Looking for Letters in New York City

Three years ago Christopher Calderhead, editor of Letters from New York, published by the Society of Scribes, Ltd., a New York-area calligraphic group, asked me to write about my fifty favorite examples of lettering in New York City. What was supposed to be an article in the journal ended up being the entire issue. Even though the photographs were in black and white, the 80-page Letters from New York 2 was an instant hit. It spurred me to systematically try to record lettering in the city before it disappears. Since 2005 I have traveled throughout the five boroughs taking photographs of a wide variety of lettering. I now have over 15,000 images and am in the process of preparing them for a larger, full-color book that will build upon Letters from New York 2 and include images from all of the boroughs instead of just Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some of them will eventually be posted on Blue Pencil.

Meanwhile, Letters from New York 2 is not fully sold out yet and I am offering copies for sale at $15 (including postage). I am excerpting the opening below so that readers can get a sense of the text. For copies please contact me at: paulshaw@nyc.rr.com. Thank you.

“Looking for Letters in New York City: A Tale of Surprise and Dismay”
Letters from New York 2: The Journal of the Society of Scribes, Ltd.
Christopher Calderhead, editor
New York: The Society of Scribes, Ltd., 2006

Dedicated to the Memory of the Tunnel Garage 1922–2006


Looking for letters in New York City is different from looking for them in Rome, Paris and London and other European cities. Not only is New York’s history much shorter, but it is one of constant renewal as the old quickly makes way for the new. The rapid pace of construction and its attendant demolition has accelerated since 2001. It can be fairly said that New York is currently undergoing its most massive facelift since the 1920s and early 1930s. Consequently, not only is it difficult—sometimes nigh impossible—to find examples of lettering from the 18th and 19th centuries, but now it is getting increasingly harder to find it from the first half of the 20th century. (The recent demolition of the Tunnel Garage is only the latest example of lost lettering.) Fortunately, the best lettering of the 1920s and 1930s—especially Art Deco and Art Moderne examples, but also numerous Gothic style ones—survive because it is often found on landmarked buildings, primarily the original skyscrapers that gave New York the progressive and jazzy image it still has.

There is little lettering of note from the second half of the 20th century. This is not due to demolition, but due to the hostility of architects working in the International Style towards not only decoration but also lettering. However, in a city this vast and this changing there is alwaysplenty of indescribable (and often ephemeral) lettering of interest to be found.

This article is an overview of some of the lettering to be found in New York City in 2006. It is not a “best of” list nor is it a guidebook. Nearly all of the examples are from Manhattan south of 125th Street. This is not because there is nothing of interest in northern Manhattan or the other boroughs, but only because these are the streets that I walked in the past year—though many of the examples are ones that I have noticed with pleasure for over twenty-five years. (All of the photographs have been taken since July 2005.)

The lettering included here covers a wide range of styles, materials, techniques and purposes. Much of it is carved or sculpted out of various kinds of stone, but there are also letters fabricated from steel, iron and bronze, cast in terra cotta and made of tiles. There are neon letters, painted letters (including graffiti), vinyl adhesive letters and wooden letters. The letters are found on buildings, monuments, gravestones, bridges and tunnels, subway stations, playgrounds, benches, sidewalks and sewer grates. On buildings they exist as building names, company or business names, addresses and street numbers, historical plaques, signs (informational, directional, warning, etc.), and advertisements. They can be found in the lobbies as well as on the exteriors.

To see letters (and numbers) in New York City it is necessary to act both like a native New Yorker—ever-vigilant, scanning the environment not only for threats to one’s safety but for the overlooked details of urban life—and like a tourist—always looking upward in the expectation of being astonished (which you may be). Keep an open eye out not only for letters but for errant taxicabs, reckless bicylists, three-abreast twin strollers, fire hydrants and curbs—and, of course, the potential pickpocket or mugger as well as the overzealous security guard. The latter is a problem that has grown enormously since 2001 as the events of 9/11 have been used by paranoid building owners to prohibit access and photography of many of the city’s most beautiful interiors. (And in some cases they even try to prohibit photography of their exteriors both on security grounds and on the legally untested notion that the building is copyrighted artwork. Unless the building in question is a government structure or you are threatened with physical violence, resist these attempts to privatize public space. However, accept the restrictions—however stupid or unfair they may seem to be—on interior spaces since they are indeed private.)

Now that much of the older building stock is being destroyed to condoize the city it is essential that we remember and record not only the lettering on them but also their myriad decorative elements. These include sculpted heads, torsoes, gargoyles and bas reliefs; patterned brickwork; ornamental friezes, cornices and entryways; ironwork on fire escapes and window grills; brasswork on radiator grills and lobby letterboxes; colored terracotta tiles and mosaics; and sidewalk fences.