The saying goes, “Bright Lights, Big City” — and classic neon signs are a shining beacon of that legacy. But due to rent increases that are shuttering old-school establishments and cheap LED technology, they’re fast disappearing.
Earlier this year, COVID-19 claimed the life of the Palomba Academy of Music in the Bronx, which closed after 64 years in business. Its historic, 25-foot-long neon sign — a sleek, stainless steel beauty with an exposed front that was threaded through with pink and turquoise — seemed to be headed for the scrap pile.
“Everything about this sign works perfectly,” said Jeff Friedman, the 64-year-old owner of Let There Be Neon, the long-standing downtown manufacturer and supplier of neon signs. “Everything about it is quite classic.”
The second Palomba shut its doors, preservationists scurried to save the signage. James and Karla Murray, a pair of architectural and interior photographers, launched a Kickstarter campaign in September to raise $5,500 to take down the sign and transport it to the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, where it will be on display, and to document the process for a short film.
The drive netted a total of $7,556.
“It really means a lot to me — I grew up in the Bronx and I got my first keyboard [at Palomba],” said Karla, 52. “Preserving this neon is preserving a part of New York’s history.”
Neon may still be synonymous with the big city lifestyle, but in fact New York caught on to the neon trend late. In 1898, a London chemist named William Ramsay found that isolated neon glowed when electrified. Across the English Channel, French entrepreneur Georges Claude — who eventually started his own Claude Neon company — saw its eye-catching potential for advertising. He installed the first neon lamp in Paris in 1910, according to Christoph Ribbat’s history of neon: “Flickering Light.”
It wasn’t until 1924 that the Big Apple got its first neon advertisement.
“The first [signs] were typically put up by big corporations,” said Thomas Rinaldi, the author of the book “New York Neon.” “Every little sign shop in New York jumped into the business, and they spread like wildfire. [Neon] was an icon of the very cutting-edge, of the most modern you could be.”
Some of the earliest signs advertised Loft’s Candies and Willys-Overland Motors, which is considered the first roof sign in Times Square — NYC’s original neon hub.
Between 1923 and 1955, there were some 75,000 outdoor electric signs in the city, many of which were neon, according to Rinaldi. Today, only around 200 to 300 of the glowing landmarks remain in use.
“It’s almost a dead breed,” Rinaldi said. “[Neon signs] started to disappear by way of attrition. They stopped being installed.”
Though times have moved on, New York still boasts a few 20th-century neon masterpieces — listed below — that survive thanks to the loving stewardship of their owners.
A downtown icon
In 2007, the long-illuminated neon sign atop Russ & Daughters — the famed East Houston Street market — came down briefly to be refurbished. The owners had a makeshift vinyl replacement ready to install, but in the short period the facade stayed bare, die-hard customers feared the worst.
“I think somebody drove by in a cab, and they saw this happening and they posted it,” said Niki Russ Federman, 42, who co-owns Russ & Daughters with her cousin, Josh Russ Tupper. “The word spread, and all of a sudden we were getting frantic calls, frantic e-mails, people coming to the store. Someone brought flowers . . . this meant that [we] were closing.”
The fish-shaped sign, whose designer isn’t known, is believed to date to the late 1950s or early 1960s — and has served as a signature ever since.
“It was a way for this tiny little shop to stand out,” said Russ Federman.
The insignia has become so linked to Russ & Daughters that as the business expanded, into a nearby Lower East Side cafe and another location in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the owners commissioned similar-looking neon signs to mark their exteriors.
“It’s a statement [of] how much we believe in neon and want to really celebrate it,” she said.
A labor of love
Just because it’s an appliance store doesn’t mean it can’t be flashy.
At 29 First Ave. in the East Village, Gringer & Sons Appliances makes a bold statement with a neon sign showing two curvy GE logos, a yellow-lettered row advertising “Refrigerators, Ranges, Washers, AirConditioners,” and a semi-cursive “GRINGER” in a red hue — all over a blue porcelain base.
Commissioned by the late owner Philip Gringer in 1953, and crafted by a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Russia named Charles Karsch, it’s still regarded as an advancement in neon design. Not only is the color yellow unusual for neon signs, but the twisty GE logos also required a master’s touch.
“I keep it going because that’s our trademark, that sign,” said 67-year-old Mike Weinman, who began working at the store 45 years ago and has owned it for nearly 40. “That sign is our baby. I treat it like I treat my two kids.”
Over the years, Weinman has had it refurbished twice, and keeps it looking sharp with turtle wax.
“It shines it up,” said Weinman. “People come by and marvel that it’s still working, too.”
It wasn’t always that way. When he began working there, Weinman said the sign’s lights were out because the then-employees didn’t maintain it. So he took it upon himself to be its guardian.
“For the last  years, I’m making sure that it works every day,” he said.
A future in flux
Murray Hill’s Clover Delicatessen was well-known for its baked goods, such as black-and-white cookies and rugelach. Most of all, locals celebrated the Second Avenue storefront for the handsome neon on both sides of its corner facade.
In August, the business — which reopened in 1957 after being forced to close the original location a year prior, and survived through three generations of family ownership — shut its doors for good. The COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst, but the family also simply wanted to move on.
“It was our time to leave,” said 47-year-old Chris Cuttita, who co-owned Clover with his cousin, Francis Cuttita, since the mid-1990s.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road for the beloved neon wrap, which was designed by a company named Globe Neon in 1957.
“It’s going to stay with the new tenant or [another] possibility is donating it to a sign museum,” he said. “I knew the sign was special, but not as much as what I’ve learned since we closed.”
When the business announced it was closing, locals starting sharing their memories of the display on social media. On Instagram, one commenter said, “Please somehow take that neon with you, don’t let it get destroyed.”
Over the years, the sign was constantly photographed — and even became a subject for glam photo shoots. One woman dressed up in period attire and used it as a backdrop for a shoot inspired by “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“It was a spectacle some days,” said Cuttita.
An unusual design
“That was designed before I was born,” said Michael Cormican, the 61-year-old owner of the Dublin House bar on the Upper West Side, of its neon street siren: a two-sided green harp with eight strings.
The sign likely dates all the way back to 1933 — when the bar’s lessee, John P. Carway, commissioned E.G. Clarke Inc. to design it — which would rank it among the oldest in the city.
Its appearance has been slightly altered. The sign’s lower banner originally advertised the word “RESTAURANT,” which in later years was covered by “TAP ROOM.”
“It’s the key thing to the Dublin House,” Cormican said. “Everybody loves the sign. I get comments from anybody who comes in.”
Cormican admits that because of its age, it does require maintenance, but it’s for a greater good.
“We’re trying to keep it going as long as we can,” he said.
A second chance
Despite losing its lease and being booted from its 77-yearlong home by developers in 2014, it wasn’t last call for the Subway Inn — and it wasn’t lights out, either.
In 2015, the dive bar opened up a new home at 1140 Second Ave., just two blocks from its longtime home at 143 E. 60th St. Its famed neon sign came along.
“The sign just happened to fit perfectly,” said 40-year-old Steven Salinas, an owner and manager of the bar, of the roughly 18-foot-long and 2 ½-foot-high display that now adorns its new facade. “It was kind of meant for us to be in this corner.”
A portion of the sign — a vertical addition that said “BAR” on both sides — was donated to a museum. What remains was restored to good-as-new condition.
“This is what makes the Subway Inn the Subway Inn,” added Salinas. “It’s the legendary sign you’re talking about.”
The sign traces back to the early 1940s, just a few years after the bar opened in 1937. The original owner, the late Charlie Ackerman, commissioned it from an unknown designer because he “wanted the visibility.”
Over the years, the original Subway Inn lured in high-profile patrons including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. When the bar’s lease ran out, its owners had to fight for the future of the sign — and even took the battle to court. In 2014, a judge ruled in the Subway Inn’s favor. Bar staff took the heavy sign down and walked it over to its new home.
“It felt like New York was saved again,” Salinas said.
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