New spirit for ghost signs

ghost sign state street albany by chuck millerHow about this: For this year's Sculpture in the Streets, the Downtown Albany BID has decided to restore ghost signs. From the info/application form (doc):

This year's exhibit titled: All Signs Point to Downtown will restore old retail signs, also referred to as ghost signs, on the sides of our historic buildings retelling the story of downtown Albany as the commercial hub for the Capital Region prior to the creation of suburban malls.
Now through April 12, 2013, the BID is accepting submissions from artists interested in participating. Painting will take place between mid-April to mid-June and an honorarium will be paid based on the size and complication of the retail sign.

We've converted the doc to a pdf for easy scanning -- it's post jump. It includes info on requirements, guidelines, and other details.

There are at least a handful of preservation efforts around the country aimed at keeping ghost signs from totally fading away -- especially out west, where the signs are apparently still numerous (see Butte, Montana and Fort Collins, Colorado). Interestingly, there are some people who think the signs should be allowed to fade out.

Be sure to check out Chuck's photoset of local ghost signs. He created a book from the set. (That's one of Chuck's photos on the right, from State Street.)

[via Biz Review and @AlbBizMikeD]

Earlier on AOA:
+ Last year's Sculpture in the Streets was the giant Dutch clogs
+ So, how do you create a giant clog sculpture?

photo: Chuck Miller

Downtown Albany BID Sculpture in the Streets 2013 Artist Application


Truly in the spirit of one of the oldest towns in what is now America.

As a huge fan of ghost signs, and one who runs a Flickr group devoted to them, I will say that I have mixed feelings about this. I've seen some repainted signs in other cities that lost all their character, repainted so bright and bold as to look like cartoons of old signs, rather than simply preserving the signs as they are for the future. I'm hoping they select real artists with experience in the difficult medium they're working on, and not eager volunteer muralists.

That being said, I also hope the Times Union sees the wisdom of ponying up to have its other downtown presence restored:

Oh, I love ghost signs. I have several in my neighborhood. But the thought of repainting them makes me queasy. Why can’t we just leave them be? There is something beautiful about the wearing of time. It’s the same reason people like antiques that show genuine wear and tear, and not ones that have been repainted. It’s the same reason that fading limestone gravestones are more beautiful than brand new ones. I like the idea of reproductions of the signs, but actually applying paint over the old paint gives me pause. If you screw it up, too bad, the original is gone. All I can picture is that Jesus fresco that was repainted by an amateur where he looked like a monkey.

Sorry, I think this is a mistake. Brightly colored restorations run the risk of looking like "Ye Olde" nostalgia theme park signs. Keep the ghost signs like the ephemera they are. Yes, they will gradually slip away from us, but that is part of their bittersweet charm. Urban surfaces are palimpsests, with messages and images building up over time, overlapping, fading away. Don't wreck that. Document the ghost signs through photography, but don't restore them. It'll look like hell.

This is a bit like debates in museums whether to conserve or restore historic artifacts. Restoring old artifacts has eye candy appeal for exhibition purposes, but you lose some of the actual history (the use, the age) of the object.

The new interest in history as cultural tourism is great, but I wonder if some of these ideas are overreaching and trashing the very thing they supposedly cherish.

While I appreciate some of the concerns shared by other commenters, I think this is a good idea to help breath some new life into some of our buildings, often run down, and allow a new generation of artists to engage in the human story of Albany. Yes, these often tend to get a bit cartoonish (see the updated mural on CVS in the Pine Hills, which looks kind of like the local K-6 school did), but many are done beautifully. There will be many ghost signs left intact and untouched after this experiment, preserving some of our history, meanwhile allowing the current generation to make their own contemporary interpretations. For all we know, some of those ghost signs we now appreciate, had painted over ghost signs of their own (and logic would state that the fresh signs painted this year will be painted by my grandkid in 2060). That is the beauty of our evolving "human" story

+1 here, a bit doubtful, I think the charm is all about the wear and tear. In a country so "new", why not embrace the old? I've a big mural on my walls, and I can't wait for it to be covered in leaves again, and to slowly age. This is part of the process.

I agree with the above comments.

The current patina on these signs make them what they are, beautiful. Though I very much appreciate the BID supporting our local artists by asking them to participate and compensating them, there are definitely more productive projects that would benefits both our artists and the downtown.

Dear Albany, Stop Ruining Our City!!!!!

I'm actually in favor of the updating of many of these ghost signs, so long as we've got photos of what they originally looked like. It's not like we're going to see recreations of Chesterfield cigarette ads on the side of the Armory. Three years ago, when I started photographing ghost signs around the Capital District, I was surprised at how many of these brickads still exist in the area. I'm still finding them even today. Sadly, in the time that I have had a chance to document them, some of the buildings on which they were painted were knocked down (the two Uneeda Biscuit signs in Schenectady no longer exist). And as for restoring and repainting them, the ubiquitous Mail Pouch Tobacco adverts throughout the country were re-painted and touched up every few years by the company itself, and some of the older MPT signs have been professionally restored to this day.

Ryan's idea of reproducing the signs is intriguing. It would be neat to see a new version of the old sign painted on a the same building or one close by. Then it is more about documentation, not restoration. And then both signs can wear naturally - until the old one can no longer be seen, and the new one becomes a ghost sign.

I also think repainting these signs is really bad idea. I can't even believe it's being suggested, actually. If anything, clear coat the surface with the least noticeable matte-type finish available to slow the weathering process in order to preserve the original signs. If they just NEED to put brush to wall, perhaps find blank walls and paint murals for current businesses in the style of these old signs. No garish logos, colors or web-based businesses need apply...

Really surprised at the response. Expected to see many more comments in support. I'm on the fence but leaning toward "bad idea", it just reeks of kitschy nostalgia. Instead of restoring old signs, it might be interesting to start a public-private partnership to paint new signs around the area? Businesses submit proposals and a board approves their aesthetic worthiness. We get some beautification and businesses get great advertising. Win-win.

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