Your City's 'Ghost Signs' Have Stories to Tell

Once upon a time, the side of a building was as good an advertising medium as any, and many were painted to alert passers-by to the business inside, or for some totally unrelated product. Now they are part of history, sometimes faded and barely readable, sometimes only existing in photographs. Seeing one provokes a sense of whimsy and nostalgia. Should these 'ghost signs' be preserved? Even if you think they should be, the greater question is "How?"  

Some cities and towns are restoring ghost signs with fresh paint, but that can be a contentious issue. Winslow says that in the sign painting community, many people believe that for a restoration to be authentic, it must be repainted by the person who originally painted the sign, or a direct apprentice. That’s tough for a 75-year-old sign.

Color and paint choice presents another problem. Ghost signs have lasted so long because the paint contained lead. Modern paints peel, rather than slowly fading away. Many of today’s restorations are painted in bright colors, but old paints were less vibrant, and the available palette was limited.

Preservationists see the question as the kind of tradeoff they confront all the time. Tod Swormstedt of the American Sign Museum said,

“It’s kind of a subjective call, like when you restore an old house; are you going to restore it back to not having electric lights and have gas lights and not have a bathroom, not have indoor plumbing like some of the early Victorian houses?” Swormstedt says. “How purist do you want to get?”

But experiential designer Craig Winslow has a totally different method for preserving ghost signs, one that doesn't affect the building at all. Read about his work at City Lab. -via Metafilter

(Image credit: Bill Whittaker)


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