Monday, September 16, 2013

☞ MEET: Sandra Spannan

We have done a few features on Sugar Hill's golden girl who is responsible for pretty much all of the notable gold-on-glass window lettering in Manhattan.  Sandra Spannan is a former Brooklyn resident and model who set up shop uptown a few years back and has since worked on local business such as Lenox Coffee and The Grange but has also been busy touching up gilt brownstone entrance window numbers in the neighborhood.  For more on Ms. Spannan's services, check out our past post: LINK

HB: You definitely are giving off an artist vibe to us. What are your style inspirations?

SS:  I never really go out searching for the right style or philosophizing about it too much. It comes to me from many sources I guess. I don't like fashion magazines and never look at them.  I see someones shoes, a hair style or a cool belt in the subway, streets or galleries. Most of the time these styles might not be "in fashion" at all. I just collect stuff I like.

HB: Your company on Sugar Hill appears to be the one that all the major restaurants and business go to for gold window lettering. How did you start? 

I am an immigrant from Germany and came on my own in early 1993. Having always been a painter and crafts person, I worked with architects and design firms back in Germany before traveling here and got stuck on New York. I started building my name by freelancing and building up the business, job to job, client to client in a very steady kind of way. Before the internet it was definitely all about word of mouth rather then ads or press. I get a lot of business through the write-ups but the best jobs are still usually through referrals. I offer everything from decorative faux finishes to landmark restorations and any type of gilding.

HB: What projects have you been working on? 

SS: I spent most of this January overseas doing a lot of gilded glass finishes and all the signage for Keith McNally's London Balthazar, as well as his local NY bakery windows just two weeks ago. At the moment I have a crew on a very upscale residential construction site on the Upper East Side for at least 3 months now doing faux bois finishes on floors.  My crew will then travel again this fall for Victoria Secret stores to do their finishes and gilded signs. We are also developing a gilded sticker for Tiffany & Co. world wide and usually gold leaf a commercial sign or a brownstone number behind glass every week.

In the past year I was very busy with the landmark restoration of a major original dome mural in the Williamsburg Saving Bank next to the Williamsburg Bridge as well as the finishes in Anderson Coopers Firehouse in the West Village. It has been very busy years. I would like to spend more time in the studio working on my gilded walnut panels, but it has been tough.

HB: Where else have you lived in the city and why did you choose Harlem as the neighborhood to settle down in? 

SS: I first rented a $250 per month loft bed on South 11th Street in Williamsburg in the Spring of 1993. Those were the days of course... I moved to Bond Street in Soho for 4 years in the late 90s and then back again to Williamsburg until 7 years ago. After my first daughter was born,  my husband and I felt that Williamsburg did not offer what you most want for your child: green parks, lots of playgrounds, but most of all racial diversity - especially since my husband grew up with an African American dad and a white mom in the very white college town Madison, Wisconsin.  He did not want our kids to go through what he had experienced. Plus I felt more and more that Williamsburg got uber gentrified and therefore boring to some degree. There were no big surprises or challenges that had brought me to New York from my small town in Germany where I grew up.

HB: We always ask folks what is the most surprising thing that they have discovered about the neighborhood if they are relatively a new resident in Harlem. Do you have any interesting insights?

SS: As I just mentioned, I like to be surprised and taken out of my comfort zone. I love Harlem since there is no place like it. Moving here as a white, European woman with mixed race children had its challenges at times and I got into some fights or discussions about styling my daughter's hair for example.  It took me by surprise in the beginning and since I have learned tons about hair and other prejudice opinions coming from all different sides.

What surprised me is that I feel more comfortable as a minority in the neighborhood - just as I felt more comfortable as an immigrant with an accent from another country. It forces me to stay open minded, learn tons, review ones prejudices on a daily base and learn to respect and understand the other side. Since we moved here we made so many friends from all races, ages, professions, political opinions and backgrounds and that is the reason why I love New York and Harlem so much.

HB: What are your thoughts about the changes happening in the neighborhood? 

SS: For the first time in my life, I own the place where I live and so I love seeing the changes, especially good coffee shops, restaurants and bars. I feel a bit more accepted as a true Harlem resident than say 8 years ago when we first moved here. Having seen the tremendous changes of neighborhoods in Williamsburg or especially Berlin Mitte or Prenzlauerberg, the change here seems to happen more slower, which is good.  Anyone not African American that has moved to Harlem throughout the last 20 years have almost been filtered out to those who are pretty cool since they are open minded, flexible, humble and interesting enough to accept being a minority.

My kids Public School in East Harlem in the last 2 years also saw the diversity ratio really jump.  The class now is now 22 percent white, 41 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. They are not only learning about bungee jumping, hair braiding, spanish food, African American history and Martin Luther King but even how to make Japanese food so its all good and very New York.


  1. Great interview and very interesting Harlemite, but what about the cool Motorcycle, does Sandra ride this and is it an old Honda or some other make?

  2. Yes, that is Sandra's motorcycle and she made the suggestion to feature it in the photo shoot.

  3. I enjoyed this article. More like this please.

  4. Thanks Ulysses and I see she is right in my 'hood' in this photo