Nfld. & Labrador

Conservation work underway on historical sign uncovered in downtown St. John's

Miki Lee is responsible for conserving a long, wooden sign that hung above a clothing store on Water Street, discovered last year during renovations, run by a couple who fled Nazi-occupied Poland and became resistance fighters.

Store owners fled Nazi-occupied Poland and became resistance fighters before moving to St. John's

Miki Lee carefully glues peeling paint back on to the Lewis Ferman and Co. sign. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Sitting in a quiet lab tucked away in the bottom of the Rooms, Miki Lee stared intently at the soiled piece of wood in front of her while carefully dipping a tiny brush into a ramekin of glue.

"I like the before and after pictures," Lee, a conservation technician, joked.

Lee is responsible for conserving a long wooden sign that hung above a Water Street clothing store run by Lewis and Grunia Ferman, which was discovered last year during renovations on the building.

Lee is a conservation technician contracted out to do the project at The Rooms. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

The Fermans came to Newfoundland from Poland after living in a resistance camp in the Belarusian woods during the Second World War.

"You can see it's filthy," said Lee. "A conservation nightmare … but I like the challenge."

Sign in rough shape

The sign came to Lee in seven pieces after the contractors cut it up without knowing its historical value. The piece then suffered some damage after it was moved from an outside climate into an indoor one.

Conservationists had to create an environment to acclimatize the wood to the temperature and humidity in the lab. 

Another challenge for Lee is removing dirt from the sign without chipping or rubbing the paint off. 

In order to preserve the artifact as close to its original, Lee glues down every single paint chip. She then goes over the wood with a small cotton swab and carefully rubs the dirt off. 

"The blue background is awful and the minute I touch it the blue comes off so I am finding that a little bit challenging," she said.

Lee carefully uses cotton swabs to clean the dirt off the sign. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Once the cleaning is done, the sign will be reassembled, and Lee will touch up some of the damaged areas with paint.

Lee said extensive research was done on what kind of paint was used, and what type of solvents and solutions would not harm the sign. 

"I would love in some ways to just take a brush to it and clean it off but I can't do that because it will remove a lot of the original. It's the original that is the most important thing here."

Resistant fighters 

The Fermans met while living in a Jewish resistance camp in the Naliboki Forest in current-day Belarus after escaping from Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Lewis Ferman was an electrician and explosives expert who sabotaged German supply lines and rescued people from the Jewish ghettos.

He had lost his wife and daughter, who were among the Jews killed by the Nazis.

Grunia and Lewis Ferman are pictured in a family photograph. (Submitted by Michael Ferman)

Grunia Movschovitch found refuge at the camp, where she worked as a nurse, after her brother was shot trying to escape a Jewish ghetto, and her father and brother were sent to a concentration camp.

The couple survived the war and came to St. John's with the help of another family, who they worked for before opening Lewis Ferman and Co.

The store was said to be both a place of business and a community meeting place.

Sign a reminder of St. John's history

According to The Rooms' curator, the sign is representative of a hustling and bustling time in downtown St. John's history.

"This kind of brings back that," said Maureen Peters. "That was such an important part of Newfoundland and Labrador's history that should be again embraced and celebrated."

The Lewis Ferman and Co. sign sits in seven pieces in the laboratory at The Rooms. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Once complete, the sign will be added to the Jewish exhibit at the Rooms. 

"It gives us the ability to talk about a part of Newfoundland history that people don't generally associate with Newfoundland and Labrador," she said.

Depending on her workload, Lee hopes to finish the project by the spring.

"While I am working on this I am constantly thinking about the people who have worked on it as well, like the painters? Why did they do this? Why did they use what I call crappy blue paint?

"So it's the people and the stories behind it, is what I really enjoy."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Meg Roberts is a video journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John's. Email her at meg.roberts@cbc.ca.

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