There is a big debate among ghost sign enthusiasts, “Walldog” sign painters, business owners, and real estate redevelopers: repaint or let them die.
Ghost signs are faded advertisements or business logos that can be found in every corner of Philadelphia, often strategically painted on highly visible brick walls or along a busy railroad. Most are relics of the industrial boom of the 20th century–layers of painted, and sometimes repainted, history that are full of character. Enthusiasts might stare at a sign a dozen times, waiting for the right lighting or vegetation to clear before the sign reveals itself. The thrill of uncovering the history of a ghost sign can evoke a sense of community pride, revealing the stories of those who lived and worked here before us.
But what can we do when a ghost sign is faded beyond recognition, like most of the S.S. White Dental Manufacturing sign at 211 S. 12th Street? What responsibility should new property owners and historic building redevelopers bear when acquiring a structure with a ghost sign? Should we repaint or recreate them, like paintings in a museum, or should we just let them fade with time?
MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson, a ghost sign enthusiast and blogger, has written extensively on the matter, calling it a “skyscraper-sized controversy.” Although she’ll admit that her opinion on repainting has changed over time, Bitts-Jackson’s short answer is, “Don’t do it!” with the caveat that if it is between restoration or destruction, restoration can work if you “just hire a pro.” If she had her way, “All ghost signs would remain appropriately ghostly, and we would all appreciate them for that very quality that makes them, well, ghost signs.”
Although hotly debated in some circles, there are candidates for repainting all over the city. An otherwise unassuming building at 919 S. 7th Street, not far from the Italian Market, has an almost unrecognizable ghost sign advertising the Ceresota Flour logo, with the capital “C” surrounding the lowercase “e.”
Ceresota Flour has been producing flour for pizza dough since 1891. The flour was likely sold in the first-floor storefront, yet most people who walk by today would hardly notice the faded advertisement, let alone be able to decipher the lettering. Also, the storefront is long gone. With plenty of historic advertising images to reference, it could make a great candidate for a partial or full repainting.
The Sweetie Beverages sign, found peeking through a newer sign for Central Auto Body at 216 Fairmount Avenue, is another candidate for repainting. Two sides of the building are painted with signs. Repainting one side of the building to the original Sweetie Beverages signs, leaving the other as is with Central Auto Body and the older Sweetie sign peeking through, would show all layers of the building’s history. It is currently for sale, leaving the decision of what to do with the layered ghosts up to its future owners.
An example of allowing all layers of history to show can be found at 2131 N. American Street with the Walton Bros Grain and the H.B. Cassel & Sons signs. A newer “Art & Industry” sign on the building, representing its modern use today, was painted by the Philadelphia sign painting company Baker the Sign Man. The newer sign used the negative space in the bold lettering to allow parts of the ghost underneath to be seen. Now, the building has three layers of history prominently displayed.
Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said that ghost signs are, “physical and tangible windows into the past” and they give “the building some context and color.” When considering repainting, Grossi notes that it is all about the “historic narrative and making a connection” to today’s viewer. If a sign is faded beyond recognition and we can reference a historical image of the sign, like Sweetie, or an advertisement, like Ceresota, Grossi is fine with repainting or recreating if it “doesn’t fundamentally alter your understanding of the building.” The mission of the Preservation Alliance even mentions “sensitively repurposing” Philadelphia’s extraordinary historical and architectural legacy, and how it requires “expertise and collective action.”
As a success story, Grossi referenced the repainted Philadelphia Tribune sign at 520 S. 16th Street. The current sign, found on the side of the oldest, continuously-run Black newspaper in America, was painted by Philadelphia-based sign painter Darin Rowland in 2015. The project was through a partnership with the Mural Arts Program and the Temple Contemporary’s Vital Signs project, a great example of the “collective action” that Grossi mentioned.
Although it is a repainting of a sign from the 1940s, the current sign is placed on top of at least two older signs for the newspaper dating back to the 1920s. Rowland left sections of the older signs alone, allowing the viewer to see both the old and the new. The Tribune still occupies the building, and the new sign brings life back to the wall. For Bitts-Jackson, a partially-restored sign like the Tribune “can encourage folks to see beauty, or at least a sense of history, in every other unrestored ghost sign they encounter.” Partially restored signs could have the ability to raise awareness of the unrestored.
The Arthur H. Thomas Company Scientific Apparatus signs at 315 New Street is a repainting conundrum. Thomas occupied the building from 1956 until 1984. The sign on the west facing wall over a parking lot has white letters on a black background and was also repainted by Baker the Sign Man.
However, the same sign found on the south facing wall along 3rd Street has been painted over many times by different building owners. This cover up is due to more foot and vehicle traffic on 3rd Street, an understanding of strategic sign placement over the years. Even though they painted over the older Thomas sign, the new property owner, Bridgeview Place Condominiums, proudly displays their own painted sign with white letters on a black background, keeping with the aesthetic of the original Thomas signs.
The sign painting expertise that the Preservation Alliance’s mission statement speaks of can be found in Philadelphia-based traditional sign painter Gibbs Connors. With more than 34 years of sign painting under his belt, Connors has done it all. In June 2020, he repainted the iconic Harbison’s milk bottle in Kensington, and he has made a living painting faux ghost signs–brand new signs made to look older than they are–for West Elm, Five Below, Mitchell & Ness, and many more. Connors has always been attracted to ghost signs, trying to figure out what they say, noting that “some are funny, out of date or obsolete products.” A student of the industry, Connors loves the “textures, layers coming through, the palette and mosaic” of the signs. Connors also understands the painter’s struggle, stating that, “many Walldogs who painted the ghosts were often immigrants that risked their lives to make a living and put food in his family’s mouth.”
For Connors, the question of whether we should repaint or not comes down to a case-by-case basis. If the job is to repaint a sign for a company that is still in business at the address in question, that is fine. Similar to the Tribune sign, Connors provided his expertise to the same Mural Arts and Temple Contemporary groups in 2013 when they repainted the H. Henssler Expert Locksmith sign at 926 N. 13th Street. The fifth-generation family-owned business attributed an increase in profits to the repainting of the sign. Connors did caution, however, that repainting a ghost sign for a business that is no longer there might be confusing to the passerby today. It would be unfortunate to see a potential customer notice the sign, stop, look for the business, and find that it is long gone.
Connors has also painted over ghost signs himself. Speaking of one job in Syracuse, New York that “broke my heart,” he reconciles the coverup by knowing that he is now a part of that wall’s history. Maybe one day his newer sign will fade to reveal the one that he covered. The ultimate sign of respect would be if he was asked to repaint one of his own signs or even paint over his own work with a completely different sign. Connors sees this as recognition of a job well done and that the layers would all be his own.
Craig Grossman is a general partner at Arts and Crafts Holdings, a commercial, industrial, and mixed-use real estate developer that primarily operates along Spring Garden Street. He has hired Connors to paint faux ghost signs in their buildings, but has yet to touch the real ghost signs. Grossman said that the buildings in the company’s portfolio have “beautiful bones, fell on tough times, and deteriorated.” Their tenants are drawn to an older building with some history behind it, and ghost signs showcase that history.
The Arts and Crafts Holdings headquarters at 601 Spring Garden Street is the former home of the Philadelphia Belting Company, a producer of leather power transmission belts founded in 1908. Grossman said that there was “no conversation” about a restoration of the ghost sign when they moved in. When asked if he would consider repainting one of the four walls of ghost signs on another property at 448 N. 10th Street, the former home of the Haverford Cycle Company and F.H. White Co., a bag manufacturer, Grossman answered with several questions of his own. He wondered if it would “take away from the history,” what if it “doesn’t look right, too new” or if the whole idea was “sacrilegious?”
He said that he’d consider repainting, but would rather see the history shown in a different way, like a plaque or pay homage through interior design, such as images and old advertisements of a Haverford bicycle in the lobby. Arts and Crafts Holdings has also commissioned artists to paint new murals on their buildings like those found at 448 N. 10th Street. This effectively draws the eye of today’s viewer, who then might notice the ghost signs.
One method Grossman could consider is seen on the K. Straus & Co. cigar importer and manufacturer sign found at 301-307 N. 3rd Street. The sign with the company’s name has been repainted. Underneath, a newer sign for the Havana Lofts can be seen with a cigar logo and tobacco leaves. The logo that Havana Lofts used was the same logo for the K. Straus & Co., a clever callback to the building’s original occupant.
So, what is the consensus for the best course of action among Bitts-Jackson, Grossi, Connors, and Grossman? For one, most seem to agree that recreation on a different part of the building is a good option. Partial restoration of a legible ghost sign, and especially an illegible sign, can work if you proceed with caution. Property owners should evaluate the ghost sign’s historical significance and consult a local sign painter and historian, allowing any work to be as historically accurate as possible. All would prefer these methods to them being unnecessarily covered up for a new sign.
There is, however, one method that everyone seems to think is a slam dunk: illumination. Recently, artists have digitally recreated ghost signs using historical images. These are then projected onto the ghost sign itself, working especially well on signs that have multiple layers. The outcome is almost theatrical, both visually pleasing and minimally invasive. Bitts-Jackson thinks that illumination is the best option, and Grossi noted that it is “completely reversible.” Grossman said that he would consider illumination as a fun project for Arts and Crafts buildings.
“Ghost signs are special because they survived,” said Connors. These signs have seen the city change around them. They have survived the sun’s rays, rain and snow, smoke and soot from factories and railroads, and repainting or coverup attempts. Maybe we should let ghost signs die and slowly fade away with time. It could be that the best course of action is no action, appreciating them while we can, for as long as we can.