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Ghosts In The Decorative Arts

With the month of October being a time that ghosts and goblins are often talked about, we figured we would join in the conversation and highlight one of our experiences with ghosts in the decorative arts.

Whether you are aware or not, the ghosts in the decorative arts are all around and can be found in cities and towns across the United States.  I am sure while you have been driving through towns you may have noticed ghosted images on buildings and didn’t know exactly what it was. Building façades can be large canvases for the decorative arts and it was a common practice for these canvases to be used for advertising signs.  Typically, these ghosted images date back decades and are what is left from these painted signs that remain on the buildings depicting advertising for store fronts or businesses in the area.

Through the years the weather and other external elements tend to take its toll and wear away a majority of the original decorative artwork and paint on buildings, sometimes to the point where nothing can be made out besides shades of color or faintly ghosting images. Often times, these building have been painted over repeatedly, sometimes to cover up the advertising artwork or change to new advertising artwork, this all can result in some interesting ghosting patterns as the years pass by.

These signs are a glimpse into a timeline of that building’s canvas. The faded sections and cracks on the canvas which is often brick, can tell a story of the past era of businesses while providing some history of the local area.

Ghostin Text

Detail of Ghosting “O”, “K” and “FOODS”.

We had the privilege to be a part of one such project which started in the summer of 2020 and continued with different phases over the last couple years until recently.  In 2020, John Canning & Co. was retained by the Town of Old Saybrook to complete a visual assessment and documentation of the historic ghost sign that remains at the exterior of the Sheffield Building in Old Saybrook, CT. The goal of the assessment was to review the existing conditions of the sign, provide documentation, and recommendations for potential conservation or restoration.

Historic title records provided by the town date the building as pre-1853 and lists the original owner as Amos Sheffield and is the most likely the oldest commercial brick building in town.  Since its original construction, the façade of the building has served as a form of signage, a common form of advertisement in the U.S. during that time period.


North façade of Sheffield Building.

Methodology and Findings

The methodology and findings for the exterior of the building involved the North façade, facing Sheffield Street. The building was originally constructed with red brick and exposed mortar. The mural spans the North façade from just below the window sills to the raised brick molding.  The assessment discovered that this section of the façade has served as a canvas for approximately three advertising signs.  Research into the building and local resources helped uncover and confirm some of the details discovered during the assessment.

The first mural that was identified correlated with the Stokes Brothers Grocery Market. “STOKES BROS” can be seen ghosting across the wall just below the window sills. Also visible are grocery associated words such as “FRUITS”, “FOODS”, etc. This initial sign spans the elevation from the water spout to the left-most shadow line. The original colors of the Stokes Brothers sign included a yellow field that has since been painted over with white and turquoise.

The second identified advertising mural was then installed for the Old Colony Package Store. The sign included a flag post reading Old Colony Package Store, and the post of the flag is still visible at the center of the wall. Ghostings of letterings from this advertisement, however, were barely visible.

The third identified advertisement found is the James A. Crowley Real Estate sign. This mural was installed shortly after the Old Colony Package Store sign and is the most visible of the three identified signs today. Similarly, to the Old Colony Package Store, this mural was painted over the white painted wall. This mural included a teal call-out box surrounding the word “Real Estate” and incorporated a variation of text and fonts.

The conditions of the visible painted finishes that remained were extremely fragile. They exhibited widespread peeling, delamination, cratering, and crazing with exposed brick throughout. As the paint of the lettering continually fades, the hand brushed marks become more evident. Studying some of the hand brushstrokes up close allows us to get a sense of the artist and craftspeople that created the work.

Cleaning tests were performed to determine the feasibility of removing the surface layers of dirt and grime. Three solvents were tried and proved to be unsuccessful as the paint layer was too weak and friable. Dry cleaning test with a chemical sponge was tried and was also unsuccessful as it was too abrasive against the surface.

Detail of failing and delaminating paint (Left). Detail revealing brush marks at faded lettering (Right).

Due to the fragility of the paint layers consolidation tests were tried to determine the possibility of stabilization the remaining ghostings and finishes. (Consolidation is an essential step in the process of conservation or restoration when the binding of the paint has failed or the substrate has failed. ) In this case, both issues were a factor and added to the cause of paint loss.

A mixture was prepared and applied to the letter “a” at the “at” text of the James A. Crowley real estate signage. This successfully stabilized the painted finish and brick substrate without harming the pigment or visible brush strokes. The mixture successfully penetrated the surface and re-adhered the delaminating paint and friable pigments.

Ghost lettering

Consolidated and stabilized lettering.

After the assessment and testing, it was determined that various approaches could be taken to conserve and reconstruct the existing signage with in a faded patina appearance to related to its history.  The three main treatment options consisted of 1) Preservation, 2) Preservation & Reconstruction, and 3) Replication. For both the reconstruction or replication route, the Town of Old Saybrook needed to provide guidance on which advertisement or era of signage would be restored.  No matter the approach, the existing painted finishes needed to be consolidated and stabilized to prevent further loss and disintegration. The Town of Old Saybrook’s goals ultimately determined the course of path to take.

After the initial consultation and assessment service, the town choose to perform the treatment of the ghost sign in 2 different phases, breaking the work into a left and right side of the mural for cost purposes and to provide time for fundraising.  The treatment the town decided to move forward with was the reconstruction following consolidation.  With around 20 percent of the original artwork still on the façade, the replication goal was to only bring the rest of the artwork back to around 70 percent so that it will have a natural historical look rather than a newly painted look.

First Phase

The first phase of the ghost sign involved the left side of the building canvas where the original Real Estate sign was painted.

The first step of this process consisted of consolidating the existing mural and advertisement before replicating the mural.  The consolidation process involved multiple applications of the mixture we had determined would work best during our trials. These applications were required to ensure the finishes would be properly stabilized and rendered.  Once the mural and advertisement were consolidated the Real Estate sign artwork replication process started.  The reconstruction process consisted of developing a color schedule which was based off the color matching during the assessment, carefully outlining the ghosting lettering and hand painting in every detail. Once the mural advertisement was replicated in its entirety, the ghost sign had a patina appearance. By leaving it with natural faded aged look, like it had been there for many years, is another way to reinforce how it is a part of the town’s history and not just some newly painted advertisement.

Phase one of the Ghost Sign in progress.
Ghost Sign Phase One Complete

Phase one complete for the CROWLEY Real Estate section of the Ghost Sign.

Second Phase

The second phase of the ghost sign involved the right side of the building canvas that referenced the STOKES BROS sign.

The same reconstruction process that was performed in phase one was repeated for phase two with consolidation taking place before any replication started.

In this phase, the work did carry over back onto the left side ghost sign artwork since the original STOKES BROS sign extended onto that side around where the second left side window sits. ( Reference the left-most shadow line from the original ghost sign image). The desire was to have the ghosting effect of the STOKES BROS sign with the CROWLEY Real Estate left side sign and have them blend seamlessly.

Phase two of the Ghost Sign in progress.
Ghost Sign Phase 2 Complete

Phase two is complete for the STOKES BROS portion of the Ghost Sign and the Ghost Sign reconstruction is now finished.

At the completion of the work, the right-hand side of the mural matched and blended seamlessly with the left-hand side, so the two Ghost Sign appears monolithic.

Restoring Ghost Signs to a ghostly fading form brings some of the past to the present while strengthening the community. These signs can serve as a piece of history while providing artwork on the streets and preserving some of the antique advertisements in these murals will most likely brings back some sense of nostalgia for not only residents but also those traveling through the area.

There are Ghost Signs in various stages around the country, so next time you come across one, take a moment and appreciate the combined conservation and craftsmanship that went into creating them. When these signs and advertisement where originally created, it required great artistry in the painters that made them come alive and capture the attention of the community and today it still requires the great talent and craftsmanship to restore and preserve them.  If there is a Ghost Sign that you are considering preserving or restoring, we would be happy to assist.

For more on Canning’s haunting work check out Where We Live’s interview ….. Connecticut’s historic haunts and the restoration experts who bring them back to life, WNPR’s Where We Live

Canning C

October 20, 2022

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