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Neon Nights across the East River

Pepsi-Cola Sign

East River Landmark since 1938

When I take Sherlock for his evening walk to the end of East 52nd Street, the spectacular Pepsi-Cola sign across the East River always captivates me. The dramatic Art Deco script outlined in ruby-red neon reminds me of a legend about a famous River House applicant who didn’t make the grade.

It was rumored that Joan Crawford had the Pepsi-Cola sign strategically planted in Long Island City—in full view of River House residents—as retaliation when her application was vetoed. The president of the co-op board at the time was Robert Woodruff, the former president of Coca-Cola. The actress was the widow of Pepsi CEO Alfred Steele and served on the board of directors. She was an early proponent of brand placement; and the gesture would have been a triumph. As tempting as it is to believe, the tale is pure fiction.

Joan Crawford

Pepsi's Star Board Member

Designed by the Artkraft Strauss Sign Corporation, which created many Times Square dazzlers, the sign had topped PepsiCo’s Hunters Point bottling plant since 1938. Capitals “P” and “C” stood approximately 44-feet high. Smaller letters ranged from 15-to-18-feet high. The logo was modernized in 1942 when a dash was inserted to replace the “double dot” colon, which appeared with the original Pepsi name.

To complete the billboard, a 50-foot-high, filled and capped Pepsi bottle stood to the right of the brand name. The bottle was hand-painted onto cutout metal and illuminated by two 400-watt, high-intensity lamps. Red neon tubing also trimmed the bottle’s outer edges. Originally, the oversized bottle cap advertised “5 cents” next to its brand name. When the price increased, the bottle cap was replaced with a full bottle as the sign’s end piece.

In 1994, Artkraft Strauss completely refurbished the Pepsi sign. When the Pepsi plant closed in 1999, Rockrose Development Corporation acquired the land and the bottling plant. The area is currently being transformed into Queens West, a mixed-use complex of apartment towers, a middle school, offices, retail stores and a waterfront park.

When word got out that the Pepsi plant would be demolished, support for preserving the Pepsi sign immediately surfaced in community meetings, mail-in campaigns and petitions. The sign was even submitted for Landmark consideration. It was re-erected to a temporary location overlooking the East River, just 500 yards from the Pepsi-plant rooftop. Finally, in 2008, it was dismantled again and moved slightly north to it’s permanent home in Gantry Plaza State Park, in front of a 24-story apartment building being constructed by Rockrose.

Silvercup Studios Sign

Studio Business in Queens

Domino Sugar Sign

Upcoming Revival in Brooklyn

Like the celebrated Silvercup sign—and unlike the animated Swingline Staple sign—Pepsi’s branding symbol is one of few remaining monuments to an era when manufacturing was a part of Long Island City. At that time, the river must have been a busy thoroughfare for boats hauling cargo, including sugar from Havana for delivery to factories like Pepsi, which made it’s own syrup, and Domino, which converted raw cane into refined sugar. The latter company’s original 40-foot-tall sign will eventually be mounted on top of the Landmark 1884 refinery in Williamburg, which is being turned into an 11-acre riverfront complex similar to Queens West.

Early residents Sutton Place, Beekman Place and River House enjoyed far more picturesque views than those who live there now. In his 1996 column in Advertising Age, James Brady, who had just attended a party at Alexandra Penney’s apartment in River House, summed it up nicely: “In Paris, if you have a river view you see the Tour Eiffel across there. In London, you might see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In Manhattan, a river view gets you the Pepsi sign.”

Today, River House may not be the first choice ‘for those you think young’, but like that other 1930s icon blazing across the river, it’s here to stay.

 

3 Comments

  1. Marc Duron wrote:

    Fabulous! I have always been curious about the history behind the Pepsi-Cola sign and loved the tie-in with River House and Joan Crawford.

    Thank you!

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  2. DLM wrote:

    Who knew? Andy, another interesting story. The connection between the Pepsi sign, River House and Joan Crawford is unbelieveble. The owners of Silvercup Studios are actually clients of mine and together we are currently marketing their condominium called The Industry in Long Island City. I believe you know the writer of their brochure ;)

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  3. Mark Weeks wrote:

    So I was at a dinner party last night on the east river with a view of the Pepsi sign, and was told the story of Joan Crawford seeking revenge on the Coca-Cola man. While I delighted in the sheer bitchiness of it all, needed a little double-checking. Thank you for dispelling and setting the record straight.

    Monday, January 16, 2012 at 3:43 am | Permalink

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