On restoring Albany's ghost signs

Bond Ghost Sign - Chuck Miller.jpg

The Bond Clothing sign the prompted the idea for the project. (From a photoset by Chuck Miller of local ghost signs.)

This year the Downtown Albany BID's Sculpture in the Streets project is titled "All Signs Point to Downtown" -- the BID is aiming to restore a handful of "ghost signs" around downtown. The announcement of the project and its call for artists prompted some interesting discussion about the idea this week, both critical and supportive. And the interest is understandable: this work will be on display for thousands of people all around downtown.

Among the people with a reaction: Samson Contompasis, a mural artist and the organizer of the Living Walls mural project. He reached out to AOA with some strong objections -- both artistic and practical -- and we thought it'd be interesting to share them here. We also talked with the Downtown Albany BID to get its perspective.

First up: Samson...

RB Wing Ghost Sign Chuck Miller.jpg

Samson's Take:

On history

This is a restoration project, and sign painting is a trade.

Since the 1800s groups of men referred to as "Wall Dogs" would travel town to town painting all of the beautiful signs and advertisements that time has eventually etched away. So are we to throw these traditions and methods away to use inexperienced people to recreate a part of our past that is, in my opinion, doing just fine? The reasons blacksmiths, cobblers, biscuit companies would hire these tradesman is because of the quality of their work. The fact that they were employing an artist with a trade.

Now for this "Sculpture in the Streets" project, it seems we are to cut out the very artists that have kept up this time-honored tradition? And in a time when this trade is very much alive and well.

To better understand this, there is a museum dedicated to these tradesman with a history of sign painters, to further understand the state of these craftsman's situation please look into this documentary that is soon to be released.

These artists are dedicated to the techniques and time-honored traditions of the old masters that "artists" that are signing up will not have. The reason a lot of these signs have lasted as long as they have is because of the materials they used. They were made in a time when lead was a base for paint. As they currently stand, the murals were painted with paint that does not exist anymore. The complete chemistry makeup is different than any paint that exists today due to leads and other toxic elements, hence the reason for there longevity and also amplifying the need for people with experience.

Meginniss Ghost Sign Chuck Miller.jpg

On art

From purely an artist's perspective, the list of rules that goes along with this project is disgusting:

"Artists in all stages of their careers are encouraged to apply, but must be able to free hand letters, pay close attention to detail and line work. Previous work would include murals, signs and stencil work. This project has a lot of focus on lettering and layout on a large scale."
So they want sign painters. OK. They do state they will provide scaffolding and lifts, but this:
"Paint will be provided by the BID, but brushes and other materials needed to complete the sign will be the artist's responsibility."

In my experience working on masonry in construction and artistically, each sign will need between 5 and 25 different types of brushes to re-authenticate the original designs. The proper brushes generally cost between 10 and 95 dollars per brush. 

So even with the stipend you are expected to provide everything except the paint?

"Artists must be able to re-create from an image they are provided."

If there is no artistic license, if there in no freedom of style or intrinsic value of the artist themselves, if there is no imagination or thought involved, then why call it art?

It is artistic, I will not argue that. The men and women who do this beautiful trade are artists, but this is not art because it leaves no treatment for engagement. This is restoration. When you are told what to paint, at that point it then becomes a job or commission. (For an example of effective and artistically charged signage please visit Stephen Powers AKA Espo's work.  He has been writing "Love Letters" to different cities for years and was also integral in the revival of Coney Island's Astroland and boardwalk.)

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. 

They have a stipend available for artists, but it still doesn't match what a traditional sign painter would make to do things correctly. I am concerned that these pieces of our history will be destroyed. You don't hire a plumber to do an electrician's job.

The Sculpture in the Streets project has between $10,000 and $30,000 dollars at its disposal for each venture they take on. It is shocking to me that they had not considered any of this in their curation. They have a stipend available for artists, but it still doesn't match what a traditional sign painter would make to do things correctly.

I am concerned that these pieces of our history will be destroyed. You don't hire a plumber to do an electrician's job. Even with the stipend the selected artists will be on scaffolding or other types of rigs for between 2-10 hours a day for a number of weeks painting a designated piece on a masonry surface, which is grueling work.

If done correctly this is a great restoration project -- even if I don't agree with it... but call it that. Do not hide this under the guise of art.

Samson's comments arrived via email and were lightly edited.

Helms Bros Ghost Sign Chuck Miller.jpg

The Albany BID's Take:

AOA spoke with Georgette Steffens, executive director for the Downtown Albany BID to get her take on the criticisms, and on why the ghost sign restoration was chosen for this year's Sculpture in the Streets project.

Steffens says Contompasis is right, this year's project is more of a restoration project. She views it as a restoration/art/history project. "It is really a restoration project using local artists," Steffens says, "but there are local artists who specifically have that training and skill set and it's too early to say who we are going to get."

She says preserving the integrity of the signs has been paramount to the BID since the conception of the project. "We're working with Tony Iadicicco at Albany Center Gallery, who has been helpful in trying to identify if there were artists that had the capacity and how long it might take and in giving us more of an artist's perspective."

The artists, says Steffens, will receive stipends of $500 to $2000, depending on the size of the sign and the amount of work it will take.

The idea for the ghost sign project, she says, was born when the BID had to move out of its building because of water damage.

Bond Ghost Sign 2 Chuck Miller.jpg

"We were located at 54 State Street temporarily, and I would look out the window and see the Bond Clothing sign, and I was intrigued by the history of downtown being a retail hub for the Capital Region, before the suburban malls were really created. A lot of times we walk around downtown and we don't look up at the architecture and history that is there in these buildings -- if you just look up we have all that and more here," Steffens says. "Then I started noticing other signs. We thought it would also be an interesting way to remind people of downtown Albany's history as a retail hub.

When I talk to people about this project they tell me about their job at Sherry's Department store or shopping in downtown. When we were looking for old photos of the signs we found pictures of the window displays in the department stores and pictures of 25 women all trying on shoes in a downtown store. And that is not how I know Albany's downtown -- and that gets me excited.

"When I talk to people about this project they tell me about their job at Sherry's Department store or shopping in downtown. When we were looking for old photos of the signs we found pictures of the window displays in the department stores and pictures of 25 women all trying on shoes in a downtown store. And that is not how I know Albany's downtown -- and that gets me excited. People of my generation don't know Albany in that way, so we really wanted to capture that and tell that story through the restoration."

To that end, Steffens says the BID is planning to incorporate window displays of some of the vintage clothing, shoes, and hats from the era when Albany's downtown had a bustling retail sector. They're also trying to get sticky film recreations of some of the photos from inside the stores, and place them in the windows.

Apparently there was some discussion about creating new signs for existing businesses, but they decided against it. "We really wanted to stay true to the integrity of what was here," she says.

Steffens says pleasing everyone is something that's been challenging with the Sculpture in the Streets project. "If you choose a national artist, for example, local artists are unhappy." But she says the BID tries to do something different every year, "Last year's exhibit is a perfect example of allowing local artists, with their own designs, to tell stories through their paintings. Some of them were very personal. That 's just not the direction we're taking with this years exhibit."

photos: Chuck Miller


"Steffens says the BID is planning to incorporate window displays of some of the vintage clothing, shoes, and hats from the era when Albany's downtown had a bustling retail sector."

Why not have THAT be the Sculpture project this year? That would be neat.

I'll admit, I was cautiously excited when I first heard about the ghost sign project. Like many others, I think ghost signs are very cool and it's sad to see them slowly fading away.

The opposing viewpoints on AOA (this piece especially) have changed my mind. From a logistical, aesthetic and artistic viewpoint, refreshing the ghost signs is all wrong as a Sculpture project. And once it's in progress, there's no going back... well, not without costly restoration services to remove the new paint.

I normally love the Sculpture projects and enjoy them all summer, but this one isn't quite right.

I find Samson's argument persuasive. The ghost signs are interesting precisely because of their ghostly nature.

As a historic preservation professional, I appreciate the efforts of the Downtown Albany BID. I must note, however, that painting over these wall signs in a "restoration" attempt goes against national and international preservation standards. If the Downtown Albany BID wishes to see these wonderful paintings truly restored, there are art and architectural conservators who can stabilize and consolidate the paint. Art and architectural conservation is a skilled trade and one that should not be overlooked.

I am in agreement with Samson's points as well and would suggest sponsoring new wall murals, paying tribute to Albany today, as the best means of honoring the historical tradition. Philadelphia sponsored such a program years ago and it led to some wonderful street murals, ones that will surely be conserved by future generations.

I didn't have a thought either way on this.

Now I'm definitely concerned and leaning towards Samson's take on this project. What a great and well thought out response. There was a lot of research done and I appreciate the time it must have taken.

I hope the BID will take these views into consideration and not continue on the path they're currently on.

I couldn't agree more—this project potentially has 'train wreck' written all over it. Let's create something new and original instead of destroying our past. When I originally read about this idea, I immediately thought of this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19349921

Samson is right on the money... restoration or art? IMO I'd rather experience the ghost sign. It's genuine and speaks of change (for better or worse).... In their day these signs had a purpose, restoring a sign that can now longer serve it's purpose seems confusing at best.
Why not commission works (in any medium) that depict the area as it was, and not impose them on the landscape, instead display in store windows, etc, and Geo tag, so they can be viewed on mobile devices.
I love Albany history, really enjoyed Oh Albany and Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street (great books about the bustling downtown). To be able to walk the streets with Google Glass and be able to flip back and forth would be awesome!
How 'bout you submit the project to them for consideration?

Neither the BID or The Albany Center Gallery are qualified to make any decisions involving the city. The current condition of the downtown and the gallery will prove this. Vote all of them out and let's start again with people that are educated and qualified!

If Erin T is correct I think it would be shame if this project goes through. Has Historic Albany weighted in on this project at all?

Also, instead of the BID highlighting how much retail used to be in downtown Albany maybe they should work a little more on actually bringing NEW retail to downtown Albany.

This link gives information on a ghost sign preservation project done correctly:


Count me as another support of Samson.

If the idea is to draw attention to the ghost signs, I would think that local artists could really contribute to that goal without painting over (I won't say restoring) the current images.

Then artists can be artists. Some might choose lighting design projects. Others might choose to recreate the images in other forms nearby. I could imagine a sculpter doing something with mirrors to make the signs more visible from street level. The possibilities for creativity are limitless.

Could you imagine someone suggesting this be done in the pyramids? Or with cave paintings? The hubris is shocking.

Art restoration and art creation are two entirely different things. The BID is clearly confused as to what they think the end result will be. I'd support restoration and preservation of these relics of days past, but I'd be remiss to support painting over them- losing them forever to something that is a poor replacement. I urge the BID to rethink the project.

As an aspiring sign painter, I was excited about this project. Reading over the application made it seem like I probably wouldn't be chosen. I agree that there is some hairy area here and I don't think anyone wants to see these ghost signs botched, but I liken it to urban decay -- I really like urban decay and cool old buildings, but if left eventually the decay will fall to ruins, and I'd rather see restoration efforts than see things razed.

Is the Sculpture in the Streets project the thing that usually brings us the "Cow Parade" style of plop sculptures? Great for the bourgeoisie but hardly something that really makes sense within the urban fabric? If so, I'm glad to see they're taking a different route this year.

Great link to the Fort Collins project. That is exactly the type of conservation work that would truly preserve these signs for years to come.

"Thanks to a grant received by the State Historical Fund in 2009, this "ghost sign" got a lot of conservation and a little restoration to ensure this faded advertisement from 1958 keeps Old Town looking historic. To the untrained eye, the sign looks almost unchanged. In reality, the technology relaxed and re-adhered the paint to the brick, and protects it from further fading and chipping so we all can enjoy the sign for many years to come."

If the Albany ghost signs are repainted within the historic district, then I believe the Historic Resources Commission would have to approve the project. This differs from regular building painting as maintenance, given the historic value of the painted wall signs.

From the National Park Service's Preservation Brief on the Preservation of Historic Signs: "Recognize, however, that the apparent age of historic signs is one of their major features; do not "over restore" signs so that all evidence of their age is lost, even though the appearance and form may be recaptured." http://www.nps.gov/hps/tps/briefs/brief25.htm

I'll admit that I didn't even finish reading this article because it angers me so much. These ghost signs are actual artifacts from the past and as such any renovation or alteration of them should be reviewed by appropriate offices...where is Historic Albany on this? @Erin T above is correct, there are actually standards to follow in historic preservation.

I prefer to see the faded signs and have many images on my photoblog...now if someone want to put up NEW signs on previously unsigned buildings or murals as Samson suggests, that would seem to meet the artistic aim of this project.

Oh well, I never cared much for the other "sculpture in the street" projects either...but this is going to damage the historic fabric of the city, not help.

Great response from Sampson.

We're not going to move forward if we're living in the past. This just seems like a mistake all around, but if the BID gives it more thought it could be done right.

Emily, this is not exactly like, say, the horse statues in Saratoga. Sculpture in the Streets has been hit or miss but I liked what they did in 2009 and especially 2011. There is some hope.

Well I guess I am the only one here who believes that local artists should be able to repaint the signs. There are examples where this has created international attention, such as this example here.


Seriously though Samson is right on and I find Steffens' dismissive "you can't please everyone all the time" attitude described here very problematic, if accurate.

BID sponsored art projects seem to always fall short in my opinion... While I applaud these people for moving closer to the idea of "art as revitalization" in downtown areas, I wish they would spend more time consulting with professionals on the conceptualization of projects. I know many who would love to get in on a project with a budget, and believe they could create things that are much more meaningful than bedazzled fiberglass statues or traced lettering.
So, my dear BID friends, I know you work really hard to make the places we live better - and I appreciate that - but when it comes to art can you ask someone who knows better next time? I bet you'd be pleasantly surprised at the result.

The idea of painting over the ghost signs was insane from the start, and Samson makes many more excellent points I hadn't considered - what actual mural preservation entails and the use of professional sign painters. I'm glad there's already been multiple mentions of the monkey Jesus painting, and really, what more is there to say...

What would be infinitely more interesting (in my opinion) would be if the local artists came up with new signs - maybe advertising for products specific to Albany's history which don't exist anymore. How about a building-sized advertisement for Albany Beef?

Accoeding to the BIDs call for artists: "This year we believe that we have an award winning historic preservation program that will also be the start of attracting retail to Downtown." Painting over these ghost signs does not equal preservation, nor will it accomplish the stated goal: it would be a shame if this project went forward and the beautiful artifacts of our rich history were destroyed.

This is the first time I've seen the comments on one of the public art projects be so overwhelmingly critical and unenthusiastic, with many valid objections including Samson's insightful commentary. The BID should really pause over this strong negative reaction and rethink this idea. Is it too late to stop this and get them to sponsor something else? Sure, you can't please everybody, but the comments on AOA are a pretty good focus group of people who normally are enthusiastic supporters of public art projects.

I am one who concurs with the comments above that find the fiberglass forms (horses, wooden shoes, Uncle Sams) as "sculpture" to be formulaic and decorative at best, and also played out. But people do get a kick out of them. And that's fine since, unlike the ghost sign project, nothing authentic gets ruined by these fiberglass forms, However, I'd rather see grants go to real sculpture that has some lasting artistic value.

To back up for just a second, do we have a list of which signs are going to painted? We have some photos of the more notable signs around, which don't even need any touch-up, everyone agrees they're fine as is. What if they're talking about signs in a state like the second line of the MeGinniss photo? Yes, it should still be approached as conservation, but signs in that state of decrepitude aren't providing any benefit currently.

I agree with Samson's comments as well. I think the project would potentially hurt these historic signs and I think the BID's plan takes the creativity aspect out of it completely for the artists. They are asking for artists to trace something and not add any of their creative style to it. If artists were asked to create new signs on unpainted buildings then I think it would be a more interesting project...perhaps asking artists to create signs for the new business that are in downtown like Merry Monk to highlight current business development.
I agree with Daniel B.'s comments also. The BID could have asked artists to create sculptures/installations that drew inspiration from these historic signs or would draw attention to them.
I hope the BID doesn't go through with this.

Count me as another objection to painting the ghost signs. Samson and others have made a lot of great points.

In my opinion, these aren't just faded art, but they're also artifacts from another era. I'd be all for preserving them, but the idea of seeing them painted over is very unappealing.

I really hope they reconsider the project. And this is coming from someone who usually likes the various art projects downtown, particularly last year's Dutch clogs.

This reminds me of those ads you see on craigslist looking to hire web designers, etc., that basically amount to "We can't pay you, but it'll look great in your portfolio!" If you want to do a restoration, hire the appropriate people.

If you want art, what about something like commissioning recreations/interpretations to be displayed around state property?

Picture painted perfectly, Samson.

On painting over ghost signs:
Don't murder art history and disrespect the original craftsman/artist. Restore properly or leave untouched.

On vintage window display throwback and new street art:
Hell, yeah.


Well put Samson. I hope they listen to your powerful and well informed comments.

I love Albany but a reminder that it was ONCE a retail hub is sad. The current revitalization of Downtown includes little retail, one of its few drawbacks. Why highlight the fact that there is no where to shop in Downtown Albany? And painting over something that has aged beautifully is also sad. Why not appreciate the beauty of the aged media? In some ways it's more a defacing than a restoration. Finally, why not invite artists to create new murals on the many spaces currently empty? They could be "in the style of" the Wall Dogs tradition, and highlight something fresh. The BID has done some great art initiatives, sadly, this years proposal falls short.

So many great, insightful, and valuable comments. I just want to add this: I love signs, I love murals, I love paintings, and I love buildings - but they are not sculptures. Whatever the BID decides to do, I wish they would rename the project - unless, of course, they are putting actual sculptures in the streets. (And, no, I do not think pre-made forms that painters have painted are sculptures.)

I agree with Samson, David and Caroline.

On the other side of this 'debate'. How many of you would 'care' or even notice if the building owners painted over these old signs? Which, as property owners in non historic spots, they're allowed to do.

I know nothing about art conservation -- but the lack of technical requirements in BID's application is stunning.

I just stumbled on this wonderful and disturbing thread. It's old... is this "restoration" project now going forward? Or have cooler heads put a halt to it?

I agree with several comments that the essence of the ghost signs is their ghostly nature. "Albany" had a link to the article on the restoration of a sign in Fort Collins, CO and if you follow that link you will find this:

"Thanks to a grant received by the State Historical Fund in 2009, this "ghost sign" got a lot of conservation and a little restoration to ensure this faded advertisement from 1958 keeps Old Town looking historic. To the untrained eye, the sign looks almost unchanged. In reality, the technology relaxed and re-adhered the paint to the brick, and protects it from further fading and chipping so we all can enjoy the sign for many years to come."

I think that's the right way to preserve and "restore" these old signs.

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