Friday, July 29, 2011

New York Neon

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.


Marty Wombacher said...

Great post! I love neon signs. And I really miss the P&G sign as well. Steve, who runs the new P&G Tavern told me they still have the sign, but it will cost them thousands of dollars to refurbish it to get back to where it will work again. We need to bring that sign back!

James Taylor said...

Great post. I've been photographing neon signs meticulously for the best part of a year, initially for fun, though it soon became a full-blown obsession (I made the mistake of walking down Eighth Ave one evening last summer and from there the thing sort of spiraled out of control.) I've been meaning to publish my finds but I'm still in the process of editing them.

Besides the fact that they are dwindling historic artifacts what strikes me is how often neon is used in less-obvious contexts, plus the sheer variety and inventiveness of their designs. They add up to a nice visual representation of the city, its inhabitants and their daily habits.

Anonymous said...

Ahh Dublin House. I miss that place(cause im far away).

Katrink said...

Farrell's in Brooklyn had a great neon sign that blew down during the Christmas blizzard. They put up a new one that is a pretty good recreation, but happily, restored the old one as well and it hangs in the back of the bar - next to the internet juke box. I never thought I'd see an internet juke box in Farrell's!
Always loved the P&G sign, the pub itself, and the cast of irregular regulars therein. There aren't many real "neighborhood" bars in Manhattan anymore.

Joachim Moralis said...

Great post.As an Neonglasblower & Signmaker in The Netherlands,i must say it's a big loss when a neonsign is replaced with a LED sign.Its not true that's cheaper in maintenaince & electricity costs.I have made neons that are still working after 18 years,with no maintenance.So what is "expensive".

LED has still to prove it selves that it can last as long as neon.Neon has prove his self over 100 years.

Here is an interesting link :
The truth about NEON vs. LED Don't be misLED !

Anyway its sad to see that there are so many neon-landmarks are disappearing,& what comes back for it.Also in our Neonbusiness here we are losing the battle to metal channel letters with acrylic fondsheets filled with "PowerLEDs".

I,m one of the 35 neonglasblowers left in our country,no neonschool any more (for years).Also several neon suppliers in Europe have
quitted.All these signals say to me:"Neon is dying"(it hurt's me to say that)

About Neonfabrication The Netherlands : we use Sodiumglass-tubes (of the 3rd Hydrolitic Class) & we coat the inside of these tubes AFTER bending it in shape.The glassdiametres are from 12/13 till 25 cm. (More diameters in tubing,more craftmensship is needed,to bend & shape.) Common in The Netherlands from 17/18 mm diametres) Also design,mesurements are City-councel ruled.Flashing or animation of signs is forbidden in The Netherlands.