It was a cold, snowy winter evening in New York City. I was walking home from my Banker’s Trust Co. job on Lexington Avenue. As I took a shortcut through the park, I looked up, saw something strange, and smiled from ear to ear. The historic ESSEX HOUSE Hotel—for just a few hours that night—as an E and an S dimmed out on their sign was renamed SEX HOUSE.

I thought it was hysterical. I wished I had a camera with me. But not having one, I paused long enough to capture a mental image of the scene, and I can still call it to mind.

Essex House, NYC, the night the E and S lights went out.
(I’ve recreated what I saw using Ruth Orkin’s photo: 5 P.M. Winter Central Park.)

The Essex House’s sign was—and remains—as iconic as the building itself. In the 70s, the sign was constructed of super-bright brilliant-red neon tubes. Between Fifth Avenue to the east and Central Park West, it was a beacon that identified the northern edge of what is now known as Billionaire’s Row and the southern boundary of Central Park.

Current day Essex House sign.

As I remember, only WPIX TV sent a film crew, captured the scene, and humorously reported the scandalous vision. Their reporter said, “Well, we all know things are pretty bad in New York, but who knew they were getting this bad?”

And then—POOF!—the story was gone.

Marriott Corporation owned the hotel, and they were a powerful advertiser in the New York region. I suspected that’s why more fun wasn’t poked at the event by other media outlets—several of my Madison Avenue ad friends confirmed my thought. In the city, in the 70s, the media clamored for funny, feel-good stories.

Over the years, the Essex House has passed through the hands of multiple owners and is currently owned by Marriott International. I’ve stayed there a few times, and it’s a fine hotel, and the upper-floor residences are exceptional properties.

I just wish, back in the day, the place had a better sense of humor.

And to be fair to the neon sign industry, other types of signage will go unexpectedly sexy from time to time.