Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mitchell's Liquors and Other Neon News

The recent disappearance and reappearance of the neon storefront at Mitchell's Liquors up on West 86th Street in Manhattan made a bit of a stir earlier this summer.  Mitchell's had one of New York's most evocative midcentury neon storefronts, a real favorite among photographers of the city's vanishing neon signs.  It appeared in my book New York Neon, and in James and Karla Murray's books Store Front and New York Nights.  Inasmuch as a sign's job is to make a storefront stand out, Mitchell's had some of the most effective signage in New York City.

The neon glory of Mitchell's Liquors on West 86th Street.  (T. Rinaldi)

So the owner's threat to pull the signage down seemed just utterly senseless.  Alas, the signs came down in June, amid a complete renovation of this very old neighborhood business.  Normally, the disappearance of old storefront signage like this means that an old mom-n-pop has also bit the dust, pushed out by the usual rent hike.  Such signs have come to be treasured by their owners like mascots that mark their businesses as true survivors and neighborhood anchors.  But occasionally, a small business owner comes along who just doesn't share the enthusiasm the rest of us have for old neon.  The signs are finicky, expensive to maintain - time to renovate.  

Mitchell's Liquors, June 5, 2016. (T. Rinaldi)

The disappearance of Mitchell's beautiful old neon raised many a hue and cry in the internet chatterbox.  The store's old signs were gorgeous:  a fascia sign (installed 1946) composed of archetypal midcentury letterforms of the kind that inspired type designer Tobias Frere-Jones' now immensely popular font Gotham.   The lettering was wrought in red neon encased in stainless steel channels mounted to a backing of black Carrara Glass, and punctuated by a diacritical dot of ethereal blue neon that seemed able to transfix even the most impassive passerby.  A vertical sign off to one side (installed 1949) offered a bonus of pre-Helvetica lettering rendered in an appealingly-contrasting hue of green neon, similarly framed in stainless steel.  Things of utter beauty in their own right, their charm was amped up into the stratosphere by contrast with the pretty boring signage of just about every other storefront in the neighborhood.  Surely whatever the owner had on deck to replace them would pale by comparison.

Mitchell's, Then-and-Now.  No more blue dot.  (T. Rinaldi)

Then, a twist:  Mitchell's new signage debuted a few weeks later, matched so closely to the original that some casual observers weren't even sure whether these were new signs or just the old ones going back up.  The new signs are indeed new, as is given away by a few clues.  On the fascia sign, the new sign maker did a pretty good job matching the original lettering.  The new letters are a little fatter than the originals (they fill out a slightly larger space with the reconfiguration of the storefront below), but are rendered in a silvery metal (probably aluminum) that makes a good match for the old stainless, and are mounted to some kind of mystery material that does a pretty good job of approximating the old Carrara Glass.  They even replicated the little chrome strip in the glass backing.  The spacing of the neon tubes within the metal flanges gives this away as a fake-old sign (the new tubes are more deeply set within the metal "cans") but we'll give that a pass.


Mitchell's Then-and-Now. (T. Rinaldi)

The vertical sign meanwhile is a fairly dismal and uninspired rehash of its predecessor, the lettering apparently a digitally stretched and skewed Helvetica.  But maybe the biggest letdown for the sign stickler is that diacritical dot, which has utterly inexplicably gone from blue to red.  I mean - the humanity!  In the end, the final outcome here is about 1000% better than what those of us who so loved Mitchell's old signs had feared.  Far better, though, would have been to see the old signs properly restored, like a Buick of similar vintage, as has been done at places like Gringer's down in the East Village, or more recently at the Long Island Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.  Instead, an authentic artifact of the streetscape, seasoned by nearly 70 years of New York's sooty soul, has gone to neon's great beyond.


My next Greenwich Village Neon Walking Tour has been calendared!

  WHEN:   Weds, September 21, 2016, 7:30PM
  WHERE:  Greenwich Village NYC
  HOW:    Tickets available at UntappedCities here
  WHY:    To bask in the glow of the best preserve of old
          neon left in NYC!

Check out Allison Meier's awesome review of the last tour here.


• No news is good news: S&G Gross's recently abandoned LOANS sign by Penn Station has vanished.

S&G Gross, then-and-now.  (T. Rinaldi)

 And yet more bad news: Campanile Restaurant on East 29th Street in Manhattan has bitten the dust, leaving its sign poised to disappear.

Campanile in better days.  (T. Rinaldi)

• And still more bad news: Antelis Drugs over in Midwood Brooklyn has moved out of their longtime location at Elm Ave and E15th St, leaving their really beautiful old Charles Klein-designed signage to its fate. (Reports on the closing of nearby M&M Drugs appear to be erroneous.)

Antelis then-and-now. (T. Rinaldi; GooglePlus)

• Boston is set to Landmark the famous Citgo Sign.

 Old neon in chronological situ at the Shorpy blog here & here.
 Some vintage NYC signage appreciation at the Ephemeral NY Blog.
 Way out west, sign chronicler Debra Jane Seltzer has been making the rounds.
 And, with sadness, we note the passing of John Margolies in May of this year.  Mr. Margolies began documenting vanishing signs and storefronts back in the 1970s.  His 1981 book "The End of the Road" set the tone for the formal and informal documentation of commercial archeology around the world.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Greenwich Village Neon Tour

It's a date!  Please join us on Thursday, September 21, 2016 for an evening walking tour of Greenwich Village Neon.  The tour is organized by the fine folks at Untapped Cities - tickets are available here.
Casa Oliveira Liquors, 98 Seventh Avenue South, one of the stops on our tour.  

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

Hope to see you there!

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.