My New York City Red-Green Signal

A bit of NYC Signal History

Do you remember the old-fashioned two-color (red and green only) traffic lights of New York City?  Whenever I visited New York in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the old 4-way signals with only red and green lights that were scattered around the city.  These quaint fixtures I saw were the vanishing remnants of the original GE and Horni/Ruleta signals that were installed from the 1920s through the 1940s.

In the early 1950s, New York City began to make sweeping traffic control changes. They began using modern Marbelite adjustable signals with tunnel visors and associated hardware to replace the old GE and Horni/Ruleta units, and, simultaneously, began implementing an upgrade from the old 2-color standard to three colors: red amber and green. In many cases, the new Marbelite signals needed to be installed before the intersection could be upgraded to three colors.  In all, it took over 40 years for the last of the original Horni/Ruleta signals to be replaced, and probably an additional 20 years for all 2-color signals to finally be converted to three colors.

My Signal

In May 2012. I drove to New Hampshire to purchase this light from a retired New Yorker.  According to him, it was taken down from Merrick Blvd in Laurelton, Queens in the mid-1970s and given to him on the spot by the contractor. This is evidently a later (late 1940s?) variation of this type of signal.  It has the Horni design, but has no manufacturer name stamped or embossed that I can find.  The original wiring was plastic-coated, rather than the older cloth style, but the feed wires into the light were cloth. There is  a 2″ steel elbow at the top, indicating that it was mounted on an overhead mast.  It was configured as a 3-way signal, with one of the four sides covered by cast aluminum “blanks” (see photo on left).  To my surprise, there were lenses, reflectors, and light bulbs on all four sides. All lenses are Kopp No. 27 (see photo on right).

New York City originally painted their signals either black or olive green.  All of them were re-painted yellow in the 1960s during the reign of Traffic Commissioner Henry Barnes.  I prefer the old fashioned look of the darker signals, so I stripped the yellow and black layers off  and then brush painted it with glossy Rustoleum black.  After painting, I wired it up with a custom circuit-board controller manufactured by Sean Breen.

Special thanks with this restoration goes out to several people, including:

  • Gordon Loeffler, for rewiring the sockets
  • Sean Breen, for making the customized controller
  • Dave McPhail, for several rare-as-hen’s-teeth brass wing nuts to replace the missing ones
  • Lary Brown, for custom-making brass eye bolts to fit the old wing nuts
  • Ed Tapanes, for his assistance with getting this light dismantled, and for keeping his tongue off it, at least when I wasn’t looking
  • Patrick Gorman, who, come Hell or high water, saw to it that I had one of these lights in my collection!