Sign, sign. Everywhere a sign. Blockin' out the scenery. Breakin' my mind. Do this. Don't do that. Can't you read the sign?
These famous song lyrics colourfully illustrate how ubiquitous signs have become in our urban environment. Street signs, billboards, traffic signs and video screens are all inescapable components of every cityscape.
Long before giant LCD screens blinked above our streets, the most common and effective commercial signs were painted wall advertisements. Applied directly to a building's exterior brick, these large billboards were once a prominent feature in the commercial districts of Canadian cities.
Today these signs are among the most revered and endangered components of historic neighbourhoods across North America. Painted by hand and left to the elements, these early murals have become known as "ghost signs," both for their visual character resulting from faded paint leaving ghosted images on the sides of buildings and because they often represent companies or products that vanished long ago.
Winnipeg is commonly celebrated for its heritage buildings, but is less well known as home to one of the most intact collections of ghost signs in the country. Often going unappreciated, these signs provide an authenticity and continuity to the public spaces of our historic districts. Occasionally, as with the Nutty Club murals, they even become familiar landmarks of their own.
Historically as buildings changed owners, the advertisements on their walls were painted over, added to or modified. The result today is that ghost signs resemble archeological layers that reveal the ethnic, social and economic evolution of the city.
A building stands as a record of the era in which it was constructed, but its ghost signs are able to tell the colourful story of its life through the decades. In Winnipeg, ghost signs often portray our city's growth as a manufacturing centre. Our once-thriving garment industry is represented on faded brick walls by companies such as Buffalo Cap and Neckwear, Patrick's Shoes and McGregor Hosiery.
Not all ads portrayed local companies or products. Often walls were leased to larger corporations for national advertising campaigns. The term "bullpen" in baseball developed because Bull Durham Tobacco always advertised on buildings near ballparks. The "Drink Pepsi-Cola" sign on the wall of the St. Charles Hotel is often mistaken for being one of these types of advertisements, but it is actually a reproduction painted in 1982.
The men who painted ghost signs were proudly known as "wall dogs." They considered themselves artists (Norman Rockwell even worked as a wall dog) and gained a reputation for being colourful individuals who would entertain pedestrians as they hung precariously from makeshift swing stages high above the sidewalk.
In Winnipeg, most wall dogs worked for the Remis Sign Co., which existed from 1919 until 1965. In winter months they would keep their paints, a hand-mixed concoction of linseed oil, pigment and white lead paste, sitting in trays of boiling water to prevent them from getting too thick to apply.
White paint, having the highest lead content and therefore the greatest longevity, creates an interesting phenomenon as ghost signs naturally fade. Occasionally the more durable white lettering of signs painted over long ago begins to appear from behind the newer sign like a ghost coming back to life. An example can be seen at the corner of McDermot and Rorie as the white letters of a wholesale crockery company from 1906 are emerging from beneath a sign for Milady Chocolates painted after the Second World War.
The rejuvenation of Winnipeg's warehouse district has opened the debate over how to best treat ghost signs in the future. Officially, they have no explicit heritage protection, but on a listed building they are considered "character-defining elements" and their alteration must be approved by the city.
There is no specific policy for their preservation, with different solutions having been previously implemented. The Nutty Club and Ashdown Warehouse signs have been repainted. The unique Philco Radio sign on James Avenue's new District Condominiums is being left untouched. A colourful sign on Red River College's Union Tower Annex was sliced in half by new construction, the remnants being left intact.
The natural reaction would be to repaint ghost signs before they disappear forever. The risk of this strategy, however, is the diminished authenticity of our heritage neighbourhoods and the loss of the romantic, ethereal nature of the signs themselves.
It is important that they be protected from needless destruction, but a consistent policy for all ghost signs, with their inherent transitory nature, would be fraught with problems and paradoxes. Each is unique and each requires an individual approach for preservation. Some might be best carefully restored, some best left to deteriorate naturally.
The most appropriate strategy is likely for the Urban Design Advisory Committee to consider each sign independently while always being mindful of their importance to our urban identity, our social history and our future economic potential.
Before they do fade into time ,however, we should all remember to look up, hum that familiar song and just read the signs.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org