Signs of the Times

Farine Five Roses

Farine Five Roses sign, Montreal

It sits at the base of Montreal’s skyline and it’s hard to miss: “Farine Five Roses,” it reads in red neon, blinking languorously through the night.

For more than half a century this sign has greeted Montrealers driving over the Champlain Bridge, walking through the Old Port or Little Burgundy, or descending from Mount Royal, but perhaps for not much longer. In July, the sign went dark, its owners having decided to do away with it. As one of Montreal’s most distinctive and beloved landmarks faces extinction, a question is raised: do we care enough—or even know enough—about our sign heritage?


The Farine Five Roses sign can be found atop the Ogilvie Flour Mill, a sombre brick edifice that is somehow always bathed in diffuse, grey light. With its clear, straightforward design, it’s a deceptively simple signal light, for it belies a history that mirrors that of Montreal. Erected in 1948, it originally read “Farine Ogilvie Flour,” named after the wealthy Scots-Canadian family that owned the mill. In 1954, the family name was replaced by Five Roses, a new brand of flour that quickly became a fixture in Canadian households. The next change came in 1977 when, in accordance with Bill 101 (which required all commercial signage in Quebec to be in French only) the last five letters of the sign were removed. Finally, in 1993, the Ogilvie’s business was bought by Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), an international conglomerate based in Illinois.

“It’s a repository for any number of stories,” says Matt Soar, a professor of communications at Concordia University who helped create Logo Cities, a project that examines high-rise signs and logos. Farine Five Roses recalls the glory years of neon, he explains, when the ability to make signs blink and simulate movement gave cities a shock of excitement and allure. It tells us about how Montreal grew—the sign’s positioning makes it visible from large parts of the city—and how industry shaped that growth. Its transformation from Ogilvie to Five Roses marked the birth of branding. It has a lot to say about language politics: bilingual when most downtown signs and advertisements were in English, unilingual when bilingualism was officially declared to be a threat to French in Montreal. (Even then, where does bilingualism begin and end? “Flour” was removed but the trademarked “Five Roses” remained, a testament to the linguistic contradictions of modern Montreal.) More recently, it tells the story of corporate convergence and globalization, where brands, companies and local landmarks become commodities traded on an international scale.

Earlier this year, ADM sold the Five Roses brand to Smuckers, making the big sign perched atop the old Ogilvie mill irrelevant at best and a liability at worst. To corporate management, then, it seemed only natural to turn the sign off, with the ultimate goal of dismantling it. Big mistake, at least in the eyes of Montrealers. When word came that the sign’s days might be numbered, heritage activists and ordinary citizens expressed shock. The Gazette ran an editorial declaring that the Farine Five Roses sign “deserves a place in our hearts, if not our skyline,” and urged ADM and Smuckers to keep the sign alive. Soar, for his part, launched a website called Save Farine Five Roses, which contains historical information, an image gallery and an anagram game in which users can rearrange the sign’s letters.

After the public outcry, ADM and Smuckers decided to reilluminate the sign until a final decision was made about its future. Many are pessimistic, however. It is unlikely that either company would be willing to invest in the sign’s upkeep. The City of Montreal, meanwhile, has shrugged off any responsibility and has refused to acknowledge the sign’s heritage value. A spokesman for Montreal’s downtown borough pointed out that such a sign would be illegal today because of new bylaws designed to protect views of Mount Royal. But Dinu Bumbaru, the head of the advocacy group Heritage Montreal, insists that the sign’s future is of urgent public concern. “It’s really not an insult to its surroundings; it’s part of the genus of the place that is dedicated to industry, flour milling and trading and so on,” he says. “Like the [Guaranteed Pure Milk] bottle, or how people are lining up for Schwartz’s smoked meet, [the Farine Five Roses sign] is part of the heritage of the city. It’s not a nostalgic thing because it’s not part of the past; it’s part of today’s heritage—the living heritage.”

Part of the Farine Five Roses sign’s appeal is its sheer presence. It adds visual complexity to Montreal’s skyline, creating a natural point of interest to which the eye is drawn. Most charmingly, it is ever so slightly whimsical, working with the mountain’s neon cross, Place Ville Marie’s rotating spotlight, the illuminated harbour clock and the blue-and-white animation of the Molson brewery sign to create a nocturnal fantasyland of light and colour. “These are the elements of the nightscape,” explains Bumbaru, the quixotic collection of things that make the night so much more mysterious and romantic than the day.

Signs are an integral part of both the nightscape and the dayscape. They are part of Montreal’s collective heritage, emblems of this city’s culture past and present. Yet they are often poorly understood and marginalized; buildings are restored and monuments are protected, yet historically or culturally significant signs rarely fare so well. Farine Five Roses is but one of hundreds of vintage signs in Montreal. Many of these are neon signs from the 1940s and 1950s and handpainted advertisements from even earlier eras. The former are often in disrepair. The latter, faded with age, are known as “ghost ads” for their habit of showing up in unexpected places; disappearing and reappearing with sun, shadow and rain.

The biggest threat to many of these signs is simple negligence. Since they exist on private property and promote businesses that have long since disappeared, civic officials are reluctant to acknowledge their value. Yet they are often beautiful, or at least striking in their design. “There was a lot of craftsmanship that went into them,” notes Bumbaru. Their importance extends beyond aesthetics: they are also important reflections of the everyday social and economic life of years past, part of what Bumbaru calls the “archaeology of cities.” Sainte-Catherine Street in downtown Montreal is littered with ghost ads. Some advertise pianos, others boots. Ghost ads in the west of Montreal are in English; those in the east are in French. Last year, on the Main, the demolition of several vacant buildings revealed a century-old Lea & Perrins’ ad that advised passers-by to “Look out for imitations!”

There are many obstacles to saving old signs. The profusion of cheap, mass-produced backlit signs in the 1970s created a backlash against signage that can still be felt. When old buildings are restored, ghost ads are sometimes erased; many old neon signs are simply discarded, as was the case for the classic sign that adorned the Sainte-Catherine Street entrance to Saint-James’ United Church until its restoration this year. Sometimes, politics interfere. In 2005, the owners of the Monkland Tavern in Montreal’s West End won a civic award for the restoration of their bilingual 1950s-era neon sign. The ensuing media attention, however, prompted an anonymous militant to file a complaint with the Office québécois de la langue française: the sign’s English “tavern” was the same size as the French “taverne,” which contravenes Quebec’s language laws. The bar was forced to alter the vintage sign at great expense.

If anything, though, such controversy underlines the cultural importance of old signs. Matt Soar points out the unusual step ADM and Smuckers took in re-illuminating the Farine Five Roses sign. “It’s culturally relevant to a lot of people,” he says. It has become both a temporal and a spatial landmark in many Montrealers’ lives, like a childhood home or an old school. Signs like this, worn by time and weather but always very visible, remind us of the city that was and the city that exists today. In these signs, we see ourselves.

This article was originally published in Maisonneuve on September 1, 2006. Read the original article here.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday October 01 2006at 04:10 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Heritage and Preservation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Signs of the Times”

  • Olga Schlyter says:

    Maybe it’s not (only) negligence or lack of interest from civic officials, maybe there aren’t any really workable means to deal with this. That’s the experience I have from my daily work with preservation issues in Sweden.

    The only thing civic officials here can do is trying to convince or persuade, but often they don’t even get the chance (or have time or resources) to do so. Since no permit is requested (that I know of) to take down a sign, it happens without their knowledge.

    Encouraging measures like awards is a good way to go. Another important thing civic offials can work with is to look after the new signs in a city. For putting up a sign on a building downtown (in Sweden at least) you need a permit. In those cases, the city officials should use their influence to make new signs look good so they become gems in the cityscape.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    I agree that city officials have only a limited role to play in sign preservation, but I still don’t think the City of Montreal is doing even half of what it could. Vancouver is a really great example of a city that has taken its sign heritage to heart: the city subsidizes the restoration of old neon signs (Vancouver used to be covered in them) and it has a very progressive sign policy. The iconic “W” sign on top of the Woodwards department store, built a couple of years before Farine Five Roses, is now being restored in preparation for its central role in a big housing and civic centre development. You can read more about it on Matt Soar’s blog:

    http://www.savefarinefiveroses.org/

    But yeah, with the FFR sign specifically, its future rests entirely in the hands of the company that owns it.

  • Hugo says:

    I think that sign is awfully ugly. Frankly, I am glad they are taking it down (if they are). I think preservation is important to a certain extent, specifically with historical sights and parks, etc. But a FIVE ROSES FLOUR sign…eeeehh. I understand nostalgia and that’s the point, take it down so we can be nostalgic about it.

    “Culturally relevant to a lot of people” “In these signs we see ourselves”…That’s a bit too romantic wouldnt you say?…

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Why too romantic? After all, why shouldn’t we romanticize the city? If we don’t were just left with brick, concrete and a bunch of people.

    My point is that things like the Farine Five Roses sign, blinking in the night, are what allow people to romanticize the city. To me it’s as much a part of the skyline as Mount Royal (which, in turn, wouldn’t be the same without the giant neon cross).

  • Rod Hemeon says:

    From……Rod Hemeon…….Yarmouth Nova Scotia Canada.

    Please help save this Victorian Streetscape.

    Not much time left before decisions will be made and it’s fate sealed.

    Please send the people in power in this small Town a detailed message if you can.

    Tell them how important something like…….. this beautiful STREET is when attracting visitors.

    maybe tell them….
    How important retention of the most important parts of your cultural heritage is crucial to the well being of a community.

    Tell them what you please—just please speak up.

    This is a link to my make shift web site, I have a large amount of information and can not put it up as it is complicated, threats of lawsuits have come in, two days in a row.

    Please help and send your comments To. Yarmouth Town Council care of

    Town Clerk Jeff Geshue

    cao@yarmouth-town.com

    This is …………….. Forest Street …… Yarmouth Nova Scotia Canada

    Today……. as far as I am aware ……
    I have no supporters in The Heritage Community In Nova Scotia.

    WHY…………………………

    Don’t ask them, judge for yourself one of these Heritage people is threatening me with law suits.

    WHY…………………………

    I suspect the powers controlling this Town have mounted a fear mongering campaign.

    WHY……………….

    I have sustained constant personal attacks ….. verbal abuse..defamatory remarks……threat of lawsuits…..threat of arrest……

    WHY……………….

    I have requested that expert consultants be given the opportunity to give their opinions of just how important this streetscape is. The answer has been ”we don’t want outsiders telling us what to do.”

    WHY……………….

    Some wealthy self-important powerful people have attempted to restrict my right to free speech and freedom of movement …….

    WHY……………….

    Well I am Going to Find Out.

    I thought I had given the Steering committee or the Proposed Forest Street Heritage Conservation District, enough educated opinions from numerous heritage conservationists, to allow them to make an informed decision when it came to approving the policies I helped develop.

    Which they did On June 20,2007. They, the steering committee approved Chapter 5 dealing with–The Service [Street] Infrastructure— there was only one dissenting vote.

    A month later and things have changed it seems the whole committee now wants to retract that approval WHAT HAPPENED—WHAT WENT WRONG

    Why are they trying to discredit me, the guy who wants to save the heritage streetscape.

    Why all of the local heritage people against what I am saying.

    Don’t forget … Retention, Preservation, restoration of the historic streetscape and service infrastructure and the protection of the intact 19th century ornamental trees…….. is my focus

    This all lies on public…. Town Owned Land

    Why ……….. I am looking for the answer in writing to that question …I am searching for evidence ……. the on going web site will follow this and hopefully be updated daily to it’s hopefully swift positive outcome.

    http://yarmouthstreetscape.angelfire.com/
    please
    Turn on sound as the music is important to the message

    Regards Rod Hemeon

    44 Forest Street
    Yarmouth Nova Scotia
    Canada
    B5A3L5