Experts discuss what to do about Uptown's aging commercial apparitions
By Robin Jordan (Butte Weekly) 12-05-12
Butte’s many “ghost signs,” or advertisements for national or local concerns painted on the outer walls of historic buildings, will be studied in the near future for restoration or conservation, citizens learned last week, but opinions on what should be done—or not done—vary.
Two representatives of a group of sign artists known as the Walldogs visited Butte last week to tour the city and give input on possible work that could be done to preserve signs and possibly create new signs in the area. The Walldogs came at the request of Butte-Silver Bow Historic Preservation Officer Jim Jarvis and George Everett,Executive Director of Mainstreet Uptown Butte
Jarvis said the signs, which have been photographed throughout different eras of Butte history, are more than mere advertisements, but are a form of public art that reveals much about the people who lived and worked here. The signs advertise national brands and local businesses, many of which are no longer in business.
Nancy Barrett and Jim Oskam, both from Iowa, visited Butte as representatives of the Walldogs, a group of artists that has worked on ghost signs around the United States and has organized community mural painting in other communities. Barrett said unlike other cities they have visited and worked in, Butte is notable for the number of existing ghost signs.
Jarvis said if the area from Walkerville to Front is considered, Butte has approximately 100 existing signs, 30 within the Uptown area.
Jarvis said the community will have to decide whether to leave the signs alone, pursue restoration that would employ professional sign-painters, or pursue conservation, a fine-arts approach which has not been used to a large degree in ghost-sign preservation to date. He said he feels some level of repainting effort is the most practical.
If any effort to preserve or restore the signs goes forward, it will be expensive. Bennett said in general, sign restoration by a professional firm costs approximately $10,000 per sign. She said that in her work with the Walldogs, communities participate in a collaborative effort, which can include donated equipment or services, but ultimately, professionals get paid for their work.
Bennett said both she and Oskam own professional sign-painting businesses.
Before any actual work is done on signs, Jarvis said, they will have to be catalogued and evaluated as to condition. The signs would then be prioritized for any restoration. If restoration is desired, the sign restoration team would produce a digital version of the proposed work, which could be evaluated by the public and relevant agencies.
Mainstreet Uptown Butte and the Historic Preservation Office are pursuing various grant opportunities, Jarvis said, including arts grants and possible help from the Urban Revitalization Agency. Jarvis also made reference to a “pot of money” that will become available through the Redevelopment Trust Fund, which is earmarked for historic preservation and economic development.
“I think this project would fit into that,” he said.
Jarvis said he thought any disbursements from the Redevelopment Trust Fund would be made through a board, such as oversees the Urban Revitalization Agency, which has not yet been appointed.
A lot of professional input would be involved. A knowledge of art, chemistry, masonry and historic preservation would be needed for any meaningful work on the existing signs.
A number of local individuals and organizations are concerned that repainting existing signs might cause more loss of a historic element than leaving them alone. Many of the more dilapidated and fading signs are on walls that would need significant repointing and brick replacement or stabilization. There is a concern that modern painting media could strip away original artwork as it, too, decays with age and the elements.
Another concern is “collages,” in which several layers of signs are currently visible. During the heyday of wall sign painting, which Jarvis dates from 1910-1950, new signs were painted over existing signs. Many of the older signs were created using lead-based paints, which is still visible through later layers. One notable example is on the Stephens Block on west Park, in which three or four separate signs are discernible with the naked eye.
Some present, notably representatives of local sign businesses, expressed interest in recreating some of the ghost signs which have faded to the point of being barely perceptible, such as one Montana that advertised “Is there a Ford in your future” and which included a fortune-teller’s crystal ball.
Most of the existing signs are on buildings currently in private ownership. Jarvis stressed that the building owner must honor any agreement to paint a new sign or restore an existing one, due to the large investment. Everett said he had spoken to a number of building owners who were supportive of the effort.
One point of agreement seemed to be that such a large number of ghost signs, concentrated in one urban district, is a historic tourism attraction. Bennett said a large number of people do travel to see, record and photograph significant ghost signs.
“In most communities we have visited, there might be three or four signs,” Bennett said. “To have this number is awesome. Even if you choose to do nothing, they’ve had quite a run.”