Saving Edmonton's 'ghost signs'

‘Ghost signs’ — faded, hand-painted billboards for long-forgotten businesses — will continue to haunt the corners of Edmonton’s oldest buildings, if David Johnston has his way.

The historic billboards are quickly disappearing from city streets

New development in the Quarters has put this "Sweet Caporal" cigarette ad at risk of demolition. (spacing.ca)

"Ghost signs"' — faded, hand-painted billboards for long-forgotten businesses — will continue to haunt the corners of Edmonton's oldest buildings, if David Johnston has his way.

The City of Edmonton heritage planner wants to preserve historic advertisements from the turn of the century.

The billboards that once advertised anything from cigars, steam-cooked rice to sportswear can be found on decaying brick buildings and neglected back alleys, but the few that remain are at risk of being demolished to make way for new development.

For instance, construction in the Quarters has placed a decades-old "Sweet Caporal" cigarette ad at risk. 

Johnston would like to see all the city's ghost signs protected under historical designation.

"These signs are really a window back to the past, to day-to-day life, " Johnston said during a Thursday morning interview on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Preserving these signs really gives us a connection back to what was going on in the 1920s, 30s and 40s."

David Johnston says fewer than 20 of the colourful billboards remain in Edmonton's downtown core. (Roger Benest/twitter )
The colourful signs, once painted over without a second thought, are increasingly coveted for their historic value and craftsmanship.

"People would literally be hanging off these buildings or on scaffolding, spending days at a time with a bucket of paint and a brush. And some of them fairly intricate."

Johnston says there are at least 20 ghost signs in the downtown core, but he's hoping to do a full inventory of all the signs within city limits, and make a detailed catalogue available to the public.

"Finding all of them is really the challenge here. Many of them are up high, they're in nooks and crannies that would have been more visible in the 1920s."

Other cities offer walking tours of their ghost signs and Johnston would like to see the trend take hold in Edmonton.

"The storytelling around them is becoming something that people are really starting to connect with."

The city is working with developers to try to save the signs.

Some are on historically-protected buildings, but without the designation, Johnston says the city has limited power to save the relic art.

"It's a dying breed. Every time we lose one, we can't replace it. Heritage buildings can be replicated but these can't."

Johnston says this CKUA ghost sign is one of his favourites. The city is working with developers to ensure more of the billboards are preserved. (the needle.ca )


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