Ghost signs on historic buildings reveal Lawrence’s painted past

photo by: Lauren Fox

Examples of ghost signs in Lawrence. From left: a "Bull Durham" tobacco advertisement on the side of 725 Massachusetts, a "Malt-a-Plenty" advertisement at 1206 E. 13th Street and the Poehler Lofts building at 619 E. 8th Street.

Erin Spurlock power washed her garage earlier this month with the intent of eliminating dirt and grime. Instead, she uncovered a piece of history in the shape of a milkshake.

There, on the white brick on the side of her eastern Lawrence garage, a faint black outline traced the shape of a cup, lid and straw. Black and red lettering inside the cup spelled out “For the drink that tastes best, drink Malt-A-Plenty.”

“It was all white paint, and then, as you’re power washing, the white paint is flaking off and you can see patches of red,” Spurlock said.

photo by: Erin Spurlock

Erin Spurlock uncovered a ghost sign advertisement for “Malt-A-Plenty” while power washing her East Lawrence garage in mid-October.

Spurlock had uncovered a ghost sign: a hand-painted advertisement on the side of a building; marketing for a product or business that no longer exists and a physical remnant of history. She set off to find out more information.

Using old Journal-World archives to research, Spurlock found an advertisement in a paper from May 25, 1950, that listed a place called Oswald’s Market at 1206 E. 13th St. That’s the location of Spurlock’s detached garage. The ghost sign on it, she estimates, is about 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide.

“I mostly just think it’s exciting,” Spurlock said. “I’m a history major, so I just love anything that is historical.”

Spurlock’s original plan was to repaint the side of her garage and use it as a site to project movies outdoors for her friends. Now, Spurlock’s boyfriend will repaint the milkshake advertisement, and the movie projection site will be moved to another location on the garage — only if there’s nothing else to be discovered there, that is. Spurlock hasn’t finished power washing, “so I’m kind of excited to see if there’s anything else,” she said.

A tour of downtown ghost signs

Walking up the 700 block of Massachusetts Street, one might not notice the outline of yellow and white letters on the side of the building next to Breakout Lawrence. They’re dull, faded from decades of sun and natural deterioration. But for architectural historian Brenna Buchanan Young, it was the first stop on her downtown tour of Lawrence ghost signs.

On Oct. 15, Young walked with a Journal-World reporter to view the examples of ghost signs on Massachusetts Street. Young often gives tours about the architecture of downtown, but this was her first time doing one about ghost signs. In truth, that’s simply because there aren’t many of them.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Local architectural historian Brenna Buchanan Young took a Journal-World reporter on a ghost sign tour of downtown Lawrence on Oct. 15.

“To me, if I was to say ‘ghost sign of Lawrence,’ this would be it,” Young said about the sign on the south side of 725 Massachusetts. “It’s the cleanest, most undisturbed example. It hearkens back to the eras that we think of as ghost signs.”

On the side of the brick building, one can make out the name “Bull Durham,” an antique brand of tobacco popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a brand that was likely sold in the same time period at the building next door: George’s Pipe Shop, once located at 727 Massachusetts.

photo by: Lauren Fox

A faded “Bull Durham” ghost sign is pictured on the south side of 725 Massachusetts on Oct. 15.

The Bull Durham advertisement is unusual in that it’s not on the building in which the cigar shop was located, Young said. George’s Pipe Shop was in the one-story building now occupied by the Lawrence Metaphysical Shop. The sign is on the south side of 725 Massachusetts, meaning the owners must have made an agreement to use the neighbor’s building to advertise, Young said.

The faded outline of “Bull Durham Smoking Tobacco” is still visible today, but it’s hard to make out.

“It happens to be facing south, so it’s getting just annihilated by the sun,” Young said. “So the fact that it’s there at all is amazing. We’re very lucky to have that one.”

The reason downtown Lawrence doesn’t have many ghost signs is because the buildings are short, Young said.

“Why don’t we have them? It’s mostly because they’re accessible,” she said. “The ones that survive are usually up higher where people can’t graffiti them, can’t get to them, can’t mess with them.”

That’s part of it. Young also attributed the lack of ghost signs to the fact that many downtown buildings have caught fire or been renovated. If Young had to guess where more ghost signs are hidden, it would be on the interiors of buildings. That’s where Young’s “crowning jewel” of Lawrence ghost signs is. Unfortunately, it’s covered up — because it’s on the inside of someone’s apartment.

In 2009, Young’s contractor friend called her to come see a ghost sign that had been revealed in the second-floor apartment of 714 Massachusetts St.: blue “Hardware & Stove” lettering that Young believes might be older than William Quantrill’s raid.

“It was so colorful and perfect: the whitewash brick,” Young said. She believes the ghost sign had been covered since around 1910, when the building next door added a second story and the outdoor sign became an interior wall.

In 2013, Young was working on a project about the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s deadly 1863 raid. She saw an old picture of downtown Lawrence and recognized the “Hardware & Stove” sign. The photo was taken in 1864, just one year after the raid.

photo by: Brenna Buchanan Young

A “Hardware & Stove” ghost sign is pictured in an old image of Lawrence from 1864 and during a renovation project in 2009 at 714 Massachusetts.

“Undeniable that is the exact same,” she said.

An East Lawrence sign restored

In East Lawrence, the Poehler Lofts building has one of the most recognizable ghost signs in Lawrence. Originally built in 1904 as a four-story grocery distribution warehouse, the building now serves as a living space with 49 apartments. As the Journal-World has reported, developer Tony Krsnich started his apartment project in 2011, at which time the building had been largely vacant since 1957.

photo by: Lauren Fox

The Poehler Lofts building is pictured on Oct. 15.

Theo Poehler, whose name is on the side of the building, started a wholesale grocery and grain elevator firm in Lawrence in the late 19th century in addition to serving as the city’s treasurer and mayor. It was his son who built the mercantile building that exists today.

In 2011, Poehler’s name was largely faded from the side of the building. During the renovation process, it got a paint job, and it is now a clear tribute to a company that once was. Krsnich told the Journal-World on Thursday that preserving historical aspects of buildings is something he focuses on.

‘You can’t stop seeing them’

Lawrence has only a few examples of what people traditionally consider ghost signs, but it does have numerous signs from businesses past that people have retained.

Print shop Pro-Print, for example, has a large hand-painted advertisement on the back of its old building at 838 Massachusetts. Is it technically a ghost sign? Maybe. Pro-Print hasn’t been in that location since 2017, but the company still exists today.

photo by: Lauren Fox

Pro-Print’s advertising sign, pictured on Oct. 15, remains on the back of 838 Massachusetts despite the company’s location change in 2017.

Outside the entrance of Ta Co. Lawrence, at 801 Massachusetts, there’s a mosaic that reads “Round Corner,” a sign from a pharmacy that once was the longest-running pharmacy in the state. It opened in 1866, but closed in 2009. That sign isn’t painted, but it does tell the story of what once was.

photo by: Lauren Fox

At the entrance to Ta Co. Lawrence, 801 Massachusetts, there’s still a sign for the former Round Corner pharmacy: 1866-2009.

Lawrence also has a lot of “sign dates” on buildings, Young said. The Wiedemann Building, for example, says “Wiedemann” at the top with the building’s date: 1886.

“We’ve got plenty of those,” Young said. “People just don’t usually look up to see them.”

photo by: Lauren Fox

The Wiedemann building is pictured on Oct. 15.

Toward the end of the ghost sign tour, some faded lettering was visible behind the sign of Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. Was it a ghost sign of sorts? Yes, Young said, “add that to the collection.”

photo by: Lauren Fox

Behind the sign for Brown’s Shoe Fit Co. at 829 Massachusetts, one can make out the former lettering for McCall’s Shoes.

“I know there’s going to be others,” Young said on Massachusetts Street on that mid-October day. Searching for ghost signs and other markers of history in architecture can lead to a whole new view of downtown. And, according to Young, “once you start to see them, you can’t stop seeing them.”


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