Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990 Page: 23
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Signs were an important aspect of 19th and early 20th
century storefronts... In examining old photographs
one is struck by the number of signs-in windows,
over doors, painted on exterior walls, and hanging
'over (sometimes across) the street. While this
confusion was part of the character of 19th century
cities and towns, today's approach... tends to be more
conservative. Removal of some signs can have a
dramatic effect in improving the visual appearance of
a building. . . [and] for this reason their removal is
encouraged in the process of rehabilitation.7
Givenr the bias toward buildings, preservationists only infrequently
consider typical commercial signage as an important or
integral element of a historic landscape. True, there have been
situations, most notably the CITGO sign in Boston and White
Stag sign in Portland, Oregon, where preservationists have rallied
to prevent removal of a so-called "landmark" sign. Smaller, more
typical signs, such as a favade-mounted neon or painted wall graphics
rarely generate any concerted preservation effort or even
recognition as potentially significant resources. Most planners and
preservationists, in addition to the public, find it hard to view such
resources as being significant historic objects.8
Smaller commercial signage, the barber poles or shoe repair
signs of America's main streets, hold their greatest potential for
significance not individually but for the collective role they play in
determining an area's sense of place. Signs play a significant role in
defining the appearance of an area or building, especially at night.
Consider virtually any 1930s movie palace without its neon-lit and
incandescent bulb-encrusted marquee or Las Vegas during a power
outage. In each situation the sense of the area or building is
dramatically changed, far more so than if we were to, for example,
remove wooden sash windows and replace them with metal ones.
Yet concerns over such exterior changes as window sashes
normally provoke the ire of historic review boards. At the same
time such boards actively seek to remove historic signage.
It is not here advocated that metal windows are acceptable in
a late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century historic district. Such
a position would be inconsistent with the true appearance and
design of such a structure during its recognized period of
significance. But so, too, is a twentieth-century commercial storefront
shorn of its oversized or flamboyant signage.
Signs, by their very nature, are ephemeral entities within an
urban landscape. Commercial enterprises come and go with the
capriciousness of the consumer. Design tastes change and images
are updated by those businesses that do survive over long periods.
Often it is by sheer chance that even a highly significant building
may have retained sufficient integrity over a period of years so that
it can be appreciated or valued in a historic context. With the less
permanent nature of commercial signs, a far lower percentage of
resources are likely to remain after any fixed period of time.
Until recently, mainstream preservation generally concerned
itself primarily with pre-1900 resources. Cityscapes and districts
dating from the "gay nineties" or earlier were the main focus of
commercial landscape preservation efforts. Even now when the
National Park Service rule of thumb of fifty years begins to ap
proach the post-World War II era, it is only the rare post-1920s
district, such as the Art Deco area of Miami, that is considered
As mentioned above, some cities are recognizing, and taking
steps to preserve, "landmark" signs by removing them from the
jurisdiction of threatening sign control ordinances. Other cities,
most notably Pasadena, California, have taken positive steps
toward protection of smaller scale significant signage by a process
of designation to a Historic Sign Inventory. Often though, as is the
case in Portland, Oregon, such processes can only partially be
viewed as historic preservation. In Portland there are four "unique
sign districts" that each recognize the impact of signs within an environment.
One, the Broadway Unique Sign District, encompasses
the traditional theater and night life area of Portland and within
its boundaries larger and more exuberant signage is encouraged as
being in keeping within the area's traditional sense of place. "The
special atmosphere of this district is enhanced when new development
and signage expresses an outward vitality or contributes
toward an exciting display of Downtown splendor or liveliness,"
according to the author of the city's design guidelines.9 In
another of Portland's unique sign districts however, the one in
"Skidmore-Old Town," sign sizes and materials are limited so as to
maintain the traditional appearance of the area. The SkidmoreOld
Town is "historic" and thus reserved; Broadway, where most
of the buildings date from the 1930s or earlier, can be "exciting"
Preservation in America should not, and likely could not,
reverse course and seek to retain every single sign in a historic
commercial area. But if we are to use viable commercial areas to
interpret a past time, and the appearance of that area is to be
considered integral to its ability to do so, we ought to strive for
historic accuracy in scale and impact for all the elements of the
streetscape, including signage. Privately held commercial areas are
not museums; they must be permitted to change and evolve, and to
reflect the times they exist within as well as their periods of
significance. New development, as well as new signage, that is
consistent with the feeling, the "sense of place" that an area is
known for is not intrinsically detrimental to historic integrity.
Sensitively designed works that maintain the historic scale and
tone and design of an area will reflect an era better than any
imitative period designs. Such re-creations are historically and
temporally unjustified as well as dishonest. Districts that can
manage new development yet maintain a traditional sense of place
can truthfully reflect the past while remaining a part of a living,
vibrant, and changing landscape.
George Kramer is a historic preservation consultant living and working in Ashland,
Oregon. A recent graduate of the Preservation Program at the University of
Oregon, this article is based on research done for his thesis "Preserving Signs in the
Historic Landscape: The Impact of Regulation." He is amused to be Oregon's only
member of the Society for Commercial Archeology.
1348 U.S. 26,33 (1954). This case affirmed the power of a city to condemn property
to pursue the civic goals of urban renewal as a method of improving the appearance
of its downtown. In retrospect, such a situation points out the transitional nature
of cultural values and how what might be viewed as an "aesthetic" good may
not be so seen only a short time later. ~2For
example, many cities may legally prohibit commercial signage, and thus
"commercial speech," when it imitates standard traffic devices. Typical are
regulations forbidding the use of the red hexagon "STOP" sign in a manner that
may be confusing to motorists.
3Pierce Lewis, "Taking Down the Velvet Rope: Cultural Geography and the Human
Landscape", in Past Meets Present, ed. Jo Blatti. (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1987).
4Alice Meriwether Bowsher, Design Review in Historic Districts, (Washington, D.C.:
Preservation Press, 1978), p. 44.
'Additionally, were "person" defined to include corporate entities, as it is for legal
purposes in America, signs such as the Mobil Oil "flying horse" or Greyhound Bus
"running dog" might qualify as significant under criterion "B." Both example signs
are virtually extinct in the American urban landscape.
6Rudi Sternm, Let There Be Neon, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1979), p. 19.
7H. Ward Jandl, "Rehabilitation of Historic Storefronts," Preservation Brief 11,
(Washington, D.C.: National Park Service) p. 10.
"Peter H. Phillips, "Sign Controls for Historic Signs," PAS Memo, November 1988,
was a recent nationwide discussion of methods of protection for such signs.
'Portland Design Commission, "Downtown Design Guidelines," (January 1983), p.
HERITAGE * SUMMER 1990 23
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 8, Number 3, Summer 1990, periodical, Summer 1990; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45427/m1/23/: accessed September 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.