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Ghost-Sign Sleuth: Bringing the Past to Life in Astoria, Oregon

By Charles Purdy

For his first major ghost-sign “reanimation” project since becoming an Adobe Creative Resident, designer Craig Winslow chose a wall in Astoria, Oregon, that showed traces of several signs on at least two layers (he reckons there are other layers below those two). With only phantom outlines and mere patches of faded paint to work with, Winslow had to do some painstaking detective work.

During his year as a Creative Resident, Winslow will be bringing multiple ghost signs back to life, via projection mapping—digitally re-creating the signs and then projecting them onto the walls where they originally appeared.

Having become fascinated by these faded messages from the past and discovering many promising candidates in his new home state of Oregon, Winslow chose to focus on a wall in the city of Astoria. A primary element of that wall was an area with two evident ghost signs, one on top of the other. An advertisement for the Astoria Sign Company is relatively easy to make out; beneath that, a faded secondary outline provided hints of an earlier sign. Some subtle letterforms are visible, and with a bit of effort Winslow was able to piece together the words tailors and clothiers.

“This ghost sign had multiple intact layers, and that’s one of my favorite qualities—being able to bring former layers back to life where some remnants of paint remain,” says Winslow. “Also, the location was good, with a deck right across from it, and the owner of the building was very supportive of the project.”

Winslow’s first step was taking multiple photos of the site and then combining and adjusting the images, in order to get an accurate flat surface that he could work with when he created the projection. (He started with Photoshop’s Photomerge tool, and then he made adjustments with the Free Transform tool and the Bezier Warp effect.)

A MAP OF THE PAST

One of Winslow’s first stops was Astoria’s Heritage Museum.

“With the Astoria project, I was sort of finding my process,” he says. “The sleuthing and detective work really became a focus, and I was surprised at how much information was out there—part of what I’m figuring out now is just how long I want to spend on research, because it could really go on forever.”

The museum’s archive of Sanborn maps provided valuable clues about the signs’ original contents. (Starting in 1867, Sanborn, a U.S. publisher, created detailed maps of U.S. towns and cities—originally, the maps helped insurance companies estimate fire risks.)

“The maps in the Sanborn survey books are so detailed,” says Winslow. “They show the town’s businesses and who owned what, where things were, and what the structures were made of.”

To aid his research, Winslow first consulted old Astoria city directories and Sanborn maps of the city.

Winslow learned that the building next to his sign (which, nowadays, partially obscures the sign) had once been a gas station—a high-traffic area that made his wall prime real estate for an advertisement.  

The Astoria Sign Company—the most legible part of the sign wall—was the first thing he looked up. “I found a couple of names that would prove useful, because then I could then go to the library and learn about those people,” he says.

As he learned new details about the building with the signs on it and the buildings around it, Winslow was also sketching over an image of the signs, using Adobe Illustrator Draw on his iPad, to see what might fit. “A clue was the word tailors,” he explains. “If I could look up tailor shops that existed near where the sign was, then I could potentially find out the name of the business. Then I could figure out the upper two lines of the tailor advertisement, because I had no idea. It’s far too worn.”

OLD-SCHOOL RESEARCH (WE’RE TALKIN’ MICROFICHE OLD-SCHOOL)

Then a 1915 Astoria city directory provided an indispensable clue: an advertisement for Carl Laine’s tailor shop, in Astoria’s Spexarth Building, which is close to the building with the sign on it. “It was amazing to see because those words—Carl Laine—fit perfectly into the sign itself,” says Winslow. “And I just loved the slogan. It was cool to see the guy’s ad and feel his connection to his business.”

Winslow’s research at a city museum led him to this breakthrough discovery in an old city directory.

In 1922, a devastating fire destroyed much of downtown Astoria; the Spexarth Building was one of the few buildings to survive. Historical documents showed that Carl Laine moved his shop from there into the building with the sign on it in 1930.

With the information he’d gathered, Winslow went to the library. There, reviewing old newspapers with a microfiche reader, he came across Carl Laine’s obituary and another piece of the sign puzzle: Underneath Laine’s name on the sign, Winslow had been able to make out the letters NS but wasn’t sure what they signified. Laine’s obituary provided the answer: they were the last two letters of the words and sons.

The letters NS in the Carl Laine sign had no meaning—until Winslow, with the aid of a microfiche reader, found Laine’s obituary in an old Astoria newspaper. The obituary mentioned that at least one son had joined the family business.

MORE THAN THE NAKED EYE CAN SEE

Of course, re-creating ghost signs is more than mere detective work. It also requires a close examination of the physical evidence a sign leaves behind. Winslow uses Adobe Photoshop CC to reveal shapes that might otherwise be invisible in his photographs: “You can isolate colors and get a better idea of the letterforms,” he says. “You can start to see some shapes, put some lines down, and solve the puzzle of what might have been there.”

Learning how sign painters worked has also helped Winslow see what others might not notice—for instance, knowing that they frequently used a wall’s brickworks as a grid can guide his eye to letter shapes without rounded edges (as in the word signs in the Astoria Signs advertisement).

This round medallion detail from the sign wall initially stumped Winslow, who uses Adobe Illustrator Draw to sketch the shapes he discerns in the signs. “It’s kind of tough because you can’t really tell as well what is—it has multiple layers that make it somewhat difficult to resolve, so I just ended up projecting all the details. Then I showed it to [master sign painter] John Downer, and he thought it might be old Bell logo—but upon reflection, he is not so sure. We’re talking more about it. He has been a great sounding board and resource.”

Winslow acknowledges that since he’s working without a photographic record, there’s also some “educated guesswork” involved. The ampersand in the Carl Laine sign is a case in point: “There’s no evidence of the form, but with no room for the word and, I’m assuming there was an ampersand there,” says Winslow. “The architecture of an ampersand is different from that of the rest of the letters, so in creating it, I slowly added the shape, turning the layer on and off to check that it felt ‘right’ with its surroundings…. I feel pretty good about the ampersand—not 100 percent, but it works.”

He adds, “I’m trying to make these as authentic as possible. When there’s nothing to go off of, I’ll leave it blank, but if I can rationalize a choice, I will—I don’t want to bastardize the history, but I don’t want to have a blank sign either. I have to take some license...it’s exciting to bring history to life.”

Click on the image to watch a video of Winslow’s Astoria projection.

Craig Winslow is one of Adobe’s 2016–2017 Creative Residents. Learn more about him and the Creative Residency.