Painters spruce up Philadelphia signage to update aging advertisements
PHILADELPHIA — As a fifth-generation locksmith in this tough town, John Henssler figured he had heard it all.
Then a stranger walked into his family's century-old shop and offered to repaint its faded two-story business sign — for free.
“I thought he was pulling my leg,” Henssler said.
But Robert Blackson was serious. The Temple University arts administrator, who passed the sign daily on his way to work, had been captivated by the ethereal lettering on the exterior wall: “Est. 1898, H. Henssler, Expert Locksmith. Any Lock, Any Key.”
Their conversation last summer led not only to a fresh coat of paint for the locksmith's sign — the first in decades — but to a fledgling effort to revive other fading advertisements around Philadelphia.
Called “ghost signs,” these vanishing ads have become a subject of fascination in urban landscapes large and small, from New York City to York. Aficionados curate photo blogs, post pictures on Instagram and tag online maps with their locations, almost like a public scavenger hunt.
Ghost signs are generally defined as painted signage, at least 50 years old, on an outside wall that publicizes a defunct business or product, according to Lawrence O'Toole, author of “Fading Ads of Philadelphia.” But some mark establishments that are open.
Henssler's ad in north Philadelphia is the first ghost sign resurrected by a new partnership between Temple's Tyler School of Art and the city's Mural Arts Program. Blackson, who is leading the effort, views the program as a way to renew small businesses and, possibly, entire neighborhoods.
“It could be a great way to boost civic pride,” Blackson said. “I think there's loads of potential to make it a project that's not about just paint and brushes.”
The intrigue of ghost signs is multifaceted, stemming from the intersection of art, history and commerce. Some fans are captivated by the fonts and graphics, representing the nearly lost tradition of sign painting; others appreciate the ads as history writ large, telling stories about how things used to be, the industries that once powered a neighborhood.
Philadelphia has no shortage of ghost signs, left over from its two centuries as an industrial and manufacturing powerhouse. Some have been reincarnated in surprising ways.
A brick row house in the heart of downtown has two ghost signs on its side wall: “T.J. Cobourn, Groce(r),” with the last letter missing, and another that says “Camac Food Market.” The building houses an Italian restaurant called Mercato — the Italian word for “market.”
And the former Wilbur Chocolate Co. complex in the Old City neighborhood became The Chocolate Works apartment building. The faded word “Wilbur's” is still visible in white on the building's side, harkening back to a time when the area was known as Confectioners Row.
Frank Jump, who has chronicled New York's vanishing ads on a photo blog and in a book, prefers for the art to be left alone.
“Once you alter the sign by either trying to restore it or painting over it, you're obliterating the original work,” Jump said.
But Blackson noted that in Henssler's case, the sign isn't just about the art — it's about making a living. Henssler is struggling to carry on the family tradition alluded to on his business cards: “We changed your great-grandmothers' locks.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.