Lettering Grows in Brooklyn

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , signage , Voice , typography

Looking for lettering in New York's outer boroughs is not as easy as it is in Manhattan, due to varying patterns of growth, decay and, in some cases, rebirth. The outer boroughs are more residential and less commercial than Manhattan, yet they also retain more of the city's dwindling industrial areas. To a lesser extent they have avoided—cross my fingers—the trend toward “luxo-condo-ization.” But if any borough promises to be as rich as Manhattan in lettering it would be Brooklyn, which was actually a thriving metropolis prior to the 1898 consolidation that led to present-day greater New York while the other boroughs were largely rural.

In Brooklyn, commercial and industrial neighborhoods are the best places to find lettering since the buildings there have names, mottoes and other inscribed lettering as well as more obvious signage. In residential areas, walk-ups and tenement buildings from the end of the 19th century and Art Deco era offer prime examples, while the abundant brownstones and row houses—not to mention housing projects of the 1950s and '60s—are not as conducive.

Last spring, in preparation for a talk on lettering at the Coney Island Museum, I surveyed as many Brooklyn neighborhoods as I could. During the months of March and April I managed to record lettering in roughly half of the borough. I walked Greenpoint, Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, Bushwick, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Flatbush, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Dyker Heights, Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and more. Walk with me through some of the highlights.

(Clockwise, from top left) Greenpoint: #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.


1. Kent Street and Union Avenue
Old street signs—those that are integrated into buildings as they are in Bath, England—are rare in New York. Along with this one I have seen one in Greenpoint (Franklin and Java Streets), one in Brooklyn Heights (Willow and Orange Streets) and one in Tribeca (Beach and Hudson Streets). There are undoubtedly others. What makes this street sign the most interesting of them all is that Union Avenue no longer exists. It is now Manhattan Avenue.

2. Manhattan Building's [sic] (1883) / 882–886 Manhattan Avenue
Many buildings erected in the late 19th century have their names displayed in their pediments, but these—the pediment spans two buildings—are unusual for the diagonal arrangement of the lettering. Note the apostrophe, which is not only oddly rotated but also mistakenly placed.

3. Leviton Manufacturing Company (c. 1906) / 236 Greenpoint Avenue
At a distance the lettering looks like injection-molded plastic, but it is actually two colors of terra cotta.

4. Manhattan Furrier (c. 1940s) / 685 Manhattan Avenue
Neon in disrepair always looks great. The faded enamel colors, rust and missing tubes create an elegiac quality, a reminder of the years—from the aftermath of World War I to the Sputnik era—when New York was at its most glamorous. Fortunately, this is not the only decaying neon sign in Brooklyn.

5. Syrup of Figs (c. 1910) / Greenpoint Avenue and Franklin Street
Websites devoted to ghost signs seem to be a growth industry. But most ghost signs are—from an aesthetic perspective—fairly pedestrian. This one for Syrup of Figs (a laxative) is among the best not only in Brooklyn, but in the entire city.

(Clockwise, from top center) Williamsburg: #6,# 7, #8, #9 and #10.

Williamsburg (Northside and Southside)

6. Brooklyn High School of Automotive Trades (1937) / 50 Bedford Avenue
This school, on the border between Greenpoint and Williamsburg's north side, was one of the first of the city's many specialized high schools. These severely beautiful, geometric sans serif capitals with a whiff of Art Deco—note the E and T as well as the striations in the recessed background—are not unique, as similar lettering can be found on other Depression-era buildings in New York City. Over the main entrance there is an inscription that reads: MANHOOD / SERVICE · LABOR / CITIZENSHIP. Despite this, the school admits female students today.

7. Roebling Tea Room (2005) / 143 Roebling Street
Ghost signs are not only reminders of past products and services, but they are examples of sign painting, a once-thriving profession that is now under assault. For the past thirty years the design and fabrication of signs has been increasingly computerized. The result is that standard fonts are replacing hand lettering, and plastic and vinyl are replacing paint, wood and metal. In this context the Roebling Tea Room sign is a welcome throwback, its dimensional letters perfectly in harmony with the work of its namesake. The colors are those of the City of New York.

8. Ortiz Funeral Home (c.1910) / 201 Havemeyer Street
This building is interesting both for the funeral home's old neon sign and the terra cotta or stucco letters spelling out Edison Building below. Judging by the style of the letters—which are pre-World War I—the building's owner was the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York, which became the New York Edison Company in 1920, the predecessor of today's Con Ed.

9. Boundless NY (2007) / 143 Roebling Street
The letters forming the name of the Boundless NY store are some of the most exuberant and amusing in all of New York City. These escaped convicts are as manic as any Keystone Cops. Signed by street artist RATE.

10. 132 Havemeyer Street
Perhaps the wildest street address in the city. The cubic numerals seem inspired by Block-Up, an alphabet in Fantastic Alphabets (1976) by Jean Larcher. Just to make sure the mail arrives safely, a dull “132” in red has been added along with words pointing out the location of the mail slot. Sometimes redundancy is essential.

(From left) East Williamsburg: #11, #12, #13 and #14.

East Williamsburg

11. 109 South 9th Street (1890)
Nineteenth-century buildings rarely have cornerstones. Instead, the dates of their completion are usually placed somewhere high up on the facade. Often the dates are in terra cotta. This one has been carefully painted gold—evidence of a building owner who respects architecture and the past.

12. Kings County Savings Bank (now Williamsburg Art and Historical Society) (c. 1868) / 135 Broadway
The entrance to this former bank building, designed by architects King and Wilcox, has two wooden doors with interlaced “KC” on the left and entwined “SB” on the right. The inventive monograms are the oldest lettering that I have found in New York City (not including gravestones). The AIA Guide to New York City dates the building to 1868, but the cornerstone says 1860.

13. Laskas Flower Shop / 270 Broadway
Mosaic lettering in New York City is most commonly found in the subway system. This flower shop's script lettering, located on the left side of the entrance, stands out from the more familiar IRT and BMT signage.

14. Unknown liquor store / Broadway near Rutledge Street
Wooden signs are extremely rare in New York City. One reason is that wood, while inexpensive, is not as durable as other materials. But like ghost signs and old neon, examples of weathered wood lettering are aesthetically fascinating. This deteriorating sans serif capital Q comes from a liquor store along the J line.

Bushwick: #15 (at left) and #16.


15. RKO Bushwick Theatre (now the Acorn School for Social Justice) (c. 1910) / 1396 Broadway at Howard Street
During cinema's golden age, both RKO and Paramount were famous for their rococo movie theatres. This elaborate decoration—with trumpet-playing putti flanking a cartouche containing a B (for Bushwick) entwined with a xylophone—is no exception.

16. Ever Ready Furniture (c. 1950s–60s) / Broadway and Quincy Street
Enameled lettering was common in the mid-20th century but rarely used today. The best part of this process is how its letters fuse with the surface material, making it amazingly durable. The Ever Ready lettering's lack of thick and thin contrast marks this as a “modern” script, a counterpart to Futura and other sans serif types. It may have been influenced by Robert Hunter Middleton's Tempo Italic, which has swash capitals.

Clinton Hill: #17 (at left) and #18.

Clinton Hill

17. Emmanuel Baptist Church (1886–1887) / 279 Lafayette Avenue
The terra cotta letters over the main entrance to architect Francis Kimball's Emmanuel Baptist Church are versals—medieval manuscript initials that mix roman (A and L) and uncial forms (E, M, N and U). The closed counters of the letters (with the exception of the L) are typical of versals. They grew out of attempts to stretch and squeeze the letters to fit into equally sized spaces in manuscripts. Note the engraved monogram lettering on the door handles to the main entrance.

18. 400 Clinton Avenue
In the late 19th century, lettering that did not fit into standard historical styles was usually described as “artistic lettering.” This original design on an apartment building near Pratt mixes uncial and bâtarde elements while dispensing with the thick and thin of broad-pen scripts.

Fort Greene: #19.

Fort Greene

19. Brooklyn Technical High School (1933) / 29 Fort Greene Place
Brooklyn Tech is one of the city's elite high schools. Along its DeKalb Avenue facade are a series of bas-relief heads representing great inventors and engineers. Pictured here are John and Washington Roebling, the father-and-son pair responsible for the Brooklyn Bridge (1883). The letters are uncial-esque.

(Clockwise from top left) Downtown Brooklyn: #20 (two images), #21, #22, #23, #24 and #25.

Civic Center/Downtown Brooklyn

20. Central Court Building (now Brooklyn Criminal Court) (1932) / 120 Schermerhorn Street
The bronze letters on the Brooklyn Criminal Court Building (Collins & Collins architects) are some of the best classically inspired roman capitals in the city. The N is notable for its Trajanic form. In contrast, the inscribed letters of the cornerstone have curved serifs, marking them as a baroque form of classical roman capitals. The inscription reads: “THIS STONE WAS SET BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOROUGH OF BROOKLYN MCMXXXI.” Now, there was a politician unconcerned about posterity!

21. Court Chambers Building (1926) / 66 Court Street
Another example of versal lettering, this time rendered in metal. The letters are derived not from medieval models but from 19th-century interpretations. Oddly, the E is roman in form. (The hole in the counter of the second C was probably made in an attempt to install an electric light in the building's entryway.)

22. Borough Hall station (1908) / IRT 2 and 3 lines
The mosaics in the IRT and BMT subway stations were prepared in the architectural offices of Heins & LaFarge. Thus, the incorrectly place crossbar on the right H was probably the fault of a draughtsman not of a mosaic craftsman—maybe the guide letter was traced upside down. It is the only mistake of its kind in the system. (At Pennsylvania Station there is one N with a missing upper left serif, but that error was most likely a mistake by the mosaicist.)

23. Hoyt Street station / IRT 2 and 3 lines
Located between the tracks and facing the Manhattan-bound platform of the Hoyt Street station, this sign may be the oldest surviving one in the New York City subway system. Certainly its 19th-century lettering—a mix derived from visiting card and French Clarendon types—indicates that it was executed before World War I and possibly as early as 1908, the year the station was built.

24. Klitgord Center, New York City College of Technology (formerly New York City Technical College; before that New York City Community College) (1948) / 285 Jay Street at Tillary Street
This post-World War II mosaic takes up most of the facade of the Klitgord Center at New York City College of Technology. There is some variation in the construction of its simple geometric letters. Enjoy the mosaic while you can: the Klitgord Center is slated to be destroyed to make way for another Forest City Ratner Companies mixed-use facility, to be designed by Renzo Piano.

25. Macy's (formerly Abraham & Strauss) (1929 and 1935) / 420 Fulton Street
“God is in the details,” Mies van der Rohe proclaimed. But this was not a new Modernist insight. Long before the Bauhaus was founded, architects paid attention to minor aspects of a building such as radiator grills, cigar stand signs and directory boards. And they continued to in the Art Deco era as can be seen by this door handle on the Hoyt Street side of this Macy's, designed by Starrett & Van Vleck. Unfortunately, the original handles are missing from the Fulton Street doors.

(Clockwise from top left) Brooklyn Heights: #26, #27, #28, #29 and #30.

Brooklyn Heights

26. Hotel Montague (1885) / 105 Montague Street
The Montague, by architects the Parfitt Brothers, was one of Brooklyn's first apartment buildings, along with its neighbors the Berkeley and the Grosvenor (111–117). All three were erected in the early 1880s. By 1902 the building had been converted to a hotel, which provides a rough date for this ghost sign. The lettering is a form of spurred gothic (sans serif), typical of the 19th century. Its name was changed in 1971 to the Brookmont when it became a welfare hotel. A decade later it was converted to co-op apartments. The ghost sign remains, a frozen reminder of this building's up-and-down history.

27. Brooklyn Historical Society (formerly Long Island Historical Society) (1881) / 128 Pierrepont Street
One of the most remarkable examples of terra cotta decoration in New York City is the former Long Island Historical Society building by George B. Post. Both its Pierrepont and Clinton Street facades sport busts of luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin and Ludwig van Beethoven (designed by Olin Levi Warner). The name appears on Clinton Street, while the Pierrepont Street side bears the motto “HISTORIA · TESTIS · TEMPORUM.” The letters are in a sober 19th-century grotesque, an excellent foil to the decorativeness.

28. Former St. Ann's Episcopal Church (now part of Packer Collegiate Institute) (1867–1869) / Clinton and Livingston Streets
The Clinton Street side of the former St. Ann's, built by Renwick & Sands, has stained glass windows that tell the history of the congregation. The lettering is a 19th-century form of textura with a typical Victorian style 8. The inclusion of the day of the week when the cornerstone was laid was probably done to fill empty space. Certainly, the lower roundel is better designed than the upper one.

29. 69 Pineapple Street
In residential neighborhoods marked by rowhouses and brownstones, addresses usually provide the only examples of lettering. For example, this lovely terra cotta cartouche has a perfectly inscribed house number—it benefits from the symmetry of 6 and 9.

30. The Shenley / 93 Hicks Street
The Shenley is one of the few named residential buildings in Brooklyn Heights. The bronze letters (now severely oxidized) are typical of the period from 1890–1920. They are ostensibly classical in origin but exhibit exaggerations intended to make them original. Note the high waist on E, H, S and Y as well as the short middle crossbar of E and the angled stems of the H in THE.

(From left) Cobble Hill: #31, #32 and #33.

Cobble Hill

31. Home Buildings (1876) / 130–140 Baltic Street and 439–445 Hicks Street
William Field & Son's Home Buildings were part of an innovative complex of low-rent apartments and cottages financed by Alfred Tredway White, under the slogan “philanthropy plus 5 percent.” Many of the numbers on the addresses—paint on terra cotta—have chipped off over time, as shown in this detail from 134 Baltic Street.

32. Stearns / 286 Court Street
The lettering on most 19th-century named buildings was either grotesque or Egyptian, a surprise given the amazing multitude of styles practiced by wood type manufacturers and sign painters at the time. One exception is this Cobble Hill building with Tuscanesque letters that probably was built in the 1870s or '80s.

33. The South Brooklyn Savings Institution (1922) / 130 Court Street at Atlantic Avenue
The former South Brooklyn Savings Institution building, by McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin, features delicate, classical lettering (slightly condensed) within a Celtic border and flanked by gryphons. Above the roundel featuring a bust of Benjamin Franklin is a beehive, a common banking motif since bees symbolize industriousness and saving. The bank's name and its year of founding (1850) encircle Franklin in similarly light roman capitals.

(From left) Carroll Gardens: #34, #35 and #36.

Carroll Gardens

34. Sacred Hearts St. Stephen's School (originally St. Stephen's School) / corner of Summit Street and Hicks Street
Schools, parochial and public, used to have separate entrances for boys and girls. Many of these markings remain, and the terra cotta signs at Sacred Hearts St. Stephen's School are among the best to be found. They are not very legible—proving the rule that one should not set entire words in black-letter capitals—but they are marvelous word patterns. St. Stephen's Church was built in 1860 and merged with Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Church in 1941, but the school was erected later. There is an Art Nouveau flavor to the textura capitals that suggests a date between 1890 and 1910.

35. “No Parkin” sign / Summit Street
In New York City you can find a weird variety of “No Parking” signs, especially in the Bronx and Brooklyn. A makeshift sign with the “g” missing creates the visual equivalent of a nasal Brooklyn accent, reinforced by the lack of word spacing and repetition. Also note the faded, upside-down presence of a previous “No Parking” warning (with the g).

36. Marietta Ladies Men's & Children's Wear / 392 Court Street
The enameled script for Marietta rivals Ever Ready Furniture's—its letters flow effortlessly, especially the “e.” Department of Building records indicate that the building was erected in 1951. Most likely the store and its sign date from that year.

Boerum Hill: #37.

Boerum Hill

37. Atlantic Avenue station (1908) / IRT 2 and 3 lines
The A tiling by Heins & LaFarge on the outbound platform of the 2 and 3 lines at Atlantic Avenue is possibly the single most beautiful mosaic lettering in the subway system. (It rivals the blue terra cotta B in the Bleecker Street station on the IRT 6 line.) On the same platform there is an example of simple sans serif mosaic lettering (white letters on a maroon ground) that is unique in its scale.

Prospect Heights: #38 (at left) and #39.

Prospect Heights

38. Sterling / 361 Sterling Place near Underhill Avenue
This apartment building name uses a funky mixture of classical roman capitals. The descending leg of the R is a nice touch, but the G has no thick and thin contrast. The S is too high-waisted, the middle bar of the E too short and the L too wide. To top it off, the name is not even properly centered between the flanking ornaments. Still, it has more personality than if it had been done in Times New Roman!

39. Teunis G. Bergen School (P.S. 9) / 80 Underhill Avenue
The name of this public school is reminiscent of the lettering on the Long Island Historical Society building, indicating that its original building dates from the 1880s.

Park Slope: (top row, from left) #40, #41 and #42; (2nd row) #43, #44 and #45; (3rd row) #46, #47, #48 and #49.

Park Slope

40. Grace Episcopal Methodist Church (now Grace United Methodist Church) (1882–1883; parsonage 1887) / 29–35 Seventh Avenue
The frame of the gothic arched window of the parsonage of Grace Episcopal Methodist Church, another Parfitt Brothers building, bears the church's name in medieval versals that provide a contrast to those of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clinton Hill. Instead of being cast in relief, these are carved with a flat cut. Each letter occupies its own individual terra cotta block.

41. St. Augustine's Academy (c.1897) / Sterling Place at Sixth Avenue
Another from the Parfitts, St. Augustine's Academy—the parochial school attached to St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church—has been defunct for decades but its lettering remains. It is yet another example of medieval versals—this time raised—showing the variety possible within the style. Lettering for the once-separate entrances, both in stone, also survives: the boys' on Sterling Place and the girls' on Park Place. Its delicate, decorative frame is particularly lovely.

42. The Verona / 820 President Street
43. Balmoral / Sixth Avenue
44. Prospect View (1889) / 315 Flatbush Avenue
45. Lenox / Sixth Avenue
46. Annandale / Third Street & Seventh Avenue
Park Slope is particularly rich in named residential buildings. Among the best aesthetically, in order of preference, are: The Verona, the Balmoral, the Lenox on Sixth, the Prospect View and the Annandale. The Verona may be the most exciting example of residential lettering in the entire city. The letters are freely interpreted Tuscans, V-cut and currently painted a metallic green that harmonizes well with the brownstone. (The owners of the building have replicated the letters in white paint on the entrance awning.) The Balmoral letters are notable for the A's broken crossbar and the B and R's doubled-up strokes. The Lenox has “artistic lettering” with an enlarged N centering the design. (There is another Lenox apartment building nearby on St. Mark's Place with its name rendered in rounded and raised sans serif capitals, a fairly common style.) Similar letters cast in terra cotta can be found on the Prospect View, which also has a prominent date above its name. The Annandale's letters are simple grotesque capitals that have been given a series of inlines to enliven them.

47. Poultry / Seventh Avenue
This sign from the 1920s or '30s might no longer exist—it was on the side of a small grocery that was being renovated in summer 2007 to make way for a more upscale business. The letters are unique, albeit similar to Broadway, Boul Mich and other Art Deco typefaces that were released between 1927 and 1931.

48. La Taqueria / 72 Seventh Avenue
The lettering on this restaurant window is a combination of Ronaldson–like letters with Tuscan spurs added. (Ronaldson was the 19th-century model for ITC Tiffany.) Similar but uncurved lettering is used on the hanging sign. The quality of execution, as well as the antiquated style and the cuisine of the restaurant, indicate that the signs were probably made by a Mexican craftsman.

49. Congregation Beth Elohim temple house (1928) / Garfield Place & Eighth Avenue
The lettering on the temple house for Congregation Beth Elohim outshines the lettering on its synagogue across the street. Mortimer Freehof and David Levy's temple house has the quotation “SHOW ME THY WAYS O LORD TEACH ME THY PATHS GUIDE ME” on its Eighth Avenue facade and the names of major Old Testament figures on its Garfield Place facade. The delicate letters are an Art Deco interpretation of classical roman capitals with a medieval A thrown in to spice things up. Elsewhere the lettering for the entrance to the Aaron Levy Memorial Chapel is more consistently medieval. (Also note the beautiful bas reliefs on the building including Babylonian charioteers and Jonah being swallowed by the whale.)

Flatbush: #50.


50. Young Israel of Flatbush (c.1912) / 1012 Avenue I at Coney Island Avenue
The terra cotta lettering over the entrance to Young Israel of Flatbush is an exotic and idiosyncratic interpretation of versals. Note the U-inspired Y, uncialesque G, moorish A, Sarasenic B and scroll-like S. The mix is reminiscent of Jonathan Barnbrook's Ma(n)son and Exocet typefaces.

Midwood: #51 (at left) and #52.


51. Nathan's Food-o-Rama / 1506 Avenue H
These letters are the kind that inspired Gotham, Tobias Frere-Jones's vernacular modernist sans serif typeface. How can you resist anything with O-RAMA in its name?

52. American Vitagraph Company (now Yeshiva University High School) (1907) / Avenue M and East 14th Street
In winter the letters on the brick chimney of the now-defunct American Vitagraph Co. can be seen clearly from the D train—but not easily photographed. Even from nearby streets it is virtually impossible to get a direct shot of them since the elevated tracks are in the way. The nearby trees complicate the task, especially after the leaves appear. Chimney lettering is common throughout the United States but less so in the city. This is the only example I know.

Sheepshead Bay: #53 (at left) and #54.

Sheepshead Bay

53. F.W.I.L. Lundy Bros. (1934) / 1901 Emmons Avenue
Lundy's restaurant, built by Bloch & Hesse, is synonymous with Sheepshead Bay. The poorly made versal letters have been cut out of metal.

54. St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church (1928–1931) / Ocean Avenue and Avenue Z
These V-cut letters do not match the iconic ones of the Trajan Column inscription, but nonetheless they are excellent example of early 20th-century classical roman capitals. Note the serifs at the top of M and N, the Caslonesque apex of the A and the jaunty leg of the R. The C's were probably constructed using a compass.

Brighton Beach: #55.

Brighton Beach

55. Mother Jones (1931) / 3102–3116 Brighton 1st Place
This is one of the most puzzling apartment names in the city. Mary Harris Jones—better known as Mother Jones—was one of the founders of the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and a labor organizer for the United Mine Workers and the Socialist Party of America. In 1902 she was labeled “the most dangerous woman in America” by a West Virginia District Attorney due to her efforts on behalf of striking coal miners. So, how did an apartment building in Brighton Beach come to bear her name? The building may have been a cooperative financed by unions for its members such as those the Amalgamated Clothing Workers built near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx between 1927 and 1970.

Coney Island: (first row, l to r) #56 and #57; (2nd row) #58, #59 and #60; (3rd row) #61, #62 and #63; (4th row) #64.

Coney Island

56. Cyclone (1927) / 834 Surf Avenue
57. Eldorado Auto Skooter / 1216 Surf Avenue
58. Wonder Wheel (1918–1920) / West 12th Street and the Boardwalk
59. Faber's Fascination / 1232 Surf Avenue
The glamour of Coney Island may be long gone, but there are still a few reminders of the area's glory days. Amusement park lettering usually involves illumination, either neon or light bulbs. The Cyclone, invented by Harry C. Baker, has two neon signs: one on the roller coaster itself and a vertical one along Surf Avenue. There are also two for the Wonder Wheel (by Charles Herman): one on the wheel and the other lower down directing people, via a large arrow labeled THRILLS, to the attraction. Bulb-style lettering can be found on the Eldorado Auto Skooter facade, the Zipper ride and the front of Faber's Fascination. The latter used to have a twin called Faber's Sports on its right. The sign can still be seen if one peeks under the awning of the current tenant.

60. Nathan's Famous / Surf and Stillwell Avenues
The quintessential New York food might be a Nathan's hot dog, established in 1916. The original building is a monument to neon and painted lettering. The famous (and distinctly weird) upright script—how do you describe those curves?—still outshines the newer lettering, especially the computer-generated examples on the awnings.

61. (Ice Cream) To Go
62. Cheez Burger, Hot Dog
63. Sideshows by the Seashore
Steve “ESPO” Powers has a sign-painting shop on the ground floor of the building housing the Coney Island Museum. He and his collaborators in the Dreamland Artist Club (2004, 2005) are responsible for much of the semi-nostalgic, pseudo-vernacular hand painted signs that advertise for games and food vendors at Coney Island. My favorites are the Cheez Burger and Hot Dog signs rendered in a '70s space-age style. Be on the lookout for amusing verbal and visual gags hidden in these signs. Also note Marie Robert's circus-freak banners for Sideshows by the Seashore, painted between 2004 and 2007.

64. Zia Dora Inc. / 2913 West 15th Street
Look carefully and you will see that the sign for Zia Dora, Inc., a grocer, is composed of metal or wood frames that have been cut up and reassembled. Note the chamfered corners of D and O achieved by the use of black paint.

Bensonshurst: #65 (at left) and #66.


65. The Benson-Bay (1930) / 86–96 Bay 29 Street
The decoration is Art Deco but the flat-cut sans serif capitals are only partially so. The mix of wide and narrow forms (see the E) is typical of Art Deco but the structure of the B with the overlapping counters is pure Art Nouveau. The O looks uncomfortable.

66. Talmud Torah Sons of Israel (1928) / 2115 Benson Avenue
Not all Art Deco lettering is sans serif or geometric. The classical roman capitals on the facade of Talmud Torah Sons of Israel can be recognized as Art Deco because of their lightness as well as their exaggerated proportions. See the very short middle bar of E and the high waists of H, R and S. The lettering is elegant and well-spaced but is completely overwhelmed by the pedestrian yellow and blue banners.

Bath Beach: #67 (at left) and #68.

Bath Beach

67. Saint Finbar School (1946) / 1825 Bath Avenue
The yellow lettering over the entrance to the Saint Finbar School is inset into the green marble. It is probably stone and not bronze since it shows no sign of tarnishing. This is a very durable method. Some of the letters have angled terminals like those of Rudolf Koch's Kabel.

68. Sta-Brite Upholstery / 1709 Bath Avenue
There are two Sta-Brite businesses on Bath Avenue located side-by-side: one specializing in upholstery (pictured), the other in decorations. Both signs have Sta-Brite in white, bursting out of a black oval, but the lettering is not identical. Also, the building was erected in 1947, but the presence of Helvetica numerals in the street address indicates that the sign was put up in the late 1960s or early '70s.

Dyker Heights: #69.

Dyker Heights

69. Saint Bernadette School / 1313 83rd Street / 1953
The letters have been cast in concrete, the surface of which has subsequently been painted. They are flat-cut but the crosses flanking SCHOOL have been V-cut. Although there is an Art Deco quality to the letters and the decoration, the inscription dates from 1953, when the school was founded.

Bay Ridge: #70 (at left) and #71.

Bay Ridge

70. Lindbergh Meat Market (now Yore Meat Market) / 7115 Fort Hamilton Parkway
The meat market has changed ownership but the original enameled sign is, thankfully, still intact. Or almost. The panels have shifted splitting the E in MEAT in half. The sign is memorable for the odd serifs on the L and N and the kicky leg of the R. Was the sign painter bored?

71. St. Anthony's Bakery / 6819 Fort Hamilton Parkway
A block away from the Lindbergh Meat Market is St. Anthony's Bakery. Its sign is in two parts: St. Anthony's in a white condensed monotone script on a green trapezoid, both seemingly made of plastic; and BAKERY in widely spaced white brush script capitals (reminiscent of Dom Diagonal) on a dark green background. The script is what caught my eye first, but on closer inspection the brush capitals are more interesting. They seem to be cut out of thin plastic (or maybe metal?) and then nailed to the surface. Behind them one can barely discern the outline of other letters (probably enamel) that have been painted over.

Sunset Park: #72.

Sunset Park

72. Brooklyn Fire Department Hook & Ladder No. 18 (now Ladder Company 114) (1897) / 5209 Fifth Avenue
Old fire houses are always worth investigating for fascinating examples of lettering. This one in Sunset Park has raised sans serif capitals that are slightly out of the ordinary. Note the long-legged R, the raised diagonal of the N and the pregnant ampersand. Periods at the ends of titles and names were common prior to the 20th century.

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.