News
08.15.2013
Review> Cultural Artifact or Eyesore?
Martin Treu reconsiders the architectural significance of commercial signage along America's Main Streets.
Courtesy Johns Hopkins University Press

Signs, Streets, and Storefronts:
A History of Architecture and Graphics along America's Commercial Corridors

Martin Treu
The Johns Hopkins University Press, $50

What a tremendous beating the business sign has taken over the years. Considered horrendous eyesores, business signs havebeen overwhelmingly pervasive, their placement chaotic and untidy—yet they have been a necessity of Main Streets and other commercial corridors across America. The storefronts that have supported them and the streets that have shored up those shops fared better in the preservation of our towns and cities, but the signs, those damn signs.

Martin Treu takes us on a marvelous journey through American history from 1700 to 2010 by way of its signs, streets, and storefronts. These artifacts do not speak but have long stories to tell. Distinguishing the causes of progress and regress in our town centers, Treu points to the advertiser and the customer, the designer and technology, with a bit of civic and/ or governmental oversight thrown in when the marketplace does not police itself well.

In tackling today’s quest for historic preservation, Treu argues that, in an effort to preserve a long ago past, we are often too quick to strip clear our nearer history. What, after all, deserves to be preserved? Buildings (sans signage) from the 1950s? The 1920s? When a building built in 1880 is being restored, to which decade do we restore it? Preserving and restoring can sometimes also mean erasing.

From the beginning, signs have been necessary to identify the activity of commercial establishments. Taverns, lodgings, and mercantile buildings were not structurally different from residences; therefore they needed to be distinguished from one another. With the general population not yet literate, it was necessary that signs be illustrative.

 
 

Throughout the book, we also witness signs and storefronts going through transformations as technology advances. An opaque, pigmented glass called Vitrolite dressed 1880s Italianate architecture in dazzling new outfits. In the 1920s, the electric light bulb lit up Main Street’s signs across the country with bright calling cards. The advent of the automobile demanded that the business sign become larger in order to be read by passing motorists. Representational architecture, such as the towerlike restaurant buildings of White Castle, beckoned drivers to take notice.

The government also played a role, when its response to the Great Depression altered our discernable vista. The Federal Housing Administratrion provided insured loans for the modernization of existing buildings—the hope being that modernization would prompt building activity, put money back into circulation, and allow people to get back to work. Across the nation, from small towns to large cities, Main Street was getting a makeover, the thinking being that a better-looking store would attract customers.

After America climbed out of the Depression and returned from the War, the country went on a two-decade long prosperity binge. Everywhere—from architecture to automobiles, trains, and yes, even signs—the design mood was built on speed and the future. The shapes of signs implied movement and energy. Streamlined buildings symbolized progress. Restraint was not in the vocabulary until people became unnerved by the tangled visual landscape.


 
 

The 1960s and 70s sought to reverse that trend and reflect the era’s sensibilities by dressing buildings in the warm earth tones characteristic of the time. Then the preservationist movement of the 1980s and 90s peeled back a building’s slip-covering to its original facade, this time, sans signage. That was a very big mistake, according to Treu.

The author cites Michael Auer’s thoughtful 1991 presentation brief for the National Park service: “Signs speak of the people who run the businesses, shops, and firms. Signs are signatures. They reflect the owner’s tastes and personality. They often reflect the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood and its character as well as the social and business activities carried out there. By giving concrete details about daily life in a former era, historic signs allow the past to speak to the present in ways that buildings by themselves do not. And multiple surviving historic signs on the same building can indicate several periods in its history or use.”

Mr. Treu engages many of the voices that help shape the discussion of America’s main streets,from Robert Venturi and Kevin Lynch, to Rayner Banham, Ian Nairn, Peter Black, and more. Perhaps a thought or two from Gabriel Esperdy, M. Christine Boyer, or Dolores Hayden would have added more layers to his very rich topic. But, still, his vivid descriptions and ample photographs support his even-handed entreaty to please, please, consider the sign.

Ann Weiser

Ann Weiser is a New York–based critic.