By Steve Dunkelberger
There once was a time when buildings were constructed to last generations. They were brick-and-mortar edifices to longevity, not the pine-and-sheetrock structures crafted today. Consider also the fact that, decades ago, the paint created advertisements for businesses of all sorts, many of which are still clearly readable in downtown Tacoma. While the businesses may be long gone, their advertisements remain, thanks to the now outlawed lead-based paint that enabled them to withstand decades of rain, snow and gas fumes.
They are known in the business as “ghost signs.” The largest cluster of them can be found at the University of Washington-Tacoma (UWT) campus, where former warehouses and furniture manufacturers that date back to before the last century now build minds instead of tables and bed frames. And ironically, an error that led to the destruction of one such ghost sign with the renovation of one of those campus buildings actually helped preserve others.
“They didn’t intend for that to happen,” Tacoma Historical Preservation Officer, Ruben McKnight, said. “But it did.”
University of Washington-Tacoma contractors were renovating the Russell T. Joy building in 2010 and set out to clean the masonry. The solvent they used was apparently too strong and dissolved an Alt Heidelberg Brewery sign that dated back some 90 years. The brewery was located just a block away and provided the region with pints of suds until it finally closed in 1979. The accidental removal of the once-iconic sign prompted UWT to document the remaining signs on campus and create a display of them in the Joy building. Not only is the display a prime example of a “ghost sign,” it has also sparked interest in finding ways to record and map other ghost signs around the city.
“There could be hundreds of them,” McKnight said. “They are all over the place. They really add to the richness of our environment.”
Sometimes the added richness is subtle, and sometimes it is bold.
On the subtle side of the spectrum is the otherwise unremarkable sign for the building at the corner of Pacific Avenue and 21st Street. The building is now home to McGranahan Architects, but it once provided thousands of gold seekers with reliable boots as they left civilization and headed to the logging fields around the Pacific Northwest almost a century ago.
The bold end of the spectrum can be found across town at the Pythian Temple near the corner of 9th and Broadway. The 105-year-old fraternal order building in the heart of the city’s Theater District offers almost a full-wall of advertisements. The New York-Washington Outfitters signage is vibrant thanks to restoration work in the 1980s, while others, such as an Omar Cigarette sign, have faded with the passage of time, becoming largely unreadable.
While “ghost signs” can be found downtown and on historic business buildings, the city doesn’t have a registry of them since the signs themselves aren’t historically designated. These advertisements of long-gone businesses are only footnoted with brief descriptions on the historical designation of the buildings themselves. But the story of their creation provides just as much of a look at bygone days as the buildings they adorn.
Much like the signs themselves, the painters of these signs — or “wall dogs” as they were known — have also garnered a ghost-like reputation. The painters would travel from city to city painting signs of businesses and moving on to the next job like brush-carrying carnival performers. They rarely signed their work. They just painted and left their artistry to admire, likely giving little thought to the notion that their paintings would still exist decades after they left town.
Want to see this historic sigsn firsthand? Plan a walking tour of downtown Tacoma and keep your eyes peeled for the subtle, historic signage that can be found on buildings throughout the city.