Visiting New York is like drinking water out of a fire hydrant. So much is happening every minute of the day that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. One of the things that visitors (and sometimes even locals) frequently miss are the city’s ubiquitous ghost signs. These are old advertisements that were painted directly onto walls of buildings, some of them over 100 years ago. Though they were painted with lead paint that made them last for decades, their existence is ephemeral. They live and die with the walls they’re painted on. If a new building is built up against them, they’re buried out of sight. If that same building is torn down decades later, they’re exposed for the brief time it takes to build something else. One can only imagine how many of these signs are hidden between the walls of buildings. As time goes by, some will be revealed to us, and some destroyed and lost forever.
This empty lot used to be a pub called the Pig ‘n’ Whistle. You can still see its white silhouette on the neighbouring wall (the rectangle on top was the chimney). The demolition also revealed a ghost sign for the former Hotel Longacre, built in 1904. As you can see, a room at the Longacre cost a buck unless you wanted your own bathroom; then it cost $1.50. Lunch was 40 cents and dinner 65. Apparently it was for men only; it was advertised as being “exclusively bachelor.” Unfortunately, this ghost sign has been covered up again, as the old Pig ‘n’ Whistle has been replaced by a new building. | Photo by Alex Pappas
The west side of Midtown, also known as Hell’s Kitchen, was a pretty dangerous place for many years. It’s completely safe now, but has gotten incredibly expensive. On the wall above the Wendy’s is a ghost sign reading “Eickelberg Funeral Directors.” You can rest assured the building’s tenants are now paying top dollar for the privilege of living in a former funeral home. | Photo by Alex Pappas
Across the street from the historic Grand Central Terminal, the first stop on our Midtown Sites & Bites tour, a demolition revealed this ghost sign for Sozodont Toothpaste. It says their “only claim” is that it “cleans teeth clean.” That may have been true, but Sozodont eventually went out of business because it also turned your teeth yellow. The sign is now gone as all the buildings on this block were torn down to make way for new construction. | Photo by Alex Pappas
Here we have a double ghost sign with a hotel ad painted over an older cigar ad. It gives you an idea of the living conditions during the bad old days of Hell’s Kitchen. Not only did it advertise that their hotel offered housekeeping (something we take for granted now), but also steam heat and hot and cold water. Not that long ago, there were still people in the neighbourhood living in the notorious “cold-water flats,” low-rent apartments with no heat or hot water. Hopefully the modern-day New York Inn has a little more to offer. These ghost signs are now painted over, as well as the triangular silhouette below them, left by the previous building next door. | Photo by Alex Pappas
Around the corner from the Broadway mega-hit “Wicked” is a ghost sign for Barclay cigarettes. It is badly faded, but one of the biggest signs I’ve found. The brand no longer exists, but this ad claims that “the pleasure is back,” and implies that smoking Barclays makes you look cool. If by cool you mean a guy in a tux with a huge bow tie. | Photo by Alex Pappas
This is a view of an entire row of buildings on Times Square that were slated for demolition. But before they could be torn down, all the billboards had to be stripped. This revealed the lettering of an old ad for Rush Limbaugh’s bygone TV show. However there’s also another sign on the left side of the picture, right behind the streetlight. Can you see it? It’s almost identical except for one significant detail… | Photo by Alex Pappas
…It’s an old ad for The Jerry Springer Show. New York is the media capital of the world, and Times Square in many ways is the centre of it. So even here, both physically and politically, Jerry is on the left and Rush is on the right. | Photo by Alex Pappas
These are just a few from the Midtown section of Manhattan, an area most famous for its throngs of tourists and crass commercialisation. We cover much of this area on our Midtown Sites & Bites food tour, on which we show you the all the iconic sites of Midtown, but also the incredible food and culture that everyone else misses along the way. It’s an experience similar to finding your first ghost sign: once you know where to look, you’re surprised at how much you’ve missed.
Midtown Manhattan is the center of it all with Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, and more. This is the neighborhood you think of when you think of New York City. Explore the neighborhood with our expert guides from Urban Adventures who will give you the inside scoop on all the major sights.