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Signs That Define a Building, and Sometimes a City

The sign business began with painters wielding brushes and daubing letters on storefront windows and over building entrances. It has evolved into a $37.5 billion industry with companies capable of erecting signs that incorporate live news streams, interactive abilities and artificial intelligence.

But the goal has always remained the same: Combine words and imagery to conjure an identity for a building and market it as a piece of real estate.

Sign making evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries with gaslight and then incandescent light bulbs used in addition to hand lettering, But business took off with the advent of neon and helped set cities like Las Vegas and New York ablaze with the giant, gaudy signs known as “spectaculars.”

Credit…Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

As technology continued to advance, signs incorporated plastics, screen-printed PVC vinyl and energy-saving LEDs. Today’s enormous digital billboards, which can be programmed to cycle through an array of messages, can animate entire facades.

Regulations have also had an effect on the size and positioning of signs. In many places, building codes prohibit types popular in the past, such as rooftop and projecting signs including so-called blades, which stick out perpendicular to a building.

Some signs have become so iconic, they are permanent parts of the landscape — and sometimes stand in for the cities in which they are found.


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Nothing captures the vibe of this Florida city like the pastel-colored Art Deco hotels and glowing neon signs along Ocean Drive on Miami Beach — all part of a historic district. Erected in 1935, the three-story Colony Hotel was one of the first of the properties to make its mark.

Henry Hohauser designed the structure, in the streamlined style of the day, as well as its inverted-T sign. His boxy marquee allowed the name to be seen from both sides and the beach.


Credit…Victor Malafronte/Getty Images

Materials used in construction during the Depression weren’t of the highest quality, however, and by 1989 the marquee had to be rebuilt. Recently, the neon letters were painstakingly removed again before a new marquee made of galvanized steel was installed and the letters put back on.

“It should last much longer than the ’35 or ’89 versions,” said Debbie Tackett, the chief of historic preservation in the city’s planning department.


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The sprawling Southern California city is home to a number of “programmatic” signs — ones shaped like the products their businesses sell, designed to flag down passing motorists. The dimpled pastry atop Randy’s Donuts in the Inglewood neighborhood is by far the best known of the bunch.

Thirty-two feet in diameter, the doughnut can be spotted from the air by those flying in and out of Los Angeles International Airport. And if people haven’t laid eyes on it in person, they have likely seen it in movies, music videos and promotions.


Credit…Marvel Studios

Dating to 1953, the sign is made of steel bars covered in gunite, a kind of concrete used for swimming pools. A fiberglass replica was recently made to top a new Randy’s in nearby Downey.

But Mark Kelegian, the president and chief executive of the company, had it scaled down to 26 feet “out of respect for” the original.


Credit…Colin Lyons Photography

The Gothic-style letters of the Drake Hotel’s famous sign stand nearly 12 feet tall and have been perched on the roof of the landmark building in downtown Chicago since 1940.

The sign was designed and made by White Way Electric Sign & Maintenance Company, a firm named to evoke Times Square in New York. Neon letters were affixed to white-painted sheet metal.


Credit…Robert Whitehead

A boardwalk behind the letters allowed hotel electricians to gain access to the lights should there be any issues. And for decades there were. The neon would short out frequently, sometimes because of gusts coming off Lake Michigan. In 2013, the sign was restored, with neon swapped out for LED.

Big, bombastic signs are a signature feature of this Nevada city. So important has signage been to the local identity that the State Legislature named neon its “state element.”


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Sometimes, the stories behind the signs are just as interesting as the physical objects. For instance, the guitar motif for Hard Rock Cafes originated with an 80-foot sign for the brand’s restaurant in Las Vegas, modeled on an instrument belonging to Pete Townshend of the Who.

The Hard Rock guitar was built by Yesco, a family-led sign company founded in 1920 in Salt Lake City that was also behind the mechanical marvel known as Vegas Vic. The 40-foot cowboy, erected in 1951 for the Pioneer Club casino, grabbed attention by waving an arm and shouting, “Howdy Podner!” He was impressive enough, but Yesco soon made him a cousin, Wendover Will, who was 23 feet taller and moved both arms outside a casino in Wendover, Nev.


Credit…Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Credit…Getty Images

Although the Pioneer Club went out of business in 1995, Vegas Vic stood his ground and remains a local landmark.

The extravaganza that became known as Vegas Vickie, created by Ad Art, was erected in 1980 for the Glitter Gulch casino, across the street from Vegas Vic. In 1994, the neon cowboy and cowgirl were “married.”


Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times

Flashy signs have been a defining feature of this city for decades, including those that adorn Radio City Music Hall and Coney Island.

New York is also home to an entire district known for signage: Times Square. Rather than identify and promote the buildings to which they are attached, most of the digital billboards that define this crossroads advertise products for other companies.

The Nasdaq digital display does both. Installed by the LED lighting firm Saco Technologies in 1999, the display wraps a seven-story cylindrical portion of a much larger office tower. Its arrival signaled the beginning of the electronic stock exchange’s march uptown from the financial district in Lower Manhattan.


The Nasdaq name is featured prominently on the second floor, with a fluid blue zigzag evocative of old-school ticker tape. The sign broadcasts the opening and closing of the trading day and features companies listed on the exchange.

But most of what appears is third-party advertising by companies that want their products to be seen in one of the most visible locations in the world. Branded Cities, which manages ad sales for Nasdaq, said monthly packages run $50,000 to $100,000 for a 15-second spot running multiple times a day.


Credit…George Etheredge for The New York Times


When Interface, a sustainable-flooring company, opened its global headquarters in the capital of Georgia, it “wanted to make some noise,” said Chip DeGrace, vice president of workplace applications. With the help of the design firm Perkins & Will, the company spelled out its name in giant, free-standing letters.

The 3-D lettering stands out against a backdrop that pays tribute to the arboreal heritage of this “city in the forest” — and Interface’s own environmental ethos — with a pattern of interlaced trunks and branches.



The facade comes courtesy of adhesive-backed polyester film that was printed with a pattern that evokes the native trees that stood on the site centuries ago. The film, applied to the building’s glass, allows natural light to penetrate to interiors, protects against glare and solar heat gain — and made the building an instant local landmark.

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David Pecker Out as Chief of National Enquirer Publisher

David J. Pecker, the tabloid media titan who drew the scrutiny of federal investigators for his alleged role in Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, is out as the leader of the parent company of The National Enquirer, Us Weekly and other publications, according to a company announcement on Friday.

At the same time, American Media, the company led by Mr. Pecker since 1999, has a new name, A360Media, and will be merged with a sibling company, Accelerate 360. Both are controlled by the hedge fund Chatham Asset Management.

The chief executive of Accelerate 360, David Parry, announced the changes to employees on Friday. The company, based in Smyrna, Ga., describes itself as a logistics firm that delivers products “from corkscrews to umbrellas.”

Accelerate said Mr. Pecker, 68, the chief executive and president of American Media, would take on a new role, executive adviser. Under his leadership, The Enquirer sometimes moved away from its usual coverage of Hollywood celebrities and reality television stars to bolster the candidacy of Mr. Trump and attack his political foes, including Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton.

In 2016, Mr. Pecker and his associates helped orchestrate a deal involving a woman who claimed a past affair with Mr. Trump: the former Playboy model Karen McDougal. In a piece of tabloid tradecraft known as “catch and kill,” an article on the alleged affair was never published.

Federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York investigated American Media’s hush payments as a possible violation of campaign finance laws. They ended up giving Mr. Pecker a nonprosecution deal for his cooperation, which included an admission that American Media had paid Ms. McDougal with the intention of aiding Mr. Trump’s 2016 election prospects.

Last year, The Enquirer made news again when it was accused of “extortion and blackmail” by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and owner of The Washington Post, who has been the target of name-calling by Mr. Trump on Twitter. Mr. Bezos, the world’s richest man, accused the supermarket tabloid after it devoted 11 pages of its Jan. 28, 2019, issue to an exposé of his extramarital affair with Lauren Sanchez, a Los Angeles television personality.

In a lengthy post on the digital platform Medium, Mr. Bezos singled out Mr. Pecker in his headline: “No thank you, Mr. Pecker!” In the text that followed, he accused American Media of having threatened to publish graphic photographs of himself, including a “below-the-belt selfie,” if he did not publicly affirm that The Enquirer’s reporting on his affair had not been motivated by political concerns.

In April 2019, after the dispute with Mr. Bezos, American Media announced that it had sold The Enquirer to James Cohen, a son of the founder of the Hudson News franchise of newspaper and magazine shops. That deal has not closed. Chatham, the principal owner of American Media, had pushed Mr. Pecker to sell The Enquirer after the publication found itself under federal scrutiny.

Chatham, a New Jersey hedge fund, is led by Anthony Melchiorre, a Chicago-area native who has earned a reputation on Wall Street as a tough negotiator. Mr. Melchiorre manages more than $4 billion in assets for clients through various funds, including some listed under an address in the Cayman Islands, where more favorable tax rates apply.

The hedge fund recently took ownership of the McClatchy Company, a large and prestigious newspaper chain, after a bankruptcy auction. McClatchy runs 30 news outlets across the country, including The Sacramento Bee and The Miami Herald.

Mr. Pecker’s brand of journalism makes for an incongruous fit with McClatchy, which has won a raft of Pulitzer Prizes in its 163-year history. The news release announcing the merger of American Media (that is, A360Media) and Accelerate did not include a mention of Chatham.

In an internal memo on Friday, Mr. Parry told employees that “the unexpected economic impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on magazine newsstand sales have accelerated the discussions and made the American Media/Accelerate integration necessary.”

The coronavirus pandemic has harmed many publications, but it was particularly damaging to American Media, whose publications — especially its flagship, The Enquirer — rely on sales at supermarket checkout counters, newsstands and airport shops like Hudson News.

Credit…Bob Strong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Pecker was raised in the Bronx and educated at Pace University in that borough. The school gave him an honorary doctorate in 1998 and later established a distinguished professorship in his honor. In the 1990s, before he was a tabloid titan, Mr. Pecker was a swaggering Manhattan media executive who ran Hachette Filipacchi Magazines, then the home of the fashion glossy Elle, the movie magazine Premiere and the politics-and-lifestyle monthly George, a publication edited by John F. Kennedy Jr.

In 1999, Mr. Pecker was part of a group, led by Evercore Partners, that bought American Media for $294 million. Chatham became an owner of American Media in 2014.

Years before Mr. Trump became a political force, The Enquirer had a flirtation with respectability: In 2010, the administrators of the Pulitzer Prize determined that the tabloid was eligible for its awards after it had submitted investigative articles that uncovered the extramarital affair and out-of-wedlock fatherhood of John Edwards, a former senator and presidential candidate.

Amid the “catch and kill” investigation relating to the 2016 campaign, Mr. Pecker met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as part of American Media’s attempts to strike business deals in that nation. American Media also published a glossy magazine in the crown prince’s honor, a 100-page tome filled with splashy photos of him smiling or shaking hands with President Trump.

The magazine appeared on newsstands in the spring of 2018, when Prince Mohammed went on a tour of the United States that included visits with moguls and celebrities such as Rupert Murdoch, Michael R. Bloomberg and Mr. Bezos. In October that year, assassins strangled the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote opinion articles for The Washington Post, at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and dismembered his body using a bone saw.

With Mr. Pecker no longer leading the renamed American Media, Chatham has put some distance between itself and the company’s rocky recent past. Taking Mr. Pecker’s place at the helm is Chris Scardino, an 18-year veteran of American Media, who was named the president of A360Media.

In his memo on Friday, Mr. Parry, the Accelerate chief executive, provided facts about the company to A360Media workers who may never have heard of it under the heading “Can you tell me more about Accelerate?” As part of the answer, he wrote, “American Media and Accelerate are currently sister companies under common ownership.”

In its news release, Accelerate said it had “recently launched a successful line of personal protection equipment that includes hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfectant wipes, cloth and disposable face masks, P.P.E. safety packs and immunity boosting supplements.”

Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.