Ghost Signs

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August 18, 2003 // UPDATED 11:03 am - April 30, 2007
By: sue rich
sue rich

In faded paint, clinging to brick, they tell the story of Downtown past

There is another Downtown Minneapolis -- a residual cityscape comprised of traces of businesses and lifestyles long past but refusing to let go.

"ARROWHEAD BEARINGS." "Jones Purchasing Agency." "Holsum Bakery."

Before music came from loudspeakers above sidewalks and the skyway system allowed us to thumb our collective nose at winter cold and summer grit -- this was Downtown.

"Swanson's Paints and Wallpapers." "IDEAL BROOM AND BRUSH COMPANY." "Falk Paper Co."

A center of industry, Downtown not only refined wholesome grain, but produced or dealt in oily cars, lead-containing paint, bleached-bright paper and the containers that held everything.

It doesn't look like this was meant to be a phase. Business owners painted the very brick of their buildings with declarations of what they produced or provided. These murals served as advertising and a means of building identification.

While billboards have come and gone, some of these old murals still lay claim to buildings throughout Downtown today. Battered by the elements, many cling as faint outlines of their former message, or else as quasi-Impressionistic jumbles of paint flakes and sandstone.

Ghost hunt

Once you start looking for cool old signs, you start to see them everywhere.

There's some guilt in that; the pang of realizing you've neglected to see the beauty in the everyday. There is a valid excuse: we get around chiefly by car, and our eyes are supposed to be glued to the road. How can flat, often black-and-white painted letters compete with neon and inviting, full-color come-hither gazes of models?

But when you're attuned to them, ghost signs add an air of mystery and a deeper understanding of once-familiar terrain.

Time becomes an element of your surroundings -- and not in the "this building must be from the 1920s" kind of way. A renovated warehouse doesn't conjure images of turn-of-the-century workers -- it looks like a warehouse made into cool cubicles or condos. However, a "Lee Overalls" sign in a neighborhood where nobody wears them (at least, not out of necessity) is a more poignant cultural reference point.

There are plenty of well-known, or at least easy-to-figure-out, ghost signs: "THE LUMBER EXCHANGE" on the Lumber Exchange Building, 10 S. 5th St., "SCHUBERT" on, of course, The Shubert Theater on 5th Street and Hennepin Avenue. What follows are bits of information about a few eye-catching ghost signs that are a bit off Downtown's beaten paths.

Lee Overalls

200 N. 3rd St.

Mark Binsom, a graphic designer, has lived in the Harmony Lofts building for seven years. Although disconcerted by the broken bottles that litter the sidewalk just outside the building ("They're mostly from people from the suburbs," he said), Binsom loves Warehouse District life -- in part because of unconventional pieces of history like the old Lee Overalls mural on the side of the lofts.

The immense sign is easy to miss. You have to be walking or biking (or not paying attention to the road) on the 3rd Street North bridge/entrance to I-94 West to take it in.

Once noticed, it's hard to fathom missing it. While difficult to gauge dimensions from the sidewalk, it seems to be at least 20 feet tall and even wider.

In sun-dried yellow letters on a blue background, the sign declares that "Lee Overalls" "WORK CLOTHING" is "SOLD BY LEADING DEALERS EVERYWHERE."

Binsom researched the building and found that it was built in 1908 as a manufacturing site for Lee dungarees. Sometimes, he said, he and his friends sit on a sort of balcony near the sign and old-timers, including former employees, come around the building to reminisce.

According to Lee Jeans Public Relations Manager and Archivist Nancy McDonald, the company built 200 N. 3rd St. in 1919. As a bustling manufacturing site, it housed hundreds of employees. Lee turned it into solely a distribution center decades later. In 1967, operations were relocated to another area.

Ideal Broom and Brush Company

118 N. 4th St.

Dave Erikson, a friend of Binsom's and also a Harmony Lofts resident, is also a fan of ghost signs, including the even lesser known "Ideal Broom Brush Company" sign down the street.

This sign fits so well with where it was painted -- a VW-bug-wide and Ford-Expedition-deep jut-out from the building -- it slips right under our perceptual radar. There is a window on the second floor and a weathered blue-green wooden loading dock door facing the alley. Across the top: "THE IDEAL." Letters dropping down vertically, to the left of the top window: "BROOM." To the right of the window: "BRUSH." And across the top of the entrance to the former loading dock: "FACTORY."

The company is an enigma; it doesn't show up in Minneapolis directories for 1899, 1900, 1907, 1914, 1920, 1924, 1930, 1934, 1940, 1944 or 1950. It doesn't even show up in a national business directory for 1906, 1927, 1934 or 1940. Permits for the place show lots of signs going up and down, but not for which company.

The building, home to the Warehouse District's Sawatdee Thai restaurant, also has two ghost signs along the parking lot side facing 1st Avenue North. Burt Corwin, co-owner of Wyman Properties, said he is familiar with the "C.F. ALBRECHT COMPANY; LEATHER & SHOE STORE SUPPLIES" sign on this side but hadn't noticed the "IDEAL" sign before. He was unfamiliar with the building ever being used as a brush factory or shipping center. Regardless, he said he has no plans to paint over any old signs on the building, though a new tenant might want to brand the building with his or her own name or logo.

Canada Dry Liquors, 617 Saloon

617 Central Ave.

The 617 Central Ave. dark brick building makes the most of the apex where Central and Hennepin avenues meet. The triangular building's main north-side entry is thin, a Ford Escort wide, but it broadens on its river or backside to a semi-tractor or two in length. While the narrow entry is intriguing, the south side needs a little oomph to draw potential customers inside. What better to accomplish this than an inviting "Canada Dry Liquors 617 Saloon" sign?

The latitude and longitude of the gold- and-green map in the Canada Dry symbol have rusted to the point where they blot out the continents. "It's metal," owner Denise Freeman explained.

The sign came with the building six years ago when she bought the Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood site to house her Otters Saloon. While she is fond of the old sign, Freeman wouldn't promise it a secure spot on the building's side. "Everything has a price," she laughed.

Currently, the building is most recognized for the mural on the Central Avenue side, of otter-faced people at their local watering hole playing cards, drinking and flirting. Freeman is obviously a big otter fan. "Who wouldn't want to be one?" she said. "All they do is play, eat, drink and have sex."

Holsum Bakery

7th Avenue North and North 5th Street

At the intersection of 7th Avenue North and North 5th Street, a blotchy faint yellow 6-by-5-foot sign for the HOLSUM BAKERY (top line, in white) THRIFT STORE (second line), indicates that "BREAD, DONUTS, CAKE [and] Sweet ROLLS" (with Sweet in flowing script) are available at "Reduced Prices!" (last line, rust-colored), if you just follow the pale gray arrow around the corner.

Judging by the sign's location, the building was once approachable from the southwest, where 7th now dead-ends at a fenced-in Metro Transit center. These days, it resembles an alley or big driveway where rusting parts and dried condoms are left to live out their remaining days in peace.

Follow the arrow to the front of the building and enter what is now the world of Northern Auto Parts. Beyond the scores of cars from police and insurance impound lots -- with wind-shields neon-grease-marked with ID numbers and warnings like "Blood!" -- is the main office. Here, owner Howard Chanen works busily with a thin pile of receipts.

The graying Chanen says the sign has been there for at least two decades, since the auto parts recyclers expanded into that building. "It used to be [Holsum's] retail outfit."

Chanen said he has no plans to touch the sign, "We love it; why would we?"

However, the Northern Auto Parts signs themselves may join the ghost sign realm soon. The Minneapolis City Council recently moved to prevent the company from installing a car crusher inside the facility. Neighborhood groups and local condo developers consider it a victory. Chanen isn't sure the company will hold on without it.

Today, the regional producer of Holsum bread is Pan-O-Gold Bakery in St. Cloud. According to Pan-O-Gold owner and CEO Robin Alton, the Minneapolis building was built around 1900. It housed one of the largest wholesale bakeries in the region until 1975 when Alton, then a manager, decided to move to a bigger space in Plymouth. He believes the company operated a retail bakery at the site in the '20s and the Holsum Thrift Store came about in the '50s with the advent of "guaranteed sale" -- when the company had to buy back whatever didn't sell at the grocery stores.

Pan-O-Gold is more widely known for baking Country Hearth bread, but Alton said plenty of old-timers, "mostly up North," still enjoy their Holsum. According to the Holsum bread homepage, it was the first company to sell wrapped bread.

Mystery montages

Some buildings sport several layers of ghost signs. Stand back and a sort of inverse stereogram appears, instead of "looking past" the wall and waiting for the picture to emerge, it is best to hone in on a detail. Focus on one letter and suddenly a whole word pops up. Focus on that whole word, and another letter, even fainter, can all of a sudden be detected underneath. This building is located on Washington and 6th avenues North.

Signs: historic, but not protected

Ghost signs can be considered a "contributing factor" when analyzing a potential historic district, according to Amy Lucas of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission.

For example, the signs relating to car parts and brands -- "Arrowhead Bearings," "Cadillac," etc. -- in the Harmon Place area contributed to the area's designation as an historic district. "They'd have one or two [model] showrooms and you'd have your car built at the other places," Lucas explained. All those one-story buildings around 12th Street South and Harmon Place, she said, "had something to do with cars."

However, individual painted signs are not eligible for historic designation or protection. While Lucas said Commission guidelines ask owners not to cover signs related to their building's original use, there is no punishment for sandblasting or painting over them.

Lucas said there are other areas that protect such signs, such as New York City and Boston. "But their [historic preservation] offices have 80 people. We have two," Lucas said.