McGovern's Bar ghost sign downtown

Viewed from above, Manhattan’s skyline makes it seem like an island of skyscrapers. But a walk south of 14th Street reveals brownstones, row houses and tenements, many built before World War II. Their walls often display ghost signs — vintage ads that offer clues to the bars, restaurants, pharmacies, shops, and industries of a forgotten time. 

Some ghost signs survive for decades thanks to retailers who decline to take them down. McGovern’s Bar in Soho, opened in the early 1960s, has been closed for decades. The businesses that followed — Paul’s Casablanca is the latest — have kept its neon sign illuminated. Uptown Manhattan and Brooklyn have fascinating arrays of ads but Downtown’s streets offer some of the city’s oldest ghost signs.

1. S. Beckenstein, 130 Orchard Street

S. Beckenstein fabric store ghost sign, 130 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side
S. Beckenstein, 130 Orchard Street, 2017

“Orchard Street, just north of Delancey. is the place to go for a pair of pants to match a still serviceable coat and vest,” reported the Albany (MO) Capital in 1941. “As you approach the corner of Orchard and Delancey, a barrage of signs directs you to Beckenstein’s which occupies three crowded floors, a basement, and an annex across the street.” 

Samuel Beckenstein, an immigrant from Poland, arrived in New York in 1910. From his start as a pushcart merchant, the entrepreneur established Beckenstein’s Men’s Fabric in 1919. Beckenstein created a business that catered to men who could not afford a new suit when the pants wore out. Beckenstein bought leftover fabric from men’s suit manufacturers and made pants that exactly matched the jackets of suits. By the 1930s, Beckenstein advertised his business as the “World’s Largest Pants Matching House.” 

Side view of S. Beckenstein fabric store ghost sign, 130 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. This sign is now obscured by new construction.
S. Beckenstein, Viewed from Delancey Street, 2017

In 1945 the company moved to the former New York Telephone Company building on Orchard Street. Beckenstein covered the second and third floors with signage. Another sign across the roofline was once visible for blocks to the south. New construction on Delancey Street now obscures it. In time, fabric businesses departed Orchard Street, replaced by coffee shops, bars, and leather and hat shops. Beckenstein was the last holdout, but by 1999 moved uptown and is now part of Fabric Czar. The Perrotin gallery moved into the building in 2017 and incorporated its name into the Beckenstein facade.