Signs of the Times

You wake up one morning and instead of looking out on Houston Street from your $2,500 studio, you’re bathed in a dim, alcoholic murk. The sky is gone. You can barely make out the Economy Foam Center six stories below. Are you going blind? Did those criminals at the pharmacy give you bum Effexor again? Then you realize: You’re underwater. You’re drowning, in a giant bathtub. Water is filling your lungs, but not just any water. It’s Evian, three bucks a quart.

Then you know: Your pathetic little building has been wrapped with Mylar, miracle fiber of the great billboard war. Suitable for today’s hyper-stim demands, “wrapping” offers maximum flexibility, turnaround, alienation. Tomorrow, you’ll be out of the Evian and stuck inside the breast of an H&M model. Or muffled by Esperanto buzz for an even broader-banded DSL. You came to the Big City to be part of the New Economy; now you’ve merged with the Brand Name. You are one with the market.

As in Blade Runner, Ur-blueprint for the current selling scape, we’re all now “little people” – it’s the guys in the underwear ads who are big. The corporate graffiti is denser than on a 1978 IRT car. There ought to be a law, and with the thicket of rising faux-Vegas Yahoo pillars, maybe there will be one. Late last year, citing “advances in lighting and illumination technologies,” the City Planning Commission came up with “a comprehensive plan to address the recent proliferation of large, out-of-scale advertising signs.”

Which has its downside, since, as anyone who ever counted down the highway miles to Wall Drug understands, there’s something un-American about not loving a giant sign. At least that’s what I was thinking the other day as I watched the first double rainbow I’ve ever seen in Brooklyn arch above the home of eagle clothes sign, which, more than a half-century after it was constructed, still towers like an Easter Island sentinel of ad ages gone by over the low-slung factory zone along the Gowanus Canal.

Giant faded letters set with industrial elegance upon a 50-foot-square metal frame, topped by a longitude-demarcated globe befitting a “world headquarters,” the Eagle sign speaks of a more primal, less fleeting era of capital. A time when sewing-machine manufacturers and coffin coopers, so many of them immigrant machers on the make, felt the need to announce themselves and the claim-staking entities they created, to carve their names upon the skyline like fixed stars. Indeed, after the demise of the menswear concern Stanley and Fred Goldman ran for decades (employing as many as 750 people), all that remains of Eagle Clothes is the Eagle sign, upon which Karl Szari, a Russian transmission mechanic-birdwatcher, claims he once saw “a eagle. Sitting on the big G. A eagle on the Eagle sign! Or maybe it was a hawk.”

Chances are the Eagle sign will also outlive the U-Haul storage facility that has occupied the bunkerlike building at Fourth Avenue and 6th Street for the past twenty years. This is the assessment of Dominick Lanzi, who owned an ironwork shop across the street from Eagle Clothes for nearly twenty years. “I looked at that sign every day through the window of my shop. It is made of 33 1/4-inch steel pipes. You’d need a crane to take it down. So it stays . . .

“Back in the old days, a lot of Italian people worked at Eagle, you know,” Lanzi remembers. “They were tailors, did cut goods. Hot weather, cold, in the morning I’d watch them come to work, walking from the subway. I’d look at the door, say hello. Sometimes, if they had a sale, I’d go look. But I never bought.”

My father, though, he was an Eagle man, at least when he wasn’t venturing moderately upscale to Witty Brothers or Rogers Peet, two other now-defunct clothiers. This is no surprise to Dennis Brenner, a genial, energetic man whose résumé – under the rubric “30 years of management retail and apparel been there, done that!” – is one of the items that turns up when you run an Internet search for “Eagle Clothes.”

“Back then, quality-wise there were what we called 2 makers, 4 makers, and 6 makers. Eagle was a 4 maker. It was the suit of the working man,” says Brenner, a former Eagle vice-president who ran the firm’s New York-based retail chain, B&B Lorry’s.

While pleased to hear that my mother took me to Lorry’s Jamaica, Queens, branch to buy my bar mitzvah suit, Brenner, now living in Jersey, admits to “mixed feelings” when he has occasion to drive past the Eagle Clothes sign.

“You see, back in the fifties and sixties, there were dozens of chains like Lorry’s. There was Wallach’s, Bond’s, Hickey-Freeman, Ripley’s, Robert Hall, Howard’s, Weber & Heilbroner, Field Brothers, many more. The fashion world was more dynamic then. When styles changed, they changed across the board, not just in some subculture. If side vents came in, everyone got side vents. Continental pants, that was through the roof. There were fifteen kinds of underwear… . Eagle was conservative, but they had to keep up, like everyone else… . But in the end, Eagle was killed by its own customers. They pulled the rug out. The leisure suit, those kind of fabrics, that was the kiss of death. Once casualwear and jeans took over, that was it.

“For me, it was a disaster, because I grew up selling menswear. I really loved it. I could tell you the location of every Weber & Heilbroner branch in Manhattan. Hart, Shaffner & Marx too. Now that’s all gone, like it was a giant joke, played on me and others who believed in it. So that’s how I feel about the Eagle sign: It’s like a tombstone. The end of the world I knew.”

The South Brooklyn skyline is filled with many such semiological fossils. Few motorists who have plied the snarled byways of the Gowanus Expressway are unfamiliar with the Kentile Floors sign, an ad brontosaur even more colossal, if somewhat less aesthetic, than Eagle’s. Its pale-purple neon no longer flickering, the eight-story monolith was erected sometime in the forties by the Kentile company, which billed itself as “America’s largest manufacturer of super resilient floor tile.” Founded by Arthur Kennedy (hence Kentile) in 1898, Kentile shut down in 1988 following strikes by the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic workers, costly asbestos lawsuits, and creeping plant obsolescence. But the sign remains.

“That sign has always been there. Like a mountain on the desert,” says Jack Marmurstein, a boisterously rough-hewn man in a yarmulke who owns the New York Airport Service, a transport concern located for many years on the oil-slicked grounds where Second Avenue meets the Gowanus Canal. “When I first came out, it was just me and Kentile. I could set my watch to that sign, depending on where the light hit,” says Marmurstein, surveying his bus fleet, which he described as having three kinds of vehicles: “running, not running, and monument.” Asked if he thought the Kentile sign should be landmarked (no commercial sign ever has been, not even the Pepsi logo on the East River, although it was once considered), Marmurstein, no sentimentalist, said, “What for? It’s a sign, selling something they don’t sell anymore. People want to collect everything these days.”

Yet there are still mysteries, untold histories, in the dead ads of Brooklyn. Foremost is the R. Set up on a steel grid, the R lords enigmatically over the Gowanus, visible from the IND train and the Battery Tunnel approach. It is a single, iconic letter 30 feet high – an R that stands for: what? A drive through Red Hook, to the corner of Richards and Verona Streets, shed light.

“Oh, you want to know about our R, huh?” winked Frank Turano, an officer of the John Turano & Sons company, a wholesaler of imported Italian furniture.

“We bought the building in 1978 from E.J. Trum, which was a paper-goods manufacturer,” Mr. Turano related. “He had his sign up there: E.J. TRUM. We wanted to take it down and put up our own, TURANO. We went on the roof and started pulling down these giant letters. The E, the J, the T. But the R got stuck. We couldn’t move it. Someone almost fell off the building trying. It put a scare into us. It seemed better to leave it up there. It’s been like that for 22 years. Recently a lot of people looking for billboards have come around asking about the space. But we’ll leave it like that: just R.

That solved one ad mystery. Future urban archaeologists will no doubt face a similarly vexing puzzle as they contemplate giant signs and wonder exactly what it was that Yahoo sold to make money.

Signs of the Times