Empire State of Signs

Empire State of Signs

No building looms larger over New York City than the Empire State Building, not only in size and stature but also in style. The tower’s bespoke art deco detailing speaks to the fashionable spirit of many New Yorkers, from its rainbow and stainless-steel crown to its gleaming marble lobby. Even the storefronts fit the character, down to the stylized, 1920s-era font that comprises retailers’ signage.


But those quaint signs are about to enter the 21st Century. Last month, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a modification to the Empire State Building’s masterplan that will allow retailers to use their "branded" fonts instead of the art deco-inspired signage that has been the standard since the building became a landmark 28 years ago. The move is part of owner W&H Property’s remodeling of the entire building, from refurbished interiors to new green features.

While some may view the changes as so much consumerism flying in the face of history, Richard Metsky, the Beyer Blinder Belle principal overseeing the building’s restoration, argues that it is actually a return to form from an invented past only a few decades old. As he explains it, the building had no uniform signage when it opened in 1930. As retail occupancy took off in the ‘40s and ‘50s, all manner of signs proliferated, many of them tastefully rendered—an inspiration to what the designers are now proposing.

In the following decades, neon began to dominate, and the signage became more crass, a mini–Times Square. Only once the building was designated a landmark in 1981 did calm return to its storefront facade. A masterplan was developed, calling simply for small, 8 inch-high aluminum letters affixed to a black glass band. The preferred font was Broadway, created in 1928 by prolific typographer Morris Fuller Benton. Metsky said the font was popular with preservationists of the era and the postmodern stylings that were increasingly in vogue. “It’s an overreaction to all the signage,” Metsky said. "It cleaned the building up, but the problem is the font is rather generic and had nothing to do with the building."

In 2007, when Beyer Blinder Belle was undertaking renovations to the entire structure, they sought to create more historically appropriate signage. As a solution, the architects teamed up with graphic designers from Two Twelve Associates and created their own font for use throughout the building. Their inspiration was a towering bronze plaque that dominates the lobby, which had the names of the project’s various designers and artisans etched in it in a distinctly deco font with no clear provenance. This new font, which was approved previously by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, was deployed for all signage, inside and out.

Though it remains in place for all interior signage, the font never caught on, at least not with retailers. Some preservationists have questioned whether “branded” signage is really the key to leasing more retail space at the Empire State Building, but Andrew Goldberg, an executive vice president at CB Richard Ellis in charge of retail at the building, insists it is an important part of the equation.

“It was about getting national retailers there,” Goldberg said, “and one of the things they want is good visibility and the ability to show the brand and show it in the best light.” Goldberg points out that the branded fonts of FedEx, Starbucks, or Walgreens—three of the building’s current tenants—are as much logos as words."A lot of times, you recognize the sign before you can read it," he said.

Certain restrictions remain, including a ban on logos and “logo letters” such as the "swirl" between "Jamba" and "Juice" and Strawberry’s use of its eponymous fruit in place of the "a" in its name. In many cases, Metsky said, the signage will actually be smaller and more compact than before. And he notes that other landmarks, such as the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, have similar arrangements. (Beyer Blinder Belle worked on those as well.)

The Landmarks Commission was generally supportive of the move, as were preservationists. “It’s a good precedent for no logos, no colors, and all the other things we ask people to observe,” commission chair Robert Tierney said at a November 10 hearing, during which the changes were unanimously approved.

In an interview, Nadezhda Williams, a preservation associate at the Historic Districts Council, said she saw no problem with the changes. “I think it’s uniform enough that it won’t look like a shopping mall, but people can still express themselves,” she said.