VINCENNES, Ind. — Hidden in plain sight — there but perhaps rarely noticed — are remnants of the city’s history, chipped, faded advertisements painted on the sides of downtown buildings that once sought to entice shoppers into downtown stores.
Historic preservationists call them “ghost signs.” Many of them have fallen victim time, changing trends and even historic preservation techniques themselves.
Vincennes has several, a number of them having been revealed as, over the years, Vincennes lost other historic structures along the way. That was the case a year ago when an 80-year-old Schultheis and Sons sign was uncovered after an old filling station at 528 Main St. was razed to make way for a public parking lot.
“They’re in most communities,” said Tommy Kleckner, the western region director for Indiana Landmarks, the state’s leading historic preservationist group. “Most old cities, you’ll see them somewhere, some remnant of some advertisement on a three-story building.
“And sometimes it’s layers of several,” Kleckner said. “But they fade, the paint flakes off and a number of them have been lost.”
As Indiana communities look to preserve their historic buildings, the signs, oddly enough, are left behind, lost to tuck-pointing techniques or even a fresh coat of paint.
There really are no state programs, Kleckner said, to help building owners with the restoration costs associated with repainting ghost signs, and it’s actually Indiana Landmarks’ position that brick shouldn’t be painted. Doing so, Kleckner said, especially with the wrong kind of paint, doesn’t allow the brick to breath, thereby encouraging even further deterioration and, in some cases, causing interior leaks.
Judy Kratzner owns a building at 418 Main St., whose exposed east-facing wall dons the remains of multiple ghost signs, everything from Werker Drugs, to Coca-Cola and even bread and laundry services.
And while Kratzner has spent much time and money restoring her building, she’s conflicted about the signs themselves. There’s something about their barely-there nature, she said, that she likes. And she’s been warned about painting the brick on exterior buildings, too.
But there are several property owners, here and across Indiana, that are embracing the restoration of their historic ghost signs.
Most recently, Kleckner said one in Rising Sun has been fully restored.
Coca Cola Bottling Co. offers grants now to help residents restore signs associated with its brand, and the Vigo County Historical Society is looking to restore one on the side of its new home at 1411 S 6th St., Kleckner said.
Locally, Dr. Scott Hendrix of EyeWorks said when the family of optometrists looked to fully restore their circa 1876 building at 223 Main St., one next door, the old Hillman’s building, was torn down to make way for more patient parking.
Revealed were two ghost signs for L.A. Wise & Co. Dry Goods, one a near building-wide block-letter depiction of the name and another, smaller sign advertising “Pride of the West custom-made shirts.”
“We had no idea they were there,” Hendrix said of the discovery made more than 20 years ago. “It was a family clothing store, Louis Wise. He had several daughters, I believe, that all went to Lincoln High School. I think, at one point in time, it was a women’s clothing store, too.
“But we liked (the signs) and we knew we wanted to a have them both repainted and restored. We thought it meant a lot, not just to our building but to the historic integrity of downtown.”
And there are many others that make up the landscape of downtown Vincennes as we all know it.
A faded yellow and white sign on the side of a building in the 400 block owned by Dan Osborne advertises Little Cuban Cigars.
A few blocks to the northwest are several others painted on top of one another at 211 N. Second St., a historic building owned by David Blackburn. Faded lettering for Battle Ax chewing tobacco, Quaker oats and Bierhaus Wholesale Grocers are still plainly visible.
And across the street, on what is now a medical building owned by Good Samaritan Hospital, a fully restored ghost sign advertises Bierhaus-brand coffee, a once popular local commodity.
Another, one a bit more difficult to find as it’s overgrown with vines, advertises “Vincennes Storage,” on the back of a building at 610 Upper 11th St.
The list goes on and on.
Local historian Norbert Brown has lots of photos of these ghost signs in his vast collection of Vincennes pictorial history, many of them of the same sign in different stages of disrepair.
He loves all of them and the stories they tell, he said, and if you’re careful, even more is revealed, he said, on a rainy day.
“When it rains, you can see them differently,” he said. “You can read more when the brick is wet.”
In his own research, Brown discovered that a man by the name of Aubrey McClafin, who died in 2007 at the age of 98, may have been responsible for the ones still visible today.
He and his brother were some of the first aviators in Indiana, Brown said, having even known and befriended Amelia Earhart. McClafin was also a tinsmith and, when time allowed, a painter who often adorned the sides of buildings and roofs of silos and barns with brightly-colored advertisements for local businesses.
“I think he did a lot of Coca-Cola signs,” Brown said. “And I suspect he did several others.
“He was a fascinating guy.”
A man with the last name of Yocum, Brown said, also painted ghost signs years ago, and it’s his belief that this Yocum painted the Schultheis sign revealed at the corner of Sixth and Main streets last year.
A local man named Hayden is also in historic records as having painted these signs, as did the Wilkerson Poster Service, Brown said.
At the turn of the century, it was the thing to do, a way to get products out for the world to see. After all, downtowns were bustling market places, spots to see and be seen.
But after World War II, after it became customary for families to have more than one car — after people became far more mobile — giant billboards along highways and Interstates took the place of signs so carefully and meticulously on the side of brick buildings.
Outdoor advertisements took to the outskirts of town, as did residents themselves. And they’ve never really moved back.
“It’s certainly a lost practice,” Kleckner said. “And it’s one of those things, sometimes you notice them and other times they just become a part of the landscape. We dismiss them.”
And while some communities are looking to restore a handful of these lost forms of art, others still fade a little more each day.
And maybe, Kleckner said, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, for there is something magnificent in their quietness.
“They are these visible, tangible links to our history and the heritage of downtowns,” Kleckner said. “There are some that have been restored, others that have been preserved but even a faded ghost sign, there’s just something about it.
“They have a quality that is quite intriguing.”
Source: Vincennes Sun Commercial, http://bit.ly/2pV03hC
Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://www.vincennes.com
This is an AP-Indiana Exchange story offered by the Vincennes Sun-Commercial.