By the time Earle C. Anthony installed his iconic, luminous Packard neon sign — the first in America — outside his Los Angeles car dealership in 1923 the “liquid fire” that had already spread across Europe was taking hold in America. Throughout the Depression, WWII and Baby Boom years, neon signs invited patrons to drink, hawked goods and helped weary travelers find their way to the nearest inn. New York’s own vintage neon can be found from velvet rope venues and world-famous restaurants all the way down to $1.50-a-beer-dives. The greatest examples, of course, are the neon signs that have been pristinely preserved over the decades, whether by serendipity or a deep and sincere dedication by the owners who love them. In a city that has a history of bulldozing, then building over its past, there are just a few of these signs left around the neighborhoods of the five boroughs (P&G Café RIP), but they still shine prominently and continue to vie for the title of oldest and most treasured. Click through for some great photos of NYC's best kept neon.
THE DUBLIN HOUSE
In 1921, John Carway, a transplant from Dublin, opened the doors to the Dublin House, a nondescript speakeasy conveniently located on the ground floor of an Upper West Side townhouse, to give his fellow Irishmen a furtive place to congregate and drink after work — just as they did in the old country without the hassle of Prohibition. Nearly 12 years later, with the end of the “noble experiment” Carway commissioned E.G. Clarke, Inc., to create one of the brightest and most distinctive signs of the era — a two-sided green harp (the national symbol of Ireland) continuously flashing “Bar” and “Tap Room,” to welcome old patrons and entice new ones. His endeavor worked as well then as it does now, where on any given Saturday night, customers can hear lively banter in thick Irish brogue over the din of the jukebox. “You come out of the subway and you’re instantly hit with the sign,” said Shamus Barnicle, sipping a Guinness. “It gives you a warm feeling when you’re so far away from home.” Although current owner Mike Cormican won’t disclose how much he pays to keep the sign prominently lit, he acknowledges it gets expensive to replace blown tubes after a wild snow or thunderstorm. But, he adds, the sign is worth it. “You can’t get that sign today — they don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” he said. “I hope it stays up forever.”
THE SUBWAY INN
Known affectionately as Le Chateau Subway to locals, the brightly lit red neon of the Subway Inn sign shines prominently across from Bloomingdale’s art-deco flagship store, although it attracts a markedly different crowd to the corner of 60th and Lex. Located two stories above a hub of underground train activity, longtime owners of the bar put up the sign in 1937 — just before the neon craze of the 40s hit the city — to attract weary commuters in need of a drink to ease their MTA pain. These days, however, quite a few patrons (or former-patrons) complain that the 70-year-old sign is better cared for than the bar itself, which many say was likely last renovated and cleaned around the same time the sign went up. “People walk through the door and say that they used to come in here 30 years ago and just wanted to stop in and see how the place looked,” said Will Sutton, a somnolent bartender from Sunset Park. “They may or may not have a beer, but all agree that nothing about it has changed much.” Nor will it anytime soon, if the longtime drunks have anything to say. Though almost lost in the development boom of the past five years, the current economy and new owners of the Subway Inn promise the dive bar — and its sign — will continue to delight and annoy Upper East-Siders for at least a few more years.
THE WHITE HORSE TAVERN
Built in 1880 on the corner of Hudson and 11th Streets, the White House Tavern’s proximity to the docks of the Hudson River made it a longshoreman’s watering hole — not the literary haunt it later became. A Jewish sign painter from Russia named Charles Karsch would begin to alter the old tavern’s character in 1946 when he crafted the White Horse’s famed neon sign; but the bar’s reputation would forever change when a drunken Welsh poet named Dylan Thomas collapsed under that sign’s rosy glow shortly before his death in November 1953. For a generation — during some of the country’s most tumultuous times — the tavern and the sign, featuring scripted red neon letters and a giant horse’s head, drew the best and the most destructive writers from Jack Kerouac (who once discovered “Go Home Kerouac” scribbled on the bathroom wall) to Anais Nin, one of the few notorious female writers to cross the tavern’s threshold. Though the sign holds a special place in hearts of West Village passers-by, Thomas’ ghost will forever reign inside the tavern, his image eclipsing the lone watercolor of the sign in the very back of the bar.
When Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker started hawking his special recipe frankfurters on the boardwalk of Coney Island 90 years ago, local lore has it that he paid bums in hot dogs to hang around his stand and attract customers. Ten years later, Handwerker settled on a different approach to advertising, installing the giant upright yellow-and-green flagship sign, the first of several large-scale neon beacons around the building. Today, the original Nathan’s stand on Surf Avenue is awash in vintage neon — some of the finest the city has to offer, according to aficionados. “New Yorkers already know the signs by heart, but when we have tourists come, they stand right under them to have their pictures taken,” said Bruce Miller, Nathan’s director of operations, adding that the company pays $25,000 a year to keep Nathan’s glowing. While redevelopment rumors at one point alluded to the replacement of Nathan’s and the signs — including the 1940s-era animated hot dog on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues – Miller says Nathan’s will remain “at the forefront” of Coney Island. “You just can’t get this kind of look anymore.”
Standing at 150 feet, Denos Wonder Wheel is already the centerpiece of the Coney Island boardwalk, but in the ride’s amusement heyday, owner Herald J. Garms and the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company ensured the wheel’s conspicuousness with several neon banners, including the animated sign on Twelfth Avenue. Constructed in 1950 and featuring a wheel with circling neon cars, the sign guards a lightly trafficked entrance to the wheel, but has nonetheless protected its notoriety — and taken some hard knocks for it. “The sign’s been hit by 18-wheelers making u-turns on a number of occasions,” said Dennis Vourderis, the current co-owner of the Wonder Wheel. “We always put it back up because it draws people in and adds to the flavor of the park.” The sign’s also a land-marked piece of New York history – part of the package Vourderis’ father, Denos, pushed through the fastidious New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1989. Still, landmark status doesn’t always keep the graffiti artists away, or Mother Nature from exacting her wear-and-tear. “Just before we open every year, we have to do extensive work on the corrosion of the sign,” Vourderis said. “The previous owners had a mesh screen over the sign to protect it from vandals, but we pulled it off. It just took away from the sign’s beauty.”
ALL PHOTOS BY MICAH BEREE