Thomas Rinaldi runs the blog New York Neon, "a documentary homage to old neon signs in New York." He's also the author of a book by the same name, due out next year. I asked Mr. Rinaldi some questions about the city's neon signs. Here's what he had to say.
Why publish a whole book about neon? What's so special about neon signs that you can't get from LEDs?
I suppose the short answer is that neon signs, particularly those of a certain vintage, are an endangered species. Signs are so important to our visual experience of a built landscape--they often make more of an impact than the buildings they hang from--but that importance does nothing for their longevity. Seeing New York's old neon signs vanishing, I felt it was essential that some enduring record be made of them. Of course the big signs, the Times Square spectaculars, are well documented. But the storefront signs seemed poised to disappear with almost no trace.
I have nothing against LED signs per se--just as neon replaced incandescent bulb signs, now LED signs are coming into their own. Actually LED signs, if nicely done, can be a big improvement over the cheap vinyl awnings and acrylic panel signs that have displaced a lot of old neon signs.
What are your top 3 favorite neon signs still in existence in New York City?
We're lucky to have a lot of good ones left! The signs at Nathan's Famous in Coney Island are my favorite, easily. The vertical sign there is one of the oldest working neon signs in the world - it's been in place since about 1930, and it has the patina to prove it.
The Radio City Music Hall signs have been nicely restored--not much in the way of patina, but possibly the most elegant neon signs ever made. Installed in 1932, they're about as old as the Nathan's sign. The Dublin House sign on 79th and Broadway is also a favorite, I remember passing by it even as a kid. It's been there since 1933. Amazes me to think that these are veterans of WWII civil defense dim-outs!
How about your top 3 vanished New York neon signs that you wish still shined?
The old Colony Records sign is the first that comes to mind. It actually wasn't that old--went up around 1970 I think--but when Colony replaced it with a new sign around 2004, it occurred to me that I'd better start taking photos of these things if I wanted anything to remember them by. I also miss the great “BAR” sign that hung outside of Collins Bar on 8th Avenue and 46th Street--that had probably been there 80 years when it disappeared in 2007.
The P&G Bar sign, formerly at 73rd and Amsterdam on the Upper West Sign, is the biggest loss though. I'll never pass that corner without shaking my head in bereavement for as long as I live.
You've spoken here before about the replication of neon signs, as at the new Fedora. How do you feel about replicated neon? Is it just as good as the old?
It's a tricky issue. As with architectural restoration (which is my day job), there are good sign restorations and bad ones. When a historic sign warrants special treatment, the restoration should leave it looking as if it had just been cleaned up, not replaced outright. Original materials should be kept to the greatest extent possible. From a purist's standpoint, the colors should remain unchanged, or revert to those originally specified.
Of course, some signs get to a point of being beyond restoration. For these signs, the best case scenario might be to make a facsimile using the same materials as those used for the original, and then to find a good home for the old sign--indoors as a display piece, or preserved at the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, for example.
Why do you think neon is vanishing from the city, and so often replaced with plastic lighted signs or LEDs? Or worse--televisions!
Well, for the same reason that neon signs replaced old incandescent bulb signs in the 1920s and 30s. Vinyl awnings, plastic signs, and LEDS are cheaper, more efficient, and/or lower maintenance than neon.
In my opinion, neon marks the high point of the signmaker's craft. Neon signs could be crass or sometimes put in the wrong setting, but they were sophisticated technologically and very often aesthetically as well. And NOTHING makes a more distinctive storefront than an old neon sign today. LEDs have the potential to make some really great storefront signs. But it will be a long time before they take on the associations with old neighborhood institutions--the small businesses that give neighborhoods a sense of place--that old neon signs enjoy today.