Book Review: Signs, Streets, and Storefronts

Signs, Streets, and Storefronts book cover

The recent brouhaha over the gargantuan sign on the Trump International Hotel and Tower has provided Chicagoans ample opportunity to ponder commercial signs and their relation to the buildings they adorn and to those nearby. Yet conflicts among the advertisers of products and services, the architects designing commercial buildings, and city councils regulating these endeavors are nothing new. In his book Signs, Streets, and Storefronts, Martin Treu walks the reader through over 200 years of commercial architecture, graphic design, advertising and the controversies surrounding them.


A tourist photographs the controversial TRUMP sign on the millionaire’s downtown skyscraper.

Treu has divided his dense, painstakingly researched book into chronologically ordered chapters, beginning with Colonial “Main Streets” in the 1700’s. As Signs, Streets, and Storefronts progresses through the 1800’s, 1900’s and early 2000’s, Treu explains how technological developments and demographic and social changes transformed commercial centers across the country. The details are fascinating.

Consider storefronts, for example. The classic American corner store with large display windows was only made possible by the development of inexpensive plate-glass fabrication in the years following the Civil War. Prior to that, store windows were made of small panes of glass separated by mullions, which provided shopkeepers little opportunity to entice passers-by with their wares. The widespread adoption of large plate-glass windows completely changed the concept of storefronts in towns throughout America as well as how goods and services were marketed to the public.

In the first half of the 1900’s, the popularity of streetcars, the advent of the automobile, and the use of newly invented electric lights dramatically changed the design and scale of signs in commercial districts. Treu describes the tension that often arose among the architects who designed the shops, restaurants and theaters; the owners who needed to distinguish their businesses from their competitors; and the citizens and city council members concerned about both the need for commercial success and tax revenues and the increasing cacophony of signs in their cities.

A giant neon Torco Oil sign adorned the top of 624 South Michigan Avenue from 1960 until 2004 when it was removed by Columbia College without fanfare.

A giant neon Torco Oil sign adorned the top of 624 South Michigan Avenue from 1960 until 2004 when it was removed by Columbia College without fanfare.

Chicago gets several shout-outs here. Treu recounts how Louis Sullivan left almost no unornamented space on which to place any kind of sign when he designed the Krause Music Store in 1922 (4611 North Lincoln Avenue) and the Carson, Pirie, Scott building (1 South State Street) in 1913. Signs had to be mounted in odd places, often awkwardly affixed to these and other similar structures.

By contrast, one of Chicago’s well-loved taverns, Schubas (3159 North Southport Avenue), demonstrates the harmonious effect of advertising integrated directly into a business’s architecture. Built in 1903 as a Schlitz Brewing Company tied-house, the saloon on Southport is one of several still remaining in Chicago that were designed with the Schlitz globe logo incorporated into the masonry.

Treu devotes a significant portion of the book to a discussion of post-War suburbanization and the dominance of the automobile and their impact on commercial architecture and advertising. He takes us to strip malls with pylon signs and to drive-in restaurants and other chain businesses in which the architecture itself functions as immediately recognizable signage.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm for the modern in architecture and graphic design in the 1950’s and 1960’s was often accompanied by indifference toward or disdain for the old. Treu illustrates this to great effect through the book’s numerous photographs. Before-and-after shots of once-handsome 19th-century brick buildings “slip-covered” in plastic and aluminum demonstrate misguided attempts to update the look of commercial districts. The captions on other photographs simply state that the grand buildings depicted had been demolished.

In the 1970’s, preservationists succeeded in putting the brakes on some of the more aggressive forces threatening historic buildings. As Treu tells it, this zeal tended to come with a purist bent that sought to strip all such buildings down to their oldest bones. Even attractive, later-added signs and features that allowed the buildings to continue functioning as commercial enterprises were discarded. More recently, that trend has abated due to renewed appreciation for artfully crafted mid-20th-century neon signs and other design elements that form the diverse historic layers that lend authenticity and a sense of place to town centers.

In Signs, Streets, and Storefronts, Martin Treu provides an exhaustive treatment of the development and evolution of America’s commercial corridors. This book is not a quick read, but it is informative and engaging, made even more so through the author’s generous use of photographs and drawings. While the book describes towns from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia to New York City, to Santa Barbara, California, Chicago is mentioned in several places. Thus, Signs, Streets, and Storefronts is a great resource for anyone interested in Chicago’s architecture and history.

One thing is certain: Once you have read this book, you cannot help but regard the signs overhead and the streetscapes before you with a newfound appreciation for these elements that constitute the backdrop of our daily lives.

Author: Amy Korte

Amy Korte lives in Old Town. She is a former attorney who enjoys exploring Chicago’s neighborhoods and architecture while jogging and chauffeuring her children to their activities around town.

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