From The Collection: 007 | Frere-Jones


The Tunnel Garage once stood at the corner of Broome and Thompson Streets in Soho. Built in 1922, it had an air of pride uncommon for a garage, announcing itself in grandly proportioned capitals. The letters were dignified, if a bit quaint, and I had used them many times as a wayfinding marker in the neighborhood.

When I designed Gotham, I canvassed the city to photograph examples of that particular genre of lettering. The photo excursions soon became a separate project, documenting public lettering in any style. I took over three thousand photos between 2002 and 2006, visiting every block in Manhattan between Battery Park and Fourteenth Street. One of my first stops was here at the Tunnel Garage. Billboards had been encroaching for some time, but the glazed terracotta letters were still as dapper as I remembered.

In case you’re wondering: I have no idea what’s up with the G. I can’t explain the structure it’s following, or trying to follow. The bottom right curve could follow Modernist examples like Futura, swinging out along a circular path and cutting back to the left. Or the curve could slow and stop to form the base of a short vertical, like a Roman inscription. Or both ideas could show up and just smash into each other. Even before I knew much of anything about type, I could tell something was funny about this. Still, there can be a jarring inspiration in being flummoxed.

Left: Futura Halbfett by Paul Renner, Bauer 1927. Right: Lettering by Rev. Edward M Catich, from “The Origin of The Serif”, published 1968.

Humble, earnest architecture like this (and its lettering) was crashing down all over the city in the early 2000s, often with little debate or notice. New York is tragically adept at overwriting itself, and I wanted to record what I could before the wrecking crew arrived. The Tunnel Garage was razed in 2006 for luxury residential units.