Monday, July 22, 2013

Ghost signs

Looking through some old photographs of mine I came across this one made while I was a photography student at the Institute of Design in Chicago. The building on the left with the enormous painted sign is the Reliance Building, one of the greatest buildings in Chicago, perhaps the pinnacle of the late 19th early 20th Century Commercial Style of architecture commonly known as the Chicago School. Today the building, designed by Charles Atwood while under the employ of Daniel Burhham, houses appropriately enough, the Hotel Burnham, and a fancy restaurant called the Atwood Cafe. Between the the Great Depression and its 1999 conversion to the luxury hotel, the building struggled to attract tenants. By 1977 when the photograph was made, it was run down and half empty. Like many buildings of its era, its cornice was removed and its delicate cream colored terra cotta facade was covered with a patina of soot. Despite all that, no one ever questioned the building's significance. A friend once quipped that the Karroll's menswear store on the ground level (where the restaurant now sits) was world famous due to all the photographs of it found in architecture books. Eventually the city of Chicago stepped in and purchased the building with the intent of restoring it to its former glory, which actually happened. Like Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building a block away, and Burnham and Root's Rookery Building, the Reliance today looks as good as it ever did, in fact, probably better. It is one of the great success stories of Chicago's preservation movement.

Not surprisingly, part of the restoration was the removal of the old sign as well as the fire escape and the enormous smokestack seen in the photograph. Today we're left with nothing but the wall, a great expanse of common brick which contrasts dramatically with the splendid north and east facades of the Reliance. The same thing occurs on the south face of the building. It's safe to assume this lack of attention to detail was due to its builders anticipating that tall buildings would one day butt up to the west and south sides of their building. But that never happened, which is one reason why the Reliance Building continues to capture our imagination as it soars over its neighbors. 

Plain brick walls all over the city served as blank canvases for sign painters and provided excellent revenue generating engines for the owners who created their buildings after all to make money, not to be works of art. Today we look at buildings, the significant ones anyway, quite differently. We cherish them as representatives of the architectural legacy of our city as well as works of art in their own right. As such we feel the temptation to restore them to pristine perfection, to a state that in fact never existed in the past. If you look at historical photographs of Chicago's great commercial buildings of the same vintage as the Reliance, you'll see they were all plastered with advertisements of one kind or other, on their walls, their windows, and in some cases, especially along the great Michigan Avenue backdrop to Grant Park, on their rooftops.

Today most of the signage is gone, lost in the notion of the city planners, preservationists, and concerned citizens, that the visual cacophony created by these advertisements distracts from the glory of the architecture, and cheapens the urban landscape. I'm not so sure I agree. In a sense, great cities exist for the same reasons that the signs do, to attract people. Generating opportunity, (and revenue), is the whole point of the city; take away a city's commercial function and what you have left are beautiful, empty buildings.

You will find great architectural monuments of civilizations past all over the globe. In Greece, Italy and Turkey, places I have been, these monuments have been carefully rebuilt and preserved; their stark white marble facades give us the impression that life in ancient Athens, Rome and Anatolia was devoted exclusively to the worship of gods and the state. What has been lost are the ephemeral aspects of these societies. We no longer for example, see evidence of the ancient world's equivalent of Coca-Cola signs, whatever they may have been, reminding us of the teeming masses going on with their everyday lives, buying and selling their wares (or themselves), in the agora just below the Acropolis or in the Roman Forum. Today it's hard to imagine that the austere ancient Greek and Roman temples were not always stark white, but were originally painted in polychromatic splendor. We imagine the other-worldly sounds of the Gregorian Chant filling the great Medieval cathedrals of Europe (also once painted), not the mooing of cows and the bleating of sheep which was often heard in their early days, necessitating the construction of exquisite rood screens and communion rails that served in part as barriers keeping domestic animals out of the sanctuaries.

Those ancient cities were once filled with everyday life, not very much different from our own cities. It's not the kind of life that makes it into the history books necessarily, but the life of the vast majority of the people just the same.

It's funny that we shun the crass commercialism of our own day, but find infinite interest in the commercialism of the past. Recently on the far north side of Chicago, a building was demolished revealing a sign painted on an adjacent building. The sign for what else, Coca-Cola, remained unseen on that wall for nearly one hundred years, covered up and protected from the sun's damaging rays. When it was revealed last year, it's condition was virtually pristine. "Ghost signs" like this one continuously re-appear in our cities (although seldom in such good condition), and there is a legion of people who document and write about them. A Google search for "ghost sign" plus the name of any city, will return dozens of sites.

Garish as it may be, advertising speaks volumes about the culture that created it. I think it's a bit of a shame that the old ad for Stetson Hats and the shop for big men, probably dating from the forties or fifties was removed from the west wall of the Reliance Building. It provided a visual connection to the past, to a long lost era when men and women dressed up when they came downtown. Its removal is just another example of how much life has been sapped out of Chicago's Loop, now largely the domain of austere office buildings of glass and steel and restored classic masonry buildings whose blank walls have been decreed by the aesthetic police, off limits to anyone with a paint brush.

No, it wasn't a profound work of art and perhaps it was not worthy of gracing the hallowed walls of the Reliance Building. Still, that hat sign and others like it in the Loop, if nothing else, made people who saw it, smile. Unfortunately, the cities in our brave new world of pristine restorations and "starchitects" who have little use for them, have been discarding smile inducing objects at an alarming rate.

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