Ghost Signs of Buffalo, NY
Ghost signs, also known as faded ads, are the disappearing painted letters and illustrations on the sides and fronts of old buildings. They once lined the streets of almost every town and city, especially common in the business districts of the rust belt cities in the early 1900's. During that era, it was not uncommon for a business to be located on the second, third or fourth floor in certain business districts and these signs were the most practical means of letting people know where their store was. In many cases these are advertisements or store names painted on brick that remained over time, typically placed on the top side corners of brick buildings or sometimes right on the front of the building in between floors. As cities continued to become more dense over the past 150 years, wall space became increasingly rare and many ghost signs were covered up due to construction of adjoining buildings. Signs on the side of old brick buildings are occasionally discovered upon demolition of later-built adjoining structures. A fraction of these ghost signs from the 1890s to 1960s are still visible today and were commonly used in the decades before the Great Depression.
The painters of the signs were called "wall dogs", often times hand painting these signs from 3 story ladders placed on the roofs of next door buildings. As signage advertising formats changed, less durable signs appeared in the later 20th century, and ghost signs from that era are less common. Ghost signs were originally painted with oil-based house paints and the paint that has survived the test of time likely contained lead, which keeps it strongly adhered to the masonry surface. Due to this, many of the surviving signs today are believed to be 80-100 years old.
Specific to Buffalo, one can find several ghost signs by simply understanding our commercial history. The major roadways leading through the east side, such as Seneca, Broadway, Genesee, William and Sycamore, used to be filled with brick buildings and all have great examples of ghost signs you can see today. Main Street might have the most signs from my experience, with pockets of examples found in the First Ward, Cobblestone District, Niagara Street and parts of Elm, Michigan, Oak and Ellicott Streets.
Today, cities such as Philadelphia and Detroit are taking action in preserving these signs as they are becoming more and more rare. Conservators are working closely with their city's Preservation Boards in maintaining ghost signs where they can. New businesses are taking to the throwback idea and adding ghost signs to their building (see Hydraulic Hearth). As Buffalo continues it's resurgence, I'd love to see a group step in to ensure we preserve as many of these signs as possible. I will volunteer my time and effort to help :)
See "Part 2" of my ghost signs series HERE