Ghosts Of Chicago’s Past That Refuse To Fade Away

Ghost Sign-Bucktown

Let us give thanks for lead-based paint.

Yes, I understand it’s about as healthy as inhaling asbestos, a daily tanning bed appointment, or an exclusive diet of cronuts.

But hey, were it not for the longevity of lead-based paint, we wouldn’t have ghost signs. They are the relics of decades-old advertisements on the sides of brick buildings. Some are so faded you can barely make out the words. Others have survived the years—and the elements—with nary a scratch. Nearly all promote long-departed businesses.

You’ll see them in nearly every Chicago neighborhood, but the West Loop is a particularly fertile ground to view and photograph ghost signs.

West JacksonThe west side of the Rosemoor Hotel on West Jackson and South Ashland bears a ghost sign with a smiling Leprechan-ish bellhop. Whether or not the S.R.O. establishment still has a bell staff is not clear. My guess is they don’t offer a concierge or conference facilities.

A mile north of the Rosemoor on Ashland, just before the Cobra Lounge, you can see two ghost signs—one faded (Apex) and one very clear (Budweiser—the King of beers).

One might look at a ghost sign and write it off as urban decay. That’s a short-sighted interpretation for those who study and appreciate the ghost sign as an architectural element and an art form. Laurence O’Toole is one such aficionado. O’Toole is the author of “Fading Ads of Philadelphia.” The city of brotherly love has as many ghost signs as cheese steak joints.

ApexO’Toole’s book began some years back when he was studying graphic design at Drexel University and was working on his senior thesis.

“One of the more interesting things about becoming a designer is learning about the history and the importance of letterforms,” O’Toole explained. “In school, I took numerous typography classes, studying the shapes, dimensions and strokes of letters, the way in which they are formed, and the origin and historical context of their composition. I learned about the styles of lettering and their influence both of—and by—culture.”

O’Toole, armed with a camera he picked up at a pawn shop for $30, scoured Philadelphia to photograph examples of light and shadow. He found a more interesting subject matter in old manufacturing facilities.

This Buds For You“It’s hard to pin down exactly the one thing that got me really interested in these signs. Maybe it’s the idea of these remainders of past society that are hidden in plain sight, a sort of urban archeology that one need only see to appreciate.

“At first, I was looking at these signs and faded advertisements from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Quick, snap a photo of that cool sign before it’s gone! But now I had this wealth of photography left over from the compilation of the research and documentation for my thesis, and I discovered that the most interesting of these images were the photographs of my faded advertisement findings.

“After reading an article in WIRED magazine, I decided to try my hand at the then-relatively new art of blogging. I signed up for a Blogger account and posted photos of ads, along with what I thought the ads said and the approximate address. Later, I mapped their location via Google maps so that others could locate them – this was well before any digital cameras had such things as geotagging capabilities. And thus, the blog now known as The Ghost Sign Project was born.”

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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