Resurrecting the Ghost Sign

You’ve seen them before: huge mural advertisements on the sides of brick buildings in big cities. In cities like Chicago, once you start looking you see them everywhere. Even in Seattle they are not hard to find if you have a good vantage point. And be honest, you like them. You forget how old buildings are and how time passes, then a sign jumps out at you. Near the Trader Joe’s on Roosevelt in Chicago, there is a fading mural advertising corsets. If that doesn’t make you stop and smile, stop and think… stop and imagine women with corsets looking up at the exact same wall you are now, I don’t know what will.

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A freshly painted sign in Paris, Idaho

Of course, these signs epitomize what I love about history. They are history thrown in your face. But when they were painted? They were closer to billboards. Today these are known as ghost signs or ghost murals. They can be protected right along with historic buildings. Unlike historic buildings, however, these signs are rarely restored. Buildings are upgraded but the signs are not repainted. I think this is important: in a way, for the sign it is the difference between preservation and reconstruction. To repaint would be to tell a false history. Let them peel and fade with time and tell their stories with their weathered voices. But what about bringing back painting signs on buildings? Can we and should be resurrect the ghost sign?

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Paris, Idaho

I recently spotted some freshly painted signs on an old brick building, mimicking the old painted advertisements. My first reaction was one of enjoyment, but I quickly began to doubt myself. You all know the kitschy “ye olde” stores with imitation boomtown fronts. Wouldn’t a revival of the painted signs trend be, literally, painting a false history? This isn’t even going into the hazards of painting brick: brick often needs to breath and painting it can be detrimental to the building, not to mention the paint, itself. The Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation expressly do not recommend painting brick that was not painted historically. The Hotel Paris, pictured here, is not the only place that I have seen recently-painted signs: I’ve started noticing them in Seattle. I’ll admit they’re becoming. They make the building noticeable, intriguing, and welcoming all at once. As an advertising scheme, it gets the gold medal. But from a preservation perspective? Maybe not so much.

Do you have opinions about the reappearance of advertisements painted on brick buildings? When is it okay and when is it not okay? What about the old signs–do you love them as much as I do?

Sources

I found this piece on paint and historic brick that was very useful in wrapping my mind around everything. Interestingly, brick buildings in the US constructed prior to the 1870s actually needed paint to protect them from the elements.

The Trust for Historic Easements has a discussion on painting brick.

The National Park Service discusses preservation of masonry here.

Featured photo (top): some of the many ghost signs I spotted recently on buildings in Chicago.

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6 thoughts on “Resurrecting the Ghost Sign

  1. Great post! I love seeing ghost signs too– they make me nostalgic for a time I’ve never even experienced. And, like you said, it’s history that’s right in our face.

    There are quite a few faded painted signs in my neighborhood in Dallas. I can think of a new one here that is huge and is on the side of a resurrected music venue. It looks nice and is definitely eye-catching. I like it, as long as it wears well. Maybe one day it will become a ghost sign too.

    Not quite “ghost signs”, but there’s a cool project going on where artists are painting murals on the sides of buildings in Deep Ellum as a nod to the history and artistic vibe of this neighborhood. You can see the different murals on IG by searching #42murals.

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    1. Wow Julie, that’s so cool–love the mural project! And I love your thought that maybe these new signs will become ghost signs one day, too. It’s amazing that the ghost signs are so ubiquitous across America. It’s cool to hear you see a number of them in Dallas, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great piece! I love Ghost Signs, and am often on the look-out for them here in Dublin. There’s actually a group of architectural historian here, who run a little website (along with its own Tweet page ect) exclusively devoted to this topic! Have a quick look if you like, you’d like it I think and would have a good bit in common with them. Great bunch of people. http://dublinghostsigns.com/welcome/
    Well done again,. -Arran.

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