The LES storefront signs we’ve loved & lost (& found!)

The big, bold signage of the historic Lower East Side is part of its iconic legacy. From gold leaf Yiddish lettering on Kosher shop windows to gleaming neon marquees, the many big & busy storefront signs certainly contributed to the frenetic, frenzied atmosphere of the streets. And there are still some great signs in the neighborhood! But a lot have been lost, too.

Here are some of favorite signs we wish were still presiding over the Lower East Side today. And not only can you read about them in this blog post, you can see them all mapped out in this corresponding Urban Archive story! I think this would make a great then-and-now walking tour for our new socially distanced social calendars.

The Forward Building

Many people know the iconic Forward Building, the original headquarters of the Yiddish Daily Forward newspaper that still stands on East Broadway today. But do you know that neon once buzzed on its rooftop? Two 30,000 watt signs towered over the neighborhood – proclaiming the newspaper’s paper in Yiddish (facing north) and English (facing south). The signs could be seen from the East River bridges and all over the Lower East Side. If only they were still with us!

Today the building houses condos but the Forward newspaper is still going strong. Our exhibition Pressed: Images from the Jewish Daily Forward showcases the printing process and the iconic newspaper’s use of images during decades of reporting from the heart of Jewish culture in America. The nighttime photo shown above appears in that show.

Loew’s Canal Theatre

From the New York Public Library digital collections

There are a ton of signs competing for the attention of passers-by in this historic photo, but the marquee at Loew’s Canal Theatre takes the cake.

Built in 1926, the Loew’s moviehouse had 2,300 seats and was the second largest motion picture theater when it opened. It was a huge attraction in the neighborhood. Comedian, actor and Lower East Sider Jerry Stiller recalled going to the Loews Canal as a child:

“We used to go on Saturday morning at the Loew’s Canal. At 9 in the morning, they’d show things like the Fitzpatrick Traveltalk, cartoons and serials like Flash Gordon. By the time you got to 10:30, they’d get to the double-header, two pictures in a row. What happened was, your mother or father would drop you off at 9, and they didn’t have to pick you up until 3. That’s where we got our education.”

The theater closed in the late 1950s, and by the early 1960s the lobby was converted to retail space, while the auditorium was being used as a warehouse. Presumably, that’s when the building lost its elaborate neon signs. Today the building sits empty, only a shadow of its former glitzy self.

Ratner’s

Credit: Museum of the City of New York digital collections.

Ratner’s was a beloved neighborhood eatery, in the same league as Katz’s and Russ & Daughters. The restaurant moved to this location in 1918 and, until 1975, was a 24-hour establishment that catered to the Jewish actors, singers, musicians and even gangsters that kept nighttime hours.

The graceful neon sign shown here is the product of a remodel in the 1950s. The sign was made by the Salzman Sign Co. of Brooklyn, a legendary neon shop responsible for several still-existing neons including Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island and Gringer’s appliances on First Avenue.

After Ratner’s closed in 2002, a branch of Sleepy’s Mattress Company took over the shop. To the delight of history lovers and nostalgic New Yorkers, the mattress shop did very little to alter the charming design – it felt like a piece of Ratner’s lived on. And in 2015, when Sleepy’s closed and removed their exterior awning, the ghost sign of this Ratner’s neon was revealed. The building was later converted to an urgent care facility, and with it all evidence of Ratner’s legacy was erased.

Witty Brothers

The Witty Brothers Clothier was just one of many in the booming industry of Lower East Side outfitters. Illustrator Fritz Busse included the towering clothier sign in a midcentury book of Lower East Side views. (Our museum’s facade also makes an appearance!) Curiously, he spells the name wrong – with a final ‘e’ rather than an ‘y’. Perhaps Busse was working from memory and had simply forgotten the specific spelling when it came time to add in the sign to his drawing?

Whatever the circumstances, Busse’s drawing is one of the only remaining documents showing the Witty Brothers larger than life sign. Their building, bearing the Witty Brothers name on the facade, still stands – but sadly the rooftop sign, along with the business itself, has not survived.

Schapiro’s Kosher Wines

Founded by Sam Schapiro in 1899, Schapiro’s Kosher Wines operated on Rivington Street until 2000. Until 1967, the grapes were pressed on-location in a network of cellars that ran under the entire block! Schapiro’s sweet wines became a staple in the immigrant-heavy neighborhood for decades but in 2000 the family sold the building and relocated out of the city. A new tenant now occupies the space and the Schapiro’s signage has vanished. I found virtually no information online about the fate of the Schapiro’s sign. Is it a mystery? Signheads, give us the scoop if you have it!

Garden Cafeteria

Credit: Museum of the City of New York digital collections

The story of the Garden Cafeteria’s storefront sign is the most uplifting! This beloved restaurant had a reputation as a haunt for writers, thinkers and journalists. Its wrap-around tin and neon sign hung boldly over Strauss Square and the East Broadway stations of the F train.

The restaurant was in business from 1941 to 1983, when a Chinese restaurant took over the space. The new tenants simply placed their own awning directly on top of the Garden Cafeteria sign. So when that business closed and facade renovations began in 2005, the historic Garden Cafeteria sign was reveal for the first time in decades. Museum at Eldridge Street’s own Amy Stein-Milford and Hanna Griff-Slevin learned of the newly exposed sign and eventually negotiated to spare it from the dumpster. (Read more about that here.) Today, a portion of the massive sign hangs on the walls at our museum! It’s weathered and shows its age, but the piece is emblematic of Eldridge Street’s mission – to preserve the grand along with the quotidian, and to shed a little more light on immigrant life in the Lower East Side in the process.

A portion of the Garden Cafeteria sign hanging on the walls at the Museum at Eldridge Street.

Have your own favorite old LES sign? Please share with us!

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