The typographic dominance of Broadway from A to Z
Broadway is easily America’s most famous thoroughfare. Starting in lower Manhattan at Bowling Green and running the entire length of the island, it strings together some nine to fifteen neighborhoods—depending on who you ask—before bleeding over into the Bronx, serving as a cross-sectional study of the City’s diversity in ethnicity, utility and design” says Hopes&Fears introductory text to what is an amazing travelogue in one of the most prominent cultural hot spots of humanity today. As the Main Street of Manhattan, Broadway exhibits a catalogue of lettering—from neon lights to mom-and-pop shop signs, from theater marquees to building names the site tours the typography of Broadway with the help of typography expert Ksenya Samarskaya.
“Starting out at Broadway and W 181st St, the team traveled by bicycle down Broadway to Bowling Green on the lookout for outstanding lettering, documenting around 200 samples” they say regarding their methodology. “We then worked to identify and classify each specimen. With Samarskaya’s help, we narrowed our choices to 26 images, focusing on exhibiting as diverse a range of type category, classification and method of production as possible, while showcasing a distinct letter or digit for each in the alphabet”. These are some of the highlights of the project that caught Typeroom’s attention.
732 Broadway, Treffurth’s
“Despite its distinct lettering, Treffurth’s is an easily-missed relic of Broadway-past. Sitting at the very top of its four-story Renaissance-revival location, the sign dates back to around 1900, when Richard L. Treffurth assumed the lease and opened his eponymous restaurant on the ground floor…
…The lettering itself appears as a bas-relief engraving in the galvanized iron cornice. The joined script is reminiscent of a Morris Fuller Benton script typeface; it most closely resembles ATF Commercial Script, but Treffurth’s predates the inception of Commercial Script by eight years. Notable is the mustache-like “h”, which makes one ponder if the proprietor had a mustache as well. Also evident is the choice to include a period at the end of the name, which according to designer and tech journalist Adam Banks was common at the time. “Typography [during this period] tended to be highly decorative, so any addition that could be made was welcomed as an extra element to work with. See the commas, for example, in this business card” Banks explains. Banks points out that the “perfection” of the lettering is another element unique to the era, especially visible in the nearly-identical “f’s”.
Macy’s Herald Square, R. H. Macy & Company Store
“The typeface for the modern Macy’s department store logo is a cautious ITC Avant Garde Gothic ExtraLight, suitable for the mass mainstream appeal that the company depends on. But the Broadway entrance of Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square displays two vintage logos with a bit more character. The first is the massive slab serif gold lettering that fills the five central windows of the building’s third floor. Historically, slab serifs were designed to grab a reader’s attention (e.g. “WANTED” criminal posters), a fairly predictable choice for the famously sensational company.
Less visible but far more unique is the bronze R. H. Macy & Co. sign above the metal awning, that was almost certainly a one-off design for the store. The “R. H.” is a pretty standard Oldstyle Roman. “Macy & Co.” lettering falls out of step with this however—the vertex on the “M” doesn’t meet the baseline and the “C” ends in clean finials, both atypical choices for a Roman typeface. The “A” is especially unique, reminiscent of the Victorian Oxford No. 2 typeface created in 1893 by the Cleveland Type Foundry. The vertically-centered periods and decorative “degree” symbols are also characteristic Victorian flourishes.”
Times Square, Times Square NYPD substation
Times Square is known for its flashy signage, so it’s only natural that the NYPD substation located right smack in the middle of the “Center of the Universe” did its best to fit in…. Tom Rinaldi, author of New York Neon, speculates that the sign went up around the same time. “Until a few years ago, there was only one sign, facing north, with red and white lettering and an animated flashing sequence,” Rinaldi tells Hopes&Fears. The sign was recently replaced by Lettera Sign Company (now the Infinity Signs NYC) located in the Bronx, who managed to replicate the original with one exception; instead of the authoritarian flashing red and white sequence, Rinaldi notes that “the colors were changed to blue and white to match the NYPD standard.” Infinity Signs has been involved in a handful of electric displays in the area, including the New Year’s Eve 2009 signage.
The lettering itself is similar to—though by no means exactly—Kabel, a geometric sans serif designed by German type master Rudolf Koch in 1927 (though conspicuously missing is the type’s slanted terminals). Translating to “cable” in English, typography historians surmise that the name is an homage to technological progress in communication, a thematic expression embraced by the type designers behind the geometric sans movement. Kabel itself most notably appears as the font of the capitalist board game Monopoly, making the NYPD sign somewhat of a prescient symbol of Times Square as it stands today.”
111 Broadway, Subway Entrance, Trinity Building
“The letters are what I call quasi-classical,” Shaw explains, “that is, they want to be classical—note the dots which stand in for Roman interpoints—but are not entirely successful.” His assessment, he says, “is based on the short, curved leg on the ‘R’, the very short mid stroke of ‘E’, the clumsy ‘S’ and the too small upper bowl of ‘B’.”
2429 Broadway, Murray’s
“New York Neon author Tom Rinaldi calls the shop’s sign one of his favorites, and for good reason—with its yellow-on-red neon and upwards angle, Murray’s presents a peek into a bygone era when neon signs dominated the City. First introduced to New York in 1924 when neon sign inventor Georges Claude opened up shop in the City, neon quickly swelled in popularity. According to the American Sign Museum, the neon sign industry was bringing in about $18 million in business by 1929, sustaining demand throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. “The high point of all neon signs probably was reached just prior to 1948,” the Museum speculates.
Murray’s sign, however, comes at the very tail end of neon’s popularity. Though the store has been around since 1946, Ira Goller, proprietor of the shop since 1990, tells Hopes&Fears that the iconic sign came later. “Everything inside is original from when the store was first built, but I don’t think the sign has been here since the store was first built,” Goller says, “but I think it’s been here since at least the early 60s.” Rinaldi came to a similar conclusion. “For many signs, it’s possible to pinpoint an installation date by way of Department of Building records—but for this sign unfortunately I was not able to do that,” Rinaldi explains. He suspects the sign was installed somewhere between 1950-55, just as neon’s reputation was starting to get sullied by its association with Sin City and seedy motel signs.”
24 Union Sq E, Union Square Savings Bank
“… The gilded lettering at the entrance of the bank is reminiscent of a Latin typeface also inspired by Classical design, a lettering style embraced by the Beaux-Arts. The style was recently revisited by type master Tobias Frere-Jones, who in 1998 created a font called Grand Central inspired by the hand-painted lettering on the walls of Grand Central Terminal (another prime example of Beaux-Arts architecture and completed in 1905, two years before Union Square Savings Bank).”
11 Broadway, Bowling Green Offices
“The lettering is actually similar to a very American typeface called Antique Geometric, created by the Baltimore Type Foundry in 1883. There are not many examples of the lettering in use, but De Stijl co-founder Theo van Doesburg created a very similar typeface in 1919, adhering to the rectangularity of the art movement. In any case, this was not the first time the brothers Audsley used a geometric rectilinear sans; in 1870, the designers came out with a book called Cottage, Lodge & Villa Architecture, which uses a similarly styled typeface for the title page. Strangely, this comes 13 years before the first Antique Geometric was introduced; the book was also published by London’s William Mackenzie publishing house, suggesting a little creative cross-pollination from across the pond.
4111 Broadway, Broadway Temple Methodist Church
“For all intents and purposes, the Broadway Temple Methodist Church looks exactly as how you’d expect it to look: like a church. And the lettering, like the lettering on many Christian places of worship is a traditional textura blackletter. It’s a causal relationship; medieval manuscript culture was dominated by the church, coinciding with blackletter’s spread across Europe. Textura is also the oldest form of moveable type, invented by Johannes Gutenberg when he started the printing revolution with the Gutenberg Bible.”
2245 Broadway, Zabar's gourmet food store
“Zabar’s celebrated its 80th anniversary in August of 2014, making it a mom-and-pop (or pop-and-sons, really) stronghold along the ever-evolving face of Broadway. Its world-renowned logo, however, does not date back as far; photos of the original storefront, which was a fraction of the size of the now 20,000 square foot food-and-housewares emporium, expose a modest sans serif that reflects the Upper West Side institution’s humble beginnings.
Its current bright orange bifurcated Tuscan is what Steve Heller calls “classic but anachronistic.” Noted for its popularity in Victorian printed matter such as circus posters and theatre bills, the first typographic Tuscan was created by Vincent Figgins in 1817. The Zabar’s logo, however, is closer to the woodcut Antique Tuscan introduced by Darius Webb and E.R. Wells in their 1949 type catalogue, Specimens of Wood Type. “What it says about deli food is a mystery,” Heller quips, “but since they’ve owned it for so long, the question is irrelevant.” And he’s right; the type is so well-ingrained in the mind of New Yorkers as “the Zabar’s logo,” that K-Type type foundry created a font based on—and named after—the famous deli.”