Lincoln’s Law Office: Bringing Ghost Signs Back to Life

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Painted signs on buildings were the billboards of the nineteenth century. They could be large and numerous. Today, reminders of these signs grace older buildings throughout cities from London to Chicago in the form of “ghost signs“: faded remnants of painted signs that disappear a little more each year. In most cases these signs are not repainted. Nor are they emulated by current building occupants. But both of these things have recently happened in Springfield, Illinois. Not only have the signs at President Lincoln’s law office been restored to their former glory, other buildings are starting to follow in their image with modern sign designs.

The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices are located in an 1841 building in the center of downtown Springfield. President Lincoln had an office in the building from 1843 to 1852. The building has been restored both inside and out to provide interpretation and education to visitors (see a picture of the building pre-sign restoration here).

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Sure, repainting historic signs makes sense for a historic site. But what about using the old sign style for a new building? Enter King Technology, a neighbor across the Old State Capitol square from the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office. Old building, new business, new sign. But the sign mimics those on the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office building. I have previously written and expressed skepticism about adopting this old method for new signs. It can easily be tacky, convey a false history, and damage the building. But in this case? I love it. Note that they even used a material overlay rather than paint, which will better preserve the bricks.

Perhaps the best sign is a sign that gives a nod to the history of a building while still being firmly rooted in the present.

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Sources and Further Reading:

The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Additional information available at Visit Springfield Illinois. (Note that the site is currently closed for historic restoration.)

Check out Free Sky Studios for pictures of the project in progress!

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8 thoughts on “Lincoln’s Law Office: Bringing Ghost Signs Back to Life

  1. I am a bit ambivalent about this, as well. I enjoy seeing ghost signs on Seattle’s old buildings but repainting them for a business which is not there any more, would be confusing. I don’t know of historic ghost signs in Seattle being repainted. It might be better for the current business to include in its signage, “such-and-such in the historic Fisher Flour Building” or something like that.

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  2. I applaud both these examples of signage.

    Repainting ghost signs is a great activity that engages the public with a historic building. I never fail to see an old advertising sign excite people, particularly when repainted. Older people tell their children or others, “Look at that sign. I remember such-and-such, it was where we bought this-and-that. So-and-so ran it; they lived down the street.” Of course, I tend to work in smaller, more rooted towns with less of a mercenary, transient population than medium-sized cities like Springfield or especially large cities like Chicago or Seattle.

    Also, ghost signs tend not to be very large, which means they do not cover enough of a façade (usually a side one) with paint to cause any appreciable damage.

    Amazing that I just commented on a post where the author “found the artistry and creativity of some of the examples [of hideous carbuncles spiting the façades of historic buildings] to be at once entertaining and inspiring,” but the author does not like repainting ghost signs. It shows that historic preservationists still cannot agree on what historic preservation is.

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    1. Ah but to me, not repainting ghost signs and building different additions fit into the same box: not creating false history. Early preservation efforts in the US were often person or event specific and quick to reconstruct without necessarily having all of the facts (or trying to tell a building/location’s full story) and this was the core of many discussions in my college and grad school classes. Take Paul Revere’s house, which was an Italian grocery store for more of its life. Not its period of significance, sure, but it may be important all the same for the visitors to know the building’s story isn’t so simple.

      I love your thought of signs providing an interpretive experience in which older generations inform the younger; even with transient generations, they have the opportunity of making people look twice and maybe ask some questions about the place around them.

      Historic preservation may definitely be having some growing (hopefully) pains! It is amazing how relatively young the field of historic preservation is. How people went about preservation has shifted so greatly over the last few hundred years (when they even went about it at all). I hope that stating these important questions and discussion topics makes everyone think a little more, preservationists and the general public, alike. It is important for people to think about the places around them, and question how best a community can grow and change. Thanks for chiming in!

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