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Wall ads evoke era of bustling downtown commerce

Saturday, June 29, 2013
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"Ghost signs" can be seen on the backs of buildings along Broadway in Albany.
"Ghost signs" can be seen on the backs of buildings along Broadway in Albany.

— One sign promotes a dancing hall and meeting rooms, inviting passers-by to “inquire within.”

Another bears the name of the blacksmith John Eagan, while another, for a company called Meginnis, promises to fill “every electric need.” A fourth sign, for the all-purpose supply store R.B. Wing & Son, advertises an extensive list of wares: dynamite, asbestos, power tools, fire equipment, welder’s hoists.

Known as ghost signs, these long-ago advertisements were created between the 1890s and mid-1900s by sign painters known as “wall dogs.”

Until recently, they were faded relics of a bygone era, their worn and weatherbeaten letters evoking memories of a time when the city of Albany was a bustling hub of local commerce. But now, thanks to some fresh paint and the labor of local artists, the signs are brighter and more legible than they’ve been in decades.

This spring, a team of artists set about restoring the signs as part of a public art exhibit, called All Signs Point to Downtown, sponsored by the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District.

The signs for Meginnis, John Eagan and R.B. Wing & Son are on the rear of 370, 376 and 384 Broadway — three brick buildings across the street from the State University of New York administration building. The advertisement for the dancing hall and meeting rooms is on the side of 120 Madison Ave., a building that still serves its original purpose as the home of the Capitol City Lodge.

Georgette Steffens, the executive director of the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District, said the ghost signs project combines art, restoration and economic development. The hope is that the signs will draw people downtown, while also adding some vibrancy to the landscape and preserving an interesting facet of Albany’s past.

“We’re trying to maintain the integrity of the signs and the buildings,” Steffens said.

There are ghost signs throughout the region.

Old buildings, old signs

Chuck Miller, a writer and photographer whose book “Ghost Signs of the Capital District” was published in 2010, said there are about two dozen ghost signs in Albany, Schenectady, Troy and other municipalities, including Colonie, Cohoes and Gloversville. He said the Capital Region has a plethora of ghost signs because it has so many older buildings.

Some ghost signs, Miller said, become more visible in the rain, while others are only visible during certain seasons. For example, an advertisement for Lafayette Stereo, at the intersection of Central and Washington avenues in Albany, can only be seen during the winter because it is covered with ivy during the rest of the year.

“Ghost signs have survived years and years of rain and snow and attempts to paint over them,” Miller said. “A lot of times we don’t notice them. They’ve become almost invisible to us.”

Don Rittner, former Schenectady County historian, said painting advertisements on buildings was once a common practice.

“Everywhere you went, you’d see these signs,” he said. “They weren’t done as works of art. They were strictly commercial.”

Rittner said he likes the ghost signs project and supports painting new signs and murals on Capital Region buildings, noting that Troy, his hometown, is home to beautiful murals on the sides of Brown’s Brewing Co. and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. “They’re murals, but they could be advertisements,” he said.

“I’d love to see [a ghost sign restoration project] in downtown Schenectady,” Rittner said. “It would be great for history. You could employ some young artists. I think a lot of companies would love to do it.”

In Schenectady, one of the most prominent and eye-catching ghost signs is the still sprightly Coke advertisement at 412 Broadway. “Drink Coca Cola,” the sign says, “Relieves fatigue.” At State and Martin streets, a hard-to-read ghost sign advertises accordions, while the words Gazette Press Bldg. stretch down the side of the current home of the Edison Tech Center on Broadway.

The idea for All Signs Point to Downtown was born when the BID temporarily relocated to an office at 54 State St., Steffens said. From her window, she could see the ghost sign for a defunct clothing company called Bond; this sign, at the intersection of State and Pearl streets, proclaims that “more men wear BOND clothes than any other clothes in America.”

“I started thinking about the city’s retail history,” Steffens said. She said ghost signs highlight the city’s rich retail past, while also pointing toward a possible future, when downtown is once again thriving with local businesses.

Project controversial

The ghost signs project has not been without controversy.

On the website All Over Albany, local muralist Samson Contompasis complained that the project emphasizes restoration, rather than art, noting that the artists hired to repaint the signs were asked to recreate a specific image.

“When you are told what to paint, at that point it then becomes a job or commission,” he said. He added, “I feel like artists are being cheated in this deal and I am tired of this trade being brushed off. Artists are a valuable commodity. With no value for their own work being allowed the artists become cheap labor for a not well researched or thought about project. If they really wanted to do this why couldn’t we allocate city funds specifically to have professionals that love and care about these old signs come in with leagues of experience in bringing back to life what our once great city had to offer, instead of hiding it behind the falsehood of it being an art project.”

Steffens said the artists selected for the project have experience painting signs and murals.

“We were really specific about the artists we chose,” she said.

Steffens said “art is subjective,” and every time the BID undertakes an art project, someone is unhappy.

Another ghost sign has been selected for restoration. At 40 Steuben St., it is an early advertisement for the Albany Times Union that says “You’ll Like the Times Union.” The BID is currently negotiating with two other property owners to restore ghost signs located on their buildings.

Steffens said the BID has researched the history of the signs and consulted with the city of Albany’s historic planner and local architect John G. Waite. The organization used photographs from the Morris Gerber Photo Collection at the Albany Institute of History and Art to get a better sense of what the signs originally looked like. The three signs on Broadway, she said, were only partially repainted, as parts of them were still in pretty good condition.

Some have argued that the ghost signs’ appeal lies in their ghostliness, and that restoring them diminishes their mystique.

“I love seeing them, but my kids won’t be able to see them unless we restore them,” Steffens said. “We’re preserving that history for future generations.”

Miller agreed.

“I’d rather see them restored than deteriorate,” Miller said. “You see them and they bring back memories of an older Albany, pre-Empire State Plaza.”

Project support

The ghost signs project has the support of both the Historic Albany Foundation and Waite, an architect who is well known in the field of historic preservation architecture. Waite owns the R.B. Wing & Son building, which is occupied by his firm and the Albany Convention Center Authority.

“We think this is a very good project that will have a lasting benefit to downtown,” said Waite, who assisted the BID in developing the project. “It’s very important to preserve these signs because they’re an integral part of the commercial architecture in downtown Albany. They form a tangible record of where the city has been.”

Susan Holland, the executive director of Historic Albany, said some preservationists believe that restoring the ghost signs makes them less authentic. But she believes restoration “brings attention to buildings that so need attention.”

Five regional artists were selected to restore the signs.

One artist, Albany resident Chip Fasciana, spent three weeks repainting the Madison Avenue ghost sign, which now features a bright yellow border and crisp, white letters on a gray background.

“I really enjoyed it,” said Fasciana, who has painted murals and signs before. “It brings back a piece of history. It shows that the city cares about history, and that’s a positive thing.”

The ghost signs exhibit is the latest installment in the Downtown Albany BID’s annual Sculpture in the Streets project, which began in 2005. Last year, the BID asked regional artists how they are connected to Albany and its history, and to paint their impressions on large Dutch clogs that were placed throughout downtown.

 
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