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.
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?
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?
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.