA has just been restored and re-lit.
 Also in downtown LA: the storied Clifton's Cafeteria, home to what may be the world's longest continuously-lit neon, is set to re-open after a long rehabilitation.
 When in Orlando, FL, skip the theme parks and visit one of the country's best galleries of preserved neon at the Morse Museum of American Art.
• And finally, two old views from New York's neon heyday from the our friends at the Shorpy blog:
   ~  A westward view featuring the Hotel Dixie on 43rd Street, today's glamorous Hotel Carter, whose neon still survives.  Note too the West 43rd Street Garage neon partially at right in the photo, also still extant - just about the last vintage neon near Times Square.
   ~  A streamlined trifecta of neon, terrazzo and stainless converge in this 1950 view of an un-located NYC newsstand.

SPECIAL THANKS to Eric Evavold of the Museum of Neon Art and to Kyle Supley for some of the links above.