From A to Big Apple

For nearly 30 years, I have been photographing lettering I see during the course of my daily ramblings in New York. Until last year, the process had been random, driven by the vagaries of where I was, what happened to catch my attention, and whether or not I had my camera—originally a heavy Nikon FE7 and later a lightweight Olympus—with me. But in 2005—spurred initially by the purchase of a digital SLR camera and then increasingly by alarm at the destruction that has accompanied the frantic pace of condo-ization in Manhattan—I began to systematically record the lettering of New York.

The project has been sustained by a series of lettering tours of the city that I have led since last summer. The first tour was undertaken as part of TypeCon 2005, while the subsequent ones have been sponsored by the Type Directors Club. So far, the tours have covered the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Midtown, Tribeca and the Financial District. And the next tour (scheduled for April 2007) will include sections of Brooklyn.

When I first began photographing letters in New York, I was often looking for material to use in “Designing with Letters,” a class I taught at the School of Visual Arts in the early 1980s. I was principally interested in examples of different design strategies involving letters: the use of line, rhythm, pattern, form, space, substitution, mutation or alteration, ornament and color. It was a time when the modernist and classicist view—that the function of words, and therefore letters, was to neutrally communicate ideas and information—was still ascendant. Inspired by the writing of Nicolete Gray and Massin, as well as the examples of Herb Lubalin, Hans Schmidt and Imre Reiner (among others), I set out to find instances of lettering that were expressive rather than invisible. But in recent years, my criteria have changed greatly.

I now photograph environmental and architectural lettering for a variety of reasons:

  1. To record examples of historical styles
  2. To preserve a record of urban, architectural or design history
  3. To show how specific materials and techniques affect lettering
  4. To show how lettering can (or cannot be) integrated into the built environment
  5. To save specific, often unique, interpretations of individual letterforms
  6. To capture mistakes in letterform construction, typography or design
  7. To savor lettering that is aesthetically pleasing or amusing

Not all of the lettering is “good”—whether from a classical viewpoint or a modernist one—but it is always informative and worthy of examination. What follows are notes on some New York lettering that run the gamut of styles, techniques, materials and purposes.

The oldest extant lettering in New York is to be found on tombstones. The churchyard of Trinity Church (Broadway at Wall Street; Richard Upjohn, 1839-1846), which dates to 1681, has a particularly pleasing group of stones from the 1750s and 1760s cut by Uzal Ward of Newark. The tombstone of Mary Dalzell (d.1764) embodies all of the carver's hallmarks: a winged angel's head with droopy cheeks à la Richard Nixon, vigorously designed and deeply cut letters in the English tradition, and a layout that seems to have been made up on the spot. Note the strongly bracketed serifs, the subtle bowl of a, the trumpet-like crossbars on f and t, the delicate flourishes on c and s, and the smaller words tucked in at the ends of lines. This is lettering that puts most gravestones to shame (Figs. 1, 2, 3).

New York’s continual and relentless cannibalization of its past means that it does not have the richness of historical styles that characterize Rome, Paris, London and other major European cities. Yet, the sheer size and energy of the city has guaranteed that there is still a wealth of intriguing lettering to be discovered—even if some of it is under constant threat of destruction. The historical styles that dominate New York architecture are gothics (sans serif) and Egyptians (1850-1890), revived classical capitals (1900-1940), Gothic capitals and uncials (1910-1940), and Art Deco (1920-1940). There are surprisingly few examples of Art Nouveau or the Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s and 1890s.

Gothic (sans serif) and Egyptian letters are most often found on late 19th-century industrial buildings as well as on apartment buildings dating from 1880 to 1910. A lengthy instance of the former is the ex-Merchants Refrigerating & Ice Manufacturing Co. (27 N. Moore Street; William H. Bickmire, 1905)—now a condominium called The Ice House—while the former Woods Mercantile Building (46-50 White Street; 1865) is a stunning example of Ionic capitals, including a beautifully curved middle line of text. (Also note the inverted apostrophe in Wood’s.) Both building names are in raised stone—common during this period—which is perfectly suited to the sturdy Gothic and Egyptian letterforms (Figs. 4, 5).

London is full of late Victorian buildings with huge reddish terracotta dates on them. One of the few examples from New York—though restrained in comparison to its British counterparts—is an 1888 building in Tribeca. The date, on a delightfully ornamented band, is split in half by a column. The numbers—with characteristically asymmetrical 8s—have been painted white, which makes them more visible, but less homogeneous (Fig. 6).

The former Excelsior Power Co. Building (33-48 Gold Street; William Milne Grinnell, 1888)—now apartments—is a Romanesque Revival monolith with an equally gutsy nameplate. The proto-Art Nouveau letters, one of the great examples of architectural lettering in New York, are cast in metal and affixed by screws. Oddly, the date does not match the nameplate. Instead, it is cast in terracotta in Gothic revival style (Fig. 7). (Compare the numbers to those on the Tribeca building.)

New York is awash in examples of classical revival capitals on buildings. They are most often incised in limestone or granite, but can also be found cast in bronze and copper. The capitals vary widely in quality from building to building with some being tepid imitations of their Roman forebears while others manage to achieve that difficult balance between robustness and delicacy. A prime example of the latter (though not without its flaws) is the inscription on the Municipal Building (Centre Street at the end of Chambers Street; McKim, Mead & White, 1907-1914). “AMSTERDAM” is impeccably designed, spaced and carved while “MANHATTAN” is notable for its courageous use of ligatures. Too bad the Y and K (neither original Roman capitals) in “YORK” are so weak. In contrast, the nameplate on the Bricken Arcade Building (230 West 38 Street; 1924) in the garment district is a distinctive example of loosely interpreted classical Roman capitals cast in bronze. Some letters (e.g., N) are pure, while others (e.g., R) betray Art Deco influences in their idiosyncratic proportions. Although the letters are well spaced, they lack presence (Figs. 8, 9, 10).

Inscriptions based on versals (medieval initial capitals that often mix roman forms with uncial ones) are common on university buildings and churches constructed in the first three decades of the 20th century. Surprisingly, such letters can also be found on a number of skyscrapers from the period. The name of Union Theological Seminary (Broadway from West 120 Street to West 122 Street; Allen & Collens, 1906-1910 ) is carved in relief in chunky versals (with uncialesque H, M and N) on a ribbon that ripples across the narrow band above the central entrance. They are powerful letters, befitting the seminary's serious purpose. In contrast, the incised and gilded Gothic capitals (with uncial M and W) over the entrance to the Garment Wear Arcade (306 West 37 Street) are well designed, but the overall effect is anemic. The letters are small and thin, and the words are poorly spaced. These shortcomings are accentuated by two flanking rosettes (Figs. 11, 12).

New York is famous for its skyscrapers, so it is no surprise that it is rich in outstanding examples of Art Deco lettering. Much of it is on familiar architectural landmarks such as the Empire State Building, the former McGraw-Hill Building, the Daily News Building and, especially, those that comprise Rockefeller Center. But the city also has lesser-known gems. Two are visible only to the eagle-eyed and/or the curious. A neon sign for Longchamps, a defunct chain of restaurants, improbably survives on Madison Avenue in the ’40s. Its extended monoline sans serif letters are perfect suited to the vertically stacked design. Mosaic lettering—reminiscent of 1920s typefaces such as Broadway—lurks under the awning over the 34th Street entrance to 7 Park. The design, in gold, black and white, tiles says “The Green Park”. It is improbably surrounded by a limestone lunette with carved celtic and medieval decorations (Figs. 13, 14).

Lettering on buildings rapidly disappeared with the rise of the International Style after World War II as architects sought to strip out all ornament. The notable exceptions are the Guggenheim Museum and Lever House. The lettering along the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum—assuredly designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself—is unique in being constructed out of v-cut metal inset into concrete (Fig. 15). Although postmodern architecture claimed to learn from Las Vegas, it largely failed to come to grips with the role of lettering. The two prominent instances in New York where letters (or, more properly, numbers) have been treated in a postmodern manner are due to the intervention of graphic designers rather than architects: 9 West 57 Street (the Solow Building; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1974) and 127 John Street (Emery Roth & Sons, 1971). The large, freestanding red 9 on the sidewalk in front of the Solow Building is the work of Chermayeff & Geismar while the enormous electric clock adjacent to 127 John Street was conceived by Rudolph de Harak of Corchia-de Harak Associates. Unfortunately, the clock—whose Standard (Akzidenz Grotesk) numbers originally lit up to mark the hours, minutes and seconds—no longer functions properly; and most of the other elements that Corchia-de Harak contributed to the office building (including a corrugated metal tube with fluorescent lighting that served as an entrance to the building's lobby) disappeared when it was converted to luxury apartments several years ago and renamed “200 Water Street” (Figs. 16, 17).

Most urban lettering is in stone, but there are other materials that have been used: wood, brick, terracotta, tiles, metal, neon, glass, plastic and paint. Wooden lettering was common in the 19th century, but little of it survives today, and it is no longer a popular material. One sign that is still intact, though warped and faded, is for D. Rich Co. located at the top of a modest brick building on Church Street in Tribeca. Letters assembled from bricks are equally rare. An unusual example in that it appears on a building more than five stories high is the Dover Building in the garment district. Terracotta letters were quite common in the late 19th century and a fair number of examples survive, among them the roundel for the former American Express Co. building on Harrison Street. (Note the seriffed X amidst the sans serif letters.) Letters made from tiles are usually found inside buildings rather than outside, but an astonishingly sophisticated instance of the latter is B. Fischer & Co., which appears on a building Greenwich Street in Tribeca (Figs. 18, 19, 20, 21).

Metals used to fashion letters include bronze, copper, iron, steel and aluminum. Most metal letters are affixed directly to the building’s surface, but some are raised by metal rods. Such letters can often be hard to read in bright sunlight as they become entwined with their shadows. Metal’s strength allows letters to also be positioned vertically on roofs, canopies or porticoes such as the script lettering of The Brevoort, an apartment building in Greenwich Village (11 Fifth Avenue; 1956) (Fig. 22).

Neon signs are a staple of 20th-century urban lettering. Most of my favorites in New York tend to be for old bars and diners, such as the one for the Collins Bar (735 Eighth Avenue). (The bar also has a wonderful late 1930s or 1940s sheet metal sign.) An older technique for identifying a business is gold leaf lettering on plate glass, a standard part of the signwriter’s repertoire from the 1880s to the 1950s. A relatively new example of the technique is the design I did for Barolo, a restaurant at 398 West Broadway, in the late 1980s. The name is pure lettering, but the other elements are modified versions of 19th-century typefaces. Since the 1960s, plastic letters have become ubiquitous in the urban environment. Most of the time they are associated with fast food restaurants and other franchises, but today they show up on more upscale businesses as well. See the sign for Ixta, a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar on East 29th Street (Fig. 23, 24, 25, 26).

Before there were billboards and neon, signs painted on the sides of buildings used to be the most common means of advertising a business. Many of these signs from the early 20th century—and sometimes even from the 19th century—still survive in older cities, especially those with rich manufacturing pasts. Dubbed "ghost signs" because they are inevitably faded and often surface when older buildings are demolished to make way for new ones, they are not only of interest aesthetically, but also historically. They remind us of past products, businesses and even entire industries that no longer exist. The ghost signs on the building now inhabited by Miya Shoji (109 West 17 Street), a manufacturer of Japanese screens, indicate that it once served as a carriage house (Fig. 27).

Nearly all of the inscriptions and signs discussed here involve handmade letters. That is, there are no typefaces. The exceptions are the red 9 of the Solow Building, the 127 John Street clock numbers and the subline on the Itaxa restaurant sign. But, since the 1960s, typefaces have increasingly replaced handmade letters in the environment. As they do so, the visual appearance of cities—especially thriving ones like New York—becomes more and more homogeneous. This trend has gone hand-in-hand with the increasing blandness of contemporary buildings. If we want our cities to retain their personalities, we must recognize and preserve the distinctive lettering of the past along with the buildings and other structures they accompany, and we must create equally compelling lettering for the present and the future.

About the Author: Paul Shaw is a calligrapher and typographer working in New York City. In his 20 professional years as a lettering designer, he has created custom lettering and logos for many leading companies, including Avon, Lord & Taylor, Rolex, Clairol and Esté Lauder. Paul has taught calligraphy and typography at New York's Parsons School of Design for over 10 years and conducted workshops in New York and Italy. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe.