Before removable vinyl billboards and neon signs, businesses hired local sign painters to dress the side of their shop or factory with large hand-painted advertisements, that over time, became landmarks of Philadelphia’s industrial heritage.
And, as many of these businesses faded away, so did their advertisements, which are colloquially known as “ghost signs”.
Robert Blackson, director of exhibitions at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, took notice of these fading ads while heading to work. “At the corner of 13th [Street] and Girard [Avenue], there is a locksmith there,” recalled Blackson. “It had a beautiful sign that had just been worn away over the decades. So many of these signs, when you see them, you immediately assume that the business is long dead and probably closed up years ago, and this is just what’s just left over. But, as I was biking I realized that that locksmith is still there.”
One day, Blackson stopped, went inside Henssler Locksmith Company, and spoke with the owner who lamented over the sign’s condition and added it would take $3,000 to repaint it. Established in 1898, this business is now run by John Henssler, a fifth-generation locksmith.
“It was a small, family-owned business that had been there for three generations, and they didn’t have the money to do something like that, so it got me to thinking, I work at an art school, and we have no shortage of artists here,” Blackson said. “But what we don’t have is scaffolding.”
Thus, the first “Vital Signs” project was born. Temple Contemporary partnered with the Mural Arts Program to restore the advertisements of still-open, family-run businesses to their former luster. The goal of this project is to rejuvenate some of the business that the advertisements represent, as well as bring pride in Philadelphia’s historic small businesses back to the city and its neighborhoods.
Last month, the 130-year-old Philadelphia Tribune newspaper became the region’s latest small business to have the legacy advertising on its building refreshed. The faded advertisement on the south side of the building, overlooking Rodman Street near 16th Street, was repainted and now states: “Read The Philadelphia Tribune Everyday Of The Week.”
“We know that the old sign has been there at least 70 years,” said Robert W. Bogle, who joined the Philadelphia Tribune in 1970 selling advertising and now serves as president and CEO. “It also embraced language of its period as it reached out to the community that it served as well as its potential or existing advertisers.”
Bogle continued, “As you can see, we have gone back to that Old English [typeface] as our masthead, and we did so to commemorate our 130th anniversary. So, the sign means a lot – we are the last daily to serve the African American in America that is audited. In spite of the challenges that newspapers in general have, the Tribune continues to put out a good product because we have a good group of people who are dedicated and work hard to make it what it is.”
As part of the Vital Signs project, local master sign painter Darin Rowland was proud to be a part of the publication’s continued longevity. “To me, this is a sign,” explained Rowland as he neared completion of the signage. “I can tell you what a sign is. I can tell you what art is. And, I can tell you that this is both of those things. Does it constitute as a mural? Probably so. You can fold it [under that description]. For me, though, this is a sign as art. It functions in both ways.”
For Blackson, these aesthetic improvements not only breathe new life into established business, but also into the communities that house them.
“We really enjoy finding these businesses that have been around forever and have these beautiful signs that are often in disrepair and bringing it up into people’s eyes again, because like so many things in the city, it becomes part of the furniture,” said Blackson. “But, when you give it a fresh lick of paint and show people the beauty of the history of advertising in this city as it relates to our contemporary life, it’s a great thing.”
For more information about the Mural Arts Program and Temple Contemporary at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art “Vital Signs” project, visit http://tyler.temple.edu/vital-signs.