Windows into the past, ghost signs are faded memories of Village

BY FRANK MASTROPOLO | To the keen observer, a roam through Greenwich Village provides a history lesson told through its ghost signs. These faded, weather-beaten ads painted on buildings, stamped in steel or carved in stone provide an insight into Village life from decades past.

Villagers’ dedication to historical preservation has protected many ghost signs, but the elements and relentless development have taken their toll. Here are 10 of the Village’s staunchest survivors, in an order ideal for a walking tour.

The sign of the old Village Gate nightclub, at 160 Bleecker St. at Thompson St. Photos by Frank Mastropolo

Opened in 1958 by Art D’Lugoff, the Village Gate nightclub featured stars of folk, jazz and comedy and theatrical shows until it closed in 1994. Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Pryor and Miles Davis were among the Gate’s performers. Its iconic sign remains atop a CVS drug store at 160 Bleecker St. The sign advertises two of the venue’s shows: “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” and performance artist Penny Arcade’s “Politics, Sex & Reality.”

The Avignone Pharmacy ghost sign, at Bleecker St. and Sixth Ave.

In 1929 Avignone Pharmacy moved from its MacDougal St. location to 281 Sixth Ave. The proudly anti-chain drug store served the community until it closed its doors in 2015 due to a rent hike. The large painted sign advertising the pharmacy still overlooks Sir Winston Churchill Square, the small park that honors the British prime minister during World War II. The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation estimates the sign, with its CH-2 telephone prefix, probably dates from the 1950s.

Next to the Avignone sign is another survivor, an ad for Hygrade’s All-Beef frankfurters. Hygrade Products was founded in 1914 by Russian immigrant Samuel Slotkin. The company made a variety of processed meats, but the book “Food City” explains that Slotkin’s “first loyalty” was to his original product, the frankfurter: “His were always all beef and came with a skin, because otherwise ‘all the juice leaks out.’ ” Hygrade’s was acquired by Sara Lee in 1989.

The Hygrade’s All-Beef Frankfurters ghost sign, at 281 Sixth Ave. near Bleecker St.

The signs above the Marine Layer clothing store at 316 Bleecker St. are so-called palimpsests or double ghost signs. A newer but aged sign for Mrs. A. Swinton has been painted over the older Samuel Tuck sign. Neither offers a clue about the businesses, though the sign’s 302 may refer to an early numbering of the street. The block’s row of seven Italianate buildings was built in 1854 for wholesale grocers Martin Bunn and Nicolas D. Harder. A salesperson at Marine Layer says the signage, in remarkable condition for its age, was revealed when a dry cleaners sign was removed during renovation.

In the early 20th century, Greenwich St. was both commercial and residential. The Ninth Ave. elevated trains, or Els, ran down the street’s center and served companies like Coy Disbrow, a wholesale paper and twine dealer. Robert Henry Coy and Hamilton Thomas Disbrow founded the company in 1922.

In 1930, Coy Disbrow moved to 686 Greenwich St., where its founders remained until they both died in 1942. The company relocated to Lafayette St. in 1968. Though the building was converted to apartments in 1977, the faded two-story sign facing Christopher St. remains in remarkably good shape.

The Ninth Precinct — which later became the Sixth — was formerly on Charles St.

The luxury apartment building at 135 Charles St. was named Le Gendarme in 1977 as a nod to the past. The grand Beaux Arts structure was built in 1897 as the stationhouse for the Ninth Police Precinct. Dedicated by then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the building included 32 holding pens, jail cells and stables. The stationhouse closed in 1969 and moved as the Sixth Precinct to a less-ornate home on W. 10th St.

The Northern Dispensary was built in 1831 on the triangle of land formed by Christopher and Grove Sts. and Waverly Place. At the time, Greenwich Village was considered the northern part of New York City. A marble plaque over its entrance at 165 Waverly Place describes its mission: “Heal the Sick.” Deed restrictions ensured that the building would be used to provide medical services. Largely operating as a dental clinic by the 1980s, the Dispensary’s refusal to treat a man with AIDS led to a lawsuit and fines. The clinic closed in 1989. Its restrictive deed has helped keep the building empty.

The ghost sign for Emil Talamini Real Estate, at 450 Sixth Ave. between W. 10th and W. 11th Sts.


The ghost sign for Emil Talamini Real Estate has been called “Sixth Avenue’s unofficial welcome-to-the-Village sign.” Almost three stories high, the ad on the south side of 450 Sixth Ave. overlooks the Jefferson Market Library. Talamini, who maintained an office in the building, died in 1970 at 64. His obituary in the Times described him as a real estate broker and investor who lived at 70 E. 10th St. and was long active in the Village.

The Grosvenor Stable ghost sign on W. 10th St.

The three-story structure at 50 W. 10th St. was most likely built in the early 1800s as a carriage house for the horses of a rich Village landowner. Its sign, Grosvenor Private Boarding Stable, has endured, although the building became a residence in 1900. In 1965, playwright Edward Albee bought the house. Here he wrote “A Delicate Balance,” earning him the Pulitzer Prize. Composer Jerry Herman purchased the home in 1968.

Some of the past uses at 17 E. 13th St. are reflected by its ghost signs.

Scottish immigrant Archibald Erskine moved his Erskine Press to 17 E. 13th St. when it was constructed in 1911. Author Anaïs Nin explained in her diary (“Vol. 4, 1944-1947”) that she and partner Gonzalo Moré started Gemor Press there in 1944 to publish their own work.

“It was a small, two-story house,” Nin wrote. “There was a large front window, big enough for displays, and it could be fixed to exhibit our beautiful books.” A later renovation revealed a “Childrens Hair Cut” sign. Today a French-themed cafe serves grilled sandwiches here.