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The effort to save NYC’s fading facades

Each year, nostalgic signs that are a work of art which tell a story, vanish from our city’s landscape. Last Friday, preservationists were proud to rescue the vintage H. Goodman Furs shop sign at 116-07 Queens Blvd in Forest Hills. This columnist facilitated a donation to the New York Sign Museum / Noble Signs, which was co-founded by visionary David Barnett. Also contributing to this project were preservation colleague Evan Boccardi, Forest Hills South Owners, Lovett Realty, and the new tenant, Chris, who opened Legit Fit NYC.

The sign will now be restored, re-illuminated, and displayed in the museum’s collection. Preservationists feel that if keeping a vintage sign on site is not an option, donate it to the NY Sign Museum for preservation, education, and appreciation.
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H. Goodman Furs’ history dates to 1908. It was founded by Hyman Goodman in the Bronx. Then it was acquired by his son Jack Goodman, followed by his son Marvin Goodman and wife Rosemary Goodman. This family business operated in Forest Hills from 1967 to 2020.

In the name of Americana, much is being lost annually. David Barnett said, “As recently as 10 years ago, there were several classic 20th century storefronts on every commercial block citywide, but now we are lucky to have a few in each neighborhood. The tide is shifting rapidly.”

Barnett is a 35-year-old artist who lives in Crown Heights with his wife and daughter. He was born in Queens and was raised in South Orange, NJ. Barnett and his partner Mac Pohanka launched Noble Signs in 2013 based on an appreciation of vanishing classic signage citywide. He explained, “Our goal was to bridge traditional methods and styles with contemporary design and technology, and create signs that were aesthetically pleasing and had a sense of context within the history of New York signage.” The team of six is based in East New York on Atlantic Avenue.

He called the H. Goodman Furs sign a really unique example of early plastic signage. He explained, “Starting in the 50s and 60s, acrylic became a popular way of adding depth to signage that had traditionally been entirely painted. The acrylic sheets were typically sketched directly onto or traced onto with letter templates, and then handout with a jigsaw. This sign is particularly unique because of both the unique typography, especially the serif letterforms that read ‘FURS,’ and the fact that it is a fully framed out lightbox sign with significant weight and depth, as opposed to a flat plastic sign.”

The sign’s face is acrylic panel with applied cut acrylic details. The letters are cut acrylic with silver trimcap, and the frame molding of the face is steel with a brass finish. The case is aluminum clad on a welded steel frame, and the interior has 8’ fluorescent ballasts and two large transformers. Interestingly, he said, “We found a screwdriver that someone left inside the sign.”

After spending weekends with his grandma in Middle Village, Barnett developed a love for New York’s storefront culture. He recalled, “Joining her on her daily walks along Metropolitan Avenue, I have fond memories of a variety of local businesses where everyone seemed to know each other, and we would wave to the baker, the butcher, and the deli owner as we walked past their shops. The signs were such a big part of that experience. As a designer, I have worked in print, and digital, but nothing has the tangible satisfaction of seeing the signs you produced when you walk around the city.”

Over the past 5 years, the team rescued around 20 full-size storefront signs and several smaller signs from the trash. Barnett explained some of their best acquisitions as the Quisqueya Supermarket sign from Eastern Parkway, the Premier Dairy sign from Myrtle Ave in Glendale, the Farmacia corner signs from Essex Street, the Raders sign from Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, and the Essex Card Shop sign from the Lower East Side.

There is a wide range of sign styles that are not produced as often nowadays. Some are porcelain signs, vacuum form signs, trim-cap plastic letter signs such as H. Goodman Furs, Art Deco neon Signs with painted cases, hand-painted top signs, marquee bulb Signs, and step-down awning signs. Barnett said, “Some are out of style and some are too complex or time-consuming for most shops to want to have. With the exception of a couple that we are still working on, these are all styles we have tried to revive with Noble Signs.”

For the NY Sign Museum, preserving vintage signs signifies showcasing the rich history of individual expression and personal character that defined 20th century New York City. Barnett added, “They are an example of a time when craft and aesthetics were taken much more seriously by our culture, and because of that, they inspire joy in the people that view them. Many signs are in some way impossible to truly recreate since they incorporate materials from a supply chain that no longer exists. The quality of the materials themselves has gone down, but hopefully by preserving these signs, we can create a living library where designers and all people can be inspired. History and trends are cyclical, and we are optimistic that these classic styles will make a comeback within our lifetime.”

For now, the East New York sign shop accommodates a small display. Their short-term goal is to acquire space with storage, a display, and offices. As for the long-term, he said, “We would like a large enough space capable of displaying full NYC storefronts and their signs. We are open to any location within the 5 boroughs, but ideally within walking distance of public transportation.”

“Keep track of signs, and talk to your neighbors and landlords about saving and donating ones that matter to you and your community,” said Barnett.

The public can play a role in the museum’s future by participating in a fundraiser this spring, following @nysignmuseum, or contacting 646-450-0621 or nysignmuseum@gmail.com

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