New York’s disappearing neon signs: the city flips the switch on its colorful history
From the Times Square of old to a Queens diner made famous by Goodfellas, New York City was once synonymous with neon signs – now they are nearly impossible to find
Monday 6 July 2015 11.39 EDT
The art deco sign stood watch for nearly 80 years over the bar two stories above the subway on the corner of 60th and Lexington. Then in an instant last fall, it was gone.
Many people had complained about the Subway Inn: it had long attracted the wrong types so close to its upscale neighbor, Bloomingdales. It was a glowing eyesore on a prime commercial block, and the declining interior long outweighed the drink value. But when the neon sign disappeared, the overworked, consistently distracted and famously busy city stopped and paid attention.
“In the past few years, we have been able to save three significant signs, and we saved them because all the businesses that had these signs also owned their buildings,” said Jeff Friedman, a craftsman with Let There Be Neon, the go-to rescuer and creator of custom neon in New York. “The care and interest of these signs is never there when the new owners take over the buildings.
“A lot of people were watching that sign – no one wanted it to go the way of the Kentile Floors sign in Brooklyn or the old P&G Bar sign.”
When Earle C Anthony installed his luminous Packard neon sign – the very first in the United States – outside his Los Angeles car dealership in 1923, “liquid fire”, as neon was then dubbed, had already spread across Europe but not quite grabbed New York by the collar. Ten years later, the city of New York distributed 3,400 permits for “illuminated signs”, and sign makers from the esteemed EG Clark to a Yiddish-speaking sign painter from Russia named Charles Karsch set to work on re-creating Manhattan’s cityscape.
Throughout the Great Depression, a second world war and the baby boom years, neon signs invited patrons to drink, hawked goods and helped weary travelers find their way to the nearest Times Square hotel. In a city with a history of bulldozing and building over its past, however, there remain just a few of these signs left in the five boroughs – some pristinely preserved over the decades, whether by serendipity or the deep, sincere dedication of the owners who love them.
“Russ & Daughters is a New York icon and our neon sign is a part of our history – not having that sign has never even been a consideration,” said Niki Russ Federman, one of the fourth-generation proprietors of the famous specialty food shop on the Lower East Side. Although no one knows who built the 1951 sign featuring two whitefish in downward-dog pose bookending the store’s vibrant name, when Russ & Daughters opened a cafe down the street in 2014 it chose to “painstakingly make a new neon sign inspired directly from the original”.
Most neon preservationists who want to revive a sign turn to Let There Be Neon, founded in the early 1970s by New York’s patron saint of neon, Rudi Stern. In addition to establishing a shop in which sign designers, tube benders and chemists could restore and re-create signs, Stern authored three editions of the neon bible which bears the same name as his store, a chronology and a tribute to classic signage.
“There was a time when neon was a trade that demanded design expertise and precision through many stages of a handcraft process,” Stern wrote. “As artistic feats of technical virtuosity, these electric sculptures were indelible features of our American landscape.”
New York had several virtuosos in the early days of American neon.
As prohibition ended in 1933, bar owners who had previously kept their establishments underground wanted to make a statement. Prominent sign maker EG Clarke Inc gave John Carway, the Irish owner of the Dublin House bar on West 79th Street, a 12-foot green harp whose red name is visible two blocks away.
Meanwhile, downtown, Karsch updated his skill set and started making some of New York’s best known neon pieces: the sign for White Horse Tavern in the West Village; the former P&G Bar at 73rd and Amsterdam; and one of the most technically difficult signs in the city, the Gringer GE Appliances sign on First Avenue and Second Street, commissioned by Philip Gringer in 1953.
Although unanimated, experts consider the sign a breakthrough in design due to not only the highly unusual band of yellow lettering at the bottom, but also the swirly blue GE logos – a feat of technical prowess rarely seen in earlier advertisements. “The Gringer sign is so loved by the owner, after we refurbished it, he started cleaning the porcelain face with Turtle Wax,” Friedman said.
Throughout New York’s boom and bust years, developers have taken down many classic signs as buildings change owners and aesthetic. These include some of Friedman’s favorites: the animated Fuji film sign in Times Square; the Planter’s Peanut sign, also in Times Square; and Monte’s restaurant in the East Village.
Outside of Manhattan, animated neon art such as Astoria’s Airline Diner sign – a staple of the LaGuardia-area neighborhood for more than 50 years and a notable landmark in the Scorsese film Goodfellas – and Nathan’s 70-year-old hot dog sign face gradual destruction not from zealous new landlords, but from weather and wear. Every time Queens has a hard rain, the neon outline of the flying airplane needs replacing, according to Isaac Paschalidis, one of the owners of the Airline Diner, and electricity bills can run upward of $1,000 a month.
“We have a good name, but the sign helps; people see it from all over and want to come in,” Paschalidis said on a particularly blustery June night, before gesturing toward the sign’s recently busted tubing.
Nathan’s has continually extinguished any rumors that developers would take down the signs that adorn the classic hot dog stand on Coney Island. A company spokesperson said the tourists taking photos underneath the signs make the $25,000 a year that the company pays in electric bills worth it.
But both Nathan’s and the Airline Diner own their buildings and therefore their signs – a rarity in Manhattan. Luckily, however, the owners of the Subway Inn paid for its sign and, when forced to relocate to Second Avenue, took it with them, installing the new version in March.
The owners of P&G Bar also paid for their Karsch sign in 1947 and removed it when forced to vacate in 2009. But P&G floundered for several years in its new location and closed for good without ever displaying the sign again.
“The developers in this city, they say they will save the signs – the history – if the business moves, but in the end they just don’t care,” Friedman said. “It is the New York way to tear it down and start over.
“The sign will take care of them, however, if they just take care of it.”