Signs and the City

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Chicago’s Harrison Hotel.
Courtesy Martin Treu

Earlier this summer, Chicago was abuzz over the large illuminated Trump sign recently installed on the building designed by SOM’s Adrian Smith, a structure that was completed several years ago. The sudden appearance of this added feature has generated heated discussion in the media and on the streets. The sign appeared to many as an awkward intrusion along a riverfront largely devoid of major signs and as a disfigurement to a pure modernist building with clean lines and careful detailing. Others found it perfectly acceptable in a cityscape full of visual variety. Controversy about graphics on buildings is nothing new in this city, with its heritage of great architecture and innovative advertising.

A brief history of Chicago’s commercial on-site signs will put the current discussion in context. It reveals a city that has been a national leader in sign control as well as sign design. But city hall has not always shown an enlightened awareness of the potential contribution that signs can make to buildings and to streets. And business owners, like Trump, have often ignored opportunities to effectively entice their customers even while appeasing likely critics. Commercial signs, though frequently condemned as intrusions, can in fact be good for streets and respectful of buildings, helping to establish character, human scale, and even a sense of spatial enclosure overhead. They may also serve as important landmarks. A little historical background may be necessary to give signs their say in court, especially as codes are re-examined for future development.

 

Chicago was once the nation’s most progressive city for sign regulation, even though control was a relatively primitive matter of outright bans or dimensional limits. As early as the 1880s, the city established modest size and placement standards for wooden projecting signs. The limits of police power prevented cities from aesthetic-based legislation, so visual control was only possible if it could be enforced as an issue of public safety. By 1905, Chicago prohibited all projecting signs except for electric ones, as they contributed to the nascent municipal street lighting.

In the early 20th century, signage along State Street, the city’s leading retail corridor, received the most rigorous aesthetic scrutiny. In part, this was a reaction to the creative excesses of proprietors with more money to spend than those on the average commercial street. The city also had great pride for this prominent public promenade. Along with the elegant Palmer House Hotel, State Street was dominated by the great department stores, including Marshall Field’s; Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company; and Wieboldt’s. Though lavish newspaper advertising by these stores obviated the need for aggressive on-site promotion, less toney businesses and a handful of theatres nearby depended upon some of the most eye-catching electric advertisements in town to lure patrons. To this day, smaller, local businesses receive their greatest advertising effect, per dollar spent, from their signs.

The city’s strategy in 1907 for cleaning up the perceived visual blight of State Street was to require that all signs be flush-mounted—an effective limitation, since most electric signs of the time projected into the street by necessity, due to bulky wiring, transformers, and sockets. A photograph taken at night in 1910, three years after this change was made, shows a somber State Street at street level, rendered inconsequential by the parade of gigantic, electric rooftop advertisements. Some journalists lamented this visual denuding at eye level, contrasting it with New York’s still vigorous Broadway. Chicago code writers quickly targeted what were then called “sky signs,” but apparently early restrictions were not effectively enforced or they were withdrawn within just a few years. Eventually, rooftop signs became part of the distinctive urban landscape in Chicago, especially along Michigan Avenue, and most notably atop its many hotels. Such signs serve as beacons of hospitality, a nationwide tradition for more than a century.

 

Along State Street, the city’s restriction to facade-mounted signs led to some creative advertising and architectural solutions. To compensate for lost visual prominence afforded by signs jutting out over the sidewalks, businesses from the 1930s to the 1970s on State Street were identified by an almost solid spread of neon that reached up three stories, flush-mounted over building facades. State Street buildings, though varying in height and design, were unintentionally but effectively united visually as a result of this multi-storied band of light.

Prolific Chicago architect Alfred Alschuler contributed imaginatively to this State Street phenomenon in the 1930s, but in a highly disciplined way. Instead of leaving the job of business identity to a sign company, he made it central to the design of the building facade. Alschuler created showcase stores across America, designing for Woolworth’s, Grant’s, and other national chains, but his most nationally recognized commercial work was on Chicago’s State Street. In 1936, for the Benson-Rixon clothing store, he wrapped bands of glass block, without a break, around a dramatically curved corner. Display windows and a continuous, curving canopy defined the final band, at the base. There, Alschuler mounted a series of deep ribbon letters—serving as both identity and pattern—that ran the full width of the swooping facade. Alschuler’s next major project on State Street, in 1937, was a store for the Kitty Kelly shoe chain. As with the Benson-Rixon store, the entire facade was manipulated as a complete graphic composition. A 4-story window of glass block served as a background for compressed neon letters almost twenty feet high, perfectly proportioned for the tall window frame and precisely aligned with its base.

Composing a commercial facade as one might create a poster was employed as a design strategy for stimulating sales during the Great Depression. Until the early 20th century, business signs were mostly an afterthought, late additions to a building facade and often an affront to the architect (this is how many view the Trump sign). In the 1910s, Chicago architects and designers, like Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, were some of the very first in America to explore the potential for blending business identification with building design, achieving a visual harmony under the control of a single entity. By the late 1920s, European designers raised the stakes, more than tripling the size of the lettering once confined to the classic 19th century storefront fascia, and arranging bold colors and graphic patterns to dynamic effect. They, in turn, influenced Americans like Alschuler, eager to reinvent the simple storefront for struggling businesses.

 

In the decades following World War II, sign and architecture were less successfully integrated, and the public found the increasingly large business identifications of the Loop to be major visual irritations. The city subsequently reinvigorated its longstanding policy of reducing or eliminating signs. In the first decades of the new millennium, there is still some disdain for signs in general, but it remains alongside growing appreciation for the artistry of older signs and the need to keep urban commercial corridors vital with effective new signs. Today, proactive, richly conceived visions for street character are increasingly prevailing over the reactionary and merely reductive one-size-fits-all code restrictions that were developed as a backlash to the exuberant 1950s.

One potential strategy for sign control is to code urban corridors according to their specific nature, whenever possible. The Milwaukee Avenue Historic District, which celebrates decades of creative commercial design, now only protects vintage buildings. The ordinance might be modified to protect vintage signs as well (some of which are quite large, but true to the street’s character and history). Clarity of vision is needed when coding streets. In the early 20th century, Chicago banned projecting signs from State Street, commercially straight-jacketing this broad, American retail corridor. That restriction is enforced to this day, but sign area limits are now more severe. Over the decades, street trees come and go, yet the Chicago Theatre marquee glows like a frontispiece or emblem for the famous thoroughfare. State Street continues to send mixed messages about itself. Is it a Champs-Elysees or a Broadway, Fifth Avenue, or 42nd Street?

The riverfront, including Wacker Drive, might be envisioned as something like a parkway, a passage that has historically been protected against domination by advertising. If the Trump sign had been more carefully considered in the context of precedent, the pristine nature of the riverfront might have been preserved—a rooftop sign, in accordance with hotel tradition, might have been a more palatable approach. Seen from afar, such signs contribute to a sparkling city silhouette instead of being judged as startling anomalies closer to eye-level. The city shares responsibility with Trump for a missed opportunity. If it had developed a clear, proactive vision of how all of its major thoroughfares should appear, such major aberrations to the street would not occur.

With a bit of research, the designers of the Trump sign might have discovered another potential model for success: the many examples of signs designed by architects for their own buildings. But without knowing the context for design, developers are bound to disappoint, whether the reference is physical or historical. Graphics can be created as an asset to a building as well as to a street, and there is a better chance for visual victory when the surrounding environment and historic precedent are given their due respect.

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