Discover more from The Retrologist by Rolando Pujol
Long-hidden NYC neon sign saved; Philly diner doomed; 'Dari-ette' remembered; Florida's 'best' drive-in named | Retrologist Roadside Roundup
Plus, singing the Doo-Wop blues in Wildwood and a lot more roadside Americana news (much of it good) for you to enjoy!
Who doesn’t love a happy ending? The long-hidden sign for Barney’s Shoes in Jackson Heights, Queens, which caused a sensation when it reemerged last week, has been saved.
I instantly knew I had to alert my friends at Noble Signs, who also founded and run the New York Sign Museum, before something awful happened to the rediscovered relic. Thankfully, Noble Signs stepped in and brokered a deal to rescue the sign, they confirmed to me.
The sign joins a growing collection of discarded and long-forgotten signs that are ending up in their collection, stored in a warehouse adjacent to Noble Signs’ space in Brooklyn.
The sign is a beauty -- porcelain and once fitted with neon tubing. It was photographed in the 1940s by the legendary photographer of downtown Americana, Charles Phelps Cushing. The sign looked then much like it did during its brief reemergence above the storefront, now a Colombian restaurant, on 82nd Street.
One day, we’ll all be able to see the sign, now surrounded by gems from the New York Sign Museum collection!
This story could have ended very differently, with the signs purloined or sold to a private collection or, worst of all, trashed.
With its unexpected “return,” the sign for Barney’s Shoes quickly became one of the oldest attached signs on a Queens storefront — perhaps the oldest — and among the oldest in New York City.
Now it’s a museum piece. It was long that, of course. We simply didn’t know it existed.
Sign in the Spotlight: The Melrose Diner
The Melrose Diner was, until very recently, a Philadephia institution, but market forces have spoken, and the diner will be demolished and replaced with pricey pads.
The diner had been in business in south Philadelphia since 1956, and its death warrant was signed by its owner, Michael Petrogiannis. Sometimes, it happens like that.
The owner says the Melrose will be rebuilt with about the same amount of seating on the ground floor of the new six-story housing development, and the sign itself, as well as memorabilia, have been carted off for safekeeping until it can all return.
The diner had been closed since a fire last year, and its fate had been an open question since.
Petrogiannis, who bought the diner in 2006, said he also considered closing and demolishing another diner he owns, the Broad Street Diner, but opted against it, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that “I can’t close both places,” he said. “I have 30, 40 people over there working. I don’t want these people to lose their jobs.”
According to Action News:
"It's sad. It's like an icon disappearing. It's terrible," said Chuck Stewart, who's lived in the neighborhood his whole life. "My mom even worked here. This goes way back."
"My mom, when she was alive, loved the buttercream cakes that they had there. So we would always buy her cakes for holidays, birthdays, things of that nature," said Quinn Patton from Upper Darby.
The owner says the new building, which could take up to three years to construct, will be a tribute to the old diner, and may even go by the name Melrose.
Many folks, shocked by the news, would rather the old Melrose stay put, and understandably so.
Signs of change in Wildwood
They are signs of changing times in Wildwood, that Doo-Wop architecture paradise on the Jersey Shore.
The most shocking change is at Wildwood City Hall, which dates to 1964. The facade was a midcentury gem, a true artifact of the area’s Doo-Woop heritage.
HERE’S THE BEFORE …
AND HERE’S THE AFTER …
Thankfully, the basic form, with the arches and the frames on the windows, was preserved. Nevertheless, to my eyes, it looks like a NEW building trying to fit into the Doo-Wop vibe of the area, a 2020s take on a 1960s design. Retro versus vintage, to make that fine distinction.
It’s undeniable that its vintage patina — that which made it so special and striking — was stripped, and that’s a shame.
The building was a leaky, drafty mess, Wildwood Video Archive reports, and the decision was made to replace the windows while embracing the city’s current logo and “by the sea” branding. The updated building is a source of pride — it’s the first thing you see on the municipal website.
But, I have to ask, why would a town that supposedly venerates its Doo-Wop heritage so corrupt an original facade from the era upon which the area’s reputation and tourism largely rests?
It could have been worse, yes, but that’s faint praise.
The other big change: The Skylark Motel jettisoned its neon sign, which was about 40 years old and the second one at the motel, which opened in 1956.
The new — and now third — one goes all in on midcentury flavor — see it here, as well as a postcard of the first one — and is a worthy attempt to fit into the Doo-Wop vibe that might grow on me, especially as the years become decades and the sign develops patina.
Still, I always loved checking in on the Skylark’s old sign and will miss it. The motel says (in comments on a Facebook post) that the sign will be saved.
Dari-ette Drive-in: Remembering a St. Paul classic as its replacement opens
Boga Ice Cream and Burger has replaced the iconic Dari-ette Drive-in in St. Paul, Minnesota. The sign, while heavy on plastic and devoid of neon, does keep the drive-in name and lightbulbs around a portion of this sign.
I wish the new restaurant well — it’s heartening to see the place being used as it was from 1951 to 2021, when the Dari-ette closed.
Behold the original beauty, as it looked on a lovely July evening in 2019:
My tribute, which I published at the time it closed:
The Dari-ette Drive-in has closed, not just for the season, as it usually does in the fall, but forever. After 70 years serving up Italian comfort food and dairy delights, it sure seemed like the St. Paul, Minnesota, institution had been here forever and would exist forever.
But Saturday was its last day. The owner, Angela Fida, part of the family that has owned the place since forever — forever in this case being 1951 — decided to close up shop. This isn’t a story of a mean landlord getting greedy, or a business caught in hopeless decline.
It’s just a reminder, a sad one, that everything has a season, no matter how much we love it and hope it can go on forever. It’s a reminder that we should treasure these places while we have them. The property was placed on the market last year, and we’ll see what comes next. Perhaps new hands will revive the Dari-ette?
It’s a thought, and a hopeful reminder that sometimes, places can enjoy second acts. After all, any time you run across a vintage business with a name ending in “ette,” you know you’re about to step into a time warp. A “superette,” for example, is usually a step above your typical convenience store — at least, where the signage is concerned. A “dari-ette” is in a wonderful category all its own.
You’d park your car in a spot next to a metal contraption that contained your menu, a speaker box to communicate with your car hop, and a tray where your meal was deposited. All you had to worry about was perhaps unbuckling your seat belt to relax a little bit more, but how much more relaxed could this dining experience be?
The meatball sandwiches came highly recommended. Fida kept everything running just as her grandparents, who built the place, would have wanted. She told Fox 9 that it would feel good not to have to stir the sauce in the morning anymore, but she’d miss it just the same. Among those missing the rituals will be her mom, Lois Fida, who is 85 and was all of 15 when she started working in the family business.
“It’ll be totally different, it’s a heartbreak," she told the station. "Very, very sad." That’s about all there is to say.
Notes From the Road
You heard it from The Retrologist first, way back in September 2020: Burger King was embracing its old logo for its new identity. They did not make it official until January 2021, and now, the Wall Street Journal takes a look at the new logo and what it means for the brand’s future. The piece explains, as I have before, that it’s not quite the old logo. In some ways, I think, and the WSJ video observes, it’s actually better. What do you think?
Fascinating: A new theme park is in the works called American Heartland Theme Park and Resort. It will be built on Route 66 in northeastern Oklahoma and will open in phases between 2025 and 2026. Reports CNN: Six American “lands” will be featured in the park: Great Plains, Bayou Bay, Big Timber Falls, Stony Point Harbor, Liberty Village and Electropolis. Led by Steve Hedrick, the design team includes more than 20 former Disney Parks builders and Walt Disney Imagineers, according to the news release.
If some of this sounds familiar, it may be because it’s stirring memories of the fabled, if short-lived Americana theme park in the Bronx — Freedomland! The park, shaped like a map of the United States and dotted with attractions, was located where the Co-op City apartment complex sits today. Untapped New York has rare color photos of the lost park.
An update on a story I told you about recently: The Chicago City Council has indeed voted to extend protections for the city’s vintage signs. The Sun-Times reports: “Vintage signs at least 30 years old that are a part of Chicago’s “character and nostalgia” were granted a reprieve in five-year permit increments.” The devil is in the details — we’ll see what happens, but this move is really encouraging to see.
Mashed has named Andy’s Igloo in Winter Haven as Florida’s best drive-in restaurant! I’ve never sampled the nosh, but I did snap a pic back in 2020. Per Mashed: The retro feel of the restaurant's outdoor sign extends throughout, even in its menu of classic burgers, fries, and open-faced sandwiches, with fried seafood baskets adding some Floridian flair.
This story is so intriguing I want to go to San Francisco and immediately admire something I never noticed for myself: Lipton’s Tea signs on a handful of corners. They are subtle, curious, and hard to remove from the windows to which they are affixed, explaining their persistence. They are a kind of privilege sign and give us a window into the history of tea in San Francisco post-1906 earthquake.
Great neon signs CAN be made today, and the jaw-dropping sign for the new Walloon’s, a new seafood restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, is proof!
Megan Salter alerted me on Instagram that the oldest Burger King in middle Georgia, in Perry, is doomed. It’s a joyful late 1980s-1990s space, reminding me of the Taco Bells of the period. Check out her pictures here.
I’m troubled by the closure of this liquor shop in East Elmhurst, Queens. A note on the door suggests it may be temporary, but this can’t be a good thing, especially for that gorgeous neon sign in the window. Admire the typography, especially the word TEL for telephone! [MAP]
Having concluded the original sign could not be saved, the Brown & Haley candy factory in Tacoma will replace its historic “Almond Roca” neon sign with a replica, hopefully in time for the factory’s 100th anniversary in September. The original, which still works just fine, will be preserved. The story explains why the sign is being replaced despite being “fine.”
For super fans of “The Andy Griffith Show,” the Taylor Home Inn in Clear Lake, Wisconsin, must be like what stepping into “The Brady Bunch” house in Studio City, California, would be like for me!
Speaking of which, the Brady house, which recently hit the market for $5.5 million, is apparently “under contract.” So many questions! Take a look at the amazing job HGTV did in turning the interior — which looked nothing like the sitcom set — into the house so many of us know and love.
In downtown Pittsburgh, a Brutalist McDonald’s location that recently closed after about 50 years will become home to a bank, which is what the building has always looked like anyway. Lack of foot traffic in the Golden Triangle neighborhood post-pandemic may have contributed to the operator’s decision not to exercise options that could have kept the Golden Arches there for another decade. I snapped this photo of the McDonald’s last October — and yes, it was a ghost town down there.
The founder of Phil’s Chicken House in Endicott, New York, has died at 84.
With roots tracing back to 1837, Delmonico’s is a New York restaurant institution, and news comes that it is finally reopening after a protracted battle over its name and other woes.
The site of the now-closed Roy’s Drive-in Cleaners in Redwood City, California, will become a restaurant, but the historic sign will be preserved.
For paid subscribers, I’ll present a visit to the Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia!
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