This City is Haunted

It took me by surprise one morning, several months ago, looming four stories above the corner of Park and Bernard. An old advertisement, painted on the brick wall of an apartment building, had seemingly appeared overnight. The faint outline of words – a company name and an advertising slogan – were there, albeit barely legible. I had never noticed the ad before; it was if the right amount of moisture and light had convinced it to reappear, at least for a few hours. It was, in a word, ghostly.

It’s no surprise, then, that these painted ads, faded by age and sunlight, are known around the world as “ghost ads” and “ghost signs.” They are the ephemeral remnants of a form of advertising that was once ubiquitous. Hundreds of ghost ads lurk on building tops, alley walls and brick façades around Montreal, yet, somewhat surprisingly, few Montrealers seem to notice them. Ghost ads are intriguing, eccentric and disappearing – catch then while you can.

Kate McDonnell, a graphic designer and editor of the Montreal City Weblog, has spent years admiring and photographing ghost ads. “I like how these things have lingered into a very different era, the reminder that a hundred years ago people were living in these streets,” she tells me. “They’re at once a very down-to-earth reminder of commercial ventures of the past, and a very fanciful intrusion of history into the modern day.” McDonnell points to some remarkable ghost ads around town, such as a bilingual ad for the North End Welding Co. (4660 Grand Pré), half-covered with vines and tucked away in a Plateau garden near Laurier metro. Some of the more interesting ghost ads are those which have been painted over; eventually, as the paint fades, both layers are visible at once. High above the Balmoral Block (305 Ste. Catherine West), a sign promotes “Clothes for Man and Boy,” over which a more recent slogan, “Good Clothes and Nothing Else!” has been painted in white.

Ghost ads are a part of what Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal, calls the “archaeology of the city.” They are windows into an earlier metropolis, offering brief glimpses at what was bought and sold by the people who once lived in our apartments and walked our streets. They chart Montreal’s linguistic geography (ads in some neighbourhoods are in French; in others, they are in English). They hint at the emergence of graphic design and marketing strategies, such as the rise of brands: although most ghost ads straightforwardly promote a company, some hint at the rose of global brands such as Coca-Cola and 7-Up.

The best introduction to Montreal’s ghost ads is a stroll down St. Laurent Blvd., starting at the Van Horne viaduct, where the massive Van Horne Warehouse, with its iconic water tower, is festooned with faded ads proclaiming its storage capabilities. Several blocks to the south, at number 4612, is an ad for Nugget Shoe Polish, partially hidden next to a narrow garden walkway leading to a secretive duplex. Three blocks down from there, past an ad for the British Manufacturing Company (number 4158), is the old sign for Simcha’s Fruit Market (number 3953). Scrawled haphazardly above the store’s original English sign is a French translation, rendering the entire thing strangely attractive but entirely unreadable, an amusing metaphor for Montreal itself.

Continuing down the Main, there is an old Coke ad (number 3850), a sign advising you to “Be Wise – Have Electric Light” (in the alley behind number 3600) and another promoting Corlicelli Sewing Silk (number 1029). On the way, near the corner of de Maisonneuve Blvd., is one of Montreal’s most remarkable ghost ads, recently uncovered by demolition, which depicts a pinkish, jovial man hoisting a bottle of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce. “Look out for imitations!” he urges passers-by.

In a city as old as Montreal, it is easy to get caught up in the grand sweep of history. Ghost ads might seem individually unimportant, but together they add texture to the past, creating a sense of what everyday life was like for Montrealers of years gone by. Yet ghost ads are threatened by time and neglect. Heritage Montreal recently urged the city to catalogue and protect the fifty-odd ghost ads remaining in excellent condition. Dinu Bumbaru suggests that preservation, not restoration, is best way to maintain Montreal’s ghost ads. Repainting them, after all, would eliminate their ghostly impact.

I haven’t seen the ghost ad at Park and Bernard since that morning last spring. Of course it’s still there, but on most days it looks like nothing more than a dark smudge on dirty brick. One day, though, it will return, for a few minutes or a few days, to haunt us with memories of a city past.

Another version of this article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on September 28, 2006. For more photos and information on ghost ads, visit Flickr’s Ghost Signs group or look at photos with the ghostsign tag.

Photo by Little Scarlet on Flickr.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday October 31 2006at 02:10 pm , filed under Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

13 Responses to “This City is Haunted”

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Great article. A nice Halloween treat. It’s nice to see there are people standing up for these.

    I met some people in Quebec City who had an interesting project to protect and draw attention to these old ghost signs. They were hoping to use multimedia projections at night that would recreate the original ads, appearing, disappearing, playing with colours, highlighting the different layers, etc. I thought it was a great idea, but some people at a large local heritage organization said that advertisements were not heritage, that the painted murals all over the city are tacky and that we don’t need more crap to draw attention away from the architecture. hm…

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    That is a great idea, especially since it embraces the ephemerality of these signs by using projected light as its medium.

    Sounds like the heritage group has a very narrow definition of heritage. I spoke with an architect about ghost signs and he sees no redeeming value in them, aesthetically, historically or culturally. I look at these old advertisements and I wonder what they looked like originally and what the city was like when these were all over the place. You see them in old photos all the time but of course they’re in black-and-white; imagine how colourful the streets would have been with these things on every wall. Aside from that, I’m also interested in their content: the advertising slogans are usually very quaint, the products themselves are of a different era (when was the last time you saw an ad for shoe polish or welding?).

    I understand the aesthetic argument against these signs, but I don’t understand how anyone can look at them and not be the slightest bit curious about their origins.

  • Olga Schlyter says:

    In Malmö we have a couple of walls with old ads restored. It was some kind of cooperation between the city’s heritage office and the painters organization some years ago.

    A photo:

  • Factotum says:

    Olga, I enjoyed your having added a link to your comment.

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    I agree about the narrow definition of heritage. I see these signs as one of many ways to gain a sense of historical depth when walking through a city. My definition of heritage also includes 1970s department store cafeterias–can’t say I have too many supporters on that one.

    I remember a kickass working 19th-century pharmacy inside that very same old building in Malmo:

  • Ethan Bayne says:

    My definition of heritage also includes 1970s department store cafeterias–can’t say I have too many supporters on that one.

    One vote here.

    I can’t say I’m a big fan of most restorations – this one for example has an air of inauthenticity about it, though I suppose it is preferable to a building plastered with contemporary advertising.

  • Evan Druce says:

    Chicago’s old political ghost ads are my favorite. In my neighborhood of Uptown/Andersonville (the definition becomes iffy right as you hit my building), I’ve seen ads for both Harold Washington (Chicago’s first black mayor, 1983) and Bernard Epton (his Republican challenger). Driving down the Stevenson Expressway towards Midway Airport from downtown, you can spot an ad painted on the side of a building urging voters to re-elect Mayor Daley–Richard J. Daley that is–in 1963. If there is ever a fight to save that building from the chopping block (and I’m sure it’ll stay up as long as Daley fils is in office) I’ll do my damnedest to preserve it.

    Old political stickers never seem to die either. In my old neighborhood of Hawthorne, New Jersey, traffic-signal control boxes are covered in “FLORIO-FREE IN ’93” stickers, referring to a former governor who was a very polarizing figure in our usually very Democratic state. And here in Chicago, a “John Glenn for President” sign is attached to a lamppost in front of my old apartment.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Ethan, is that a restoration or simply a preservation? It still looks a bit ragged so maybe it was just cleaned.

    Evan, I’m surprised to hear that election signs are actually painted on the sides of buildings in Chicago. Here they’re just plastic posters that are attached to lampposts and removed after election day. No stickers, either.

  • Evan Druce says:

    Election signs aren’t painted on the sides of buildings anymore; instead, we have yard signs (plastic with two prongs on the bottom) and paper placards for windows. The glossy party signs that get attached to lampposts in Canada are nowhere to be found. Particularly competitive local races with rich candidates, like the current ones for Cook County Board President or Illinois State Treasurer, will have highway billboards.

  • Ethan Bayne says:

    Chris, after further research I believe that it is cleaning/preservation work rather than a contemporary recreation. It’s just that at the time I took the photo, the ads seemed so striking and vivid compared to what was there before that I (cynically) assumed they had to be new.

    By the way, the Shaw Building now looks like this, and is home to the Maverick Brewery. Some details of the adaptation, which was up for a design award, are here.

  • The Lea & Perrins sign is at the corner of President Kennedy and St. Lawrence Boulevard, Not Park and Bernard! How could it be 4 stories up: there is a man standing on the sidewalk in the photo!

    As you can see from my web site, I like doing old buildings in Montreal and some wall ads, like Union Stamp Shoes, which is no longer visible, as it is covered up, almost by a new building. It is on St. Antoine, just east of St. Lawrence Blvd.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Claire — I wasn’t referring to the Lea & Perrins’ sign. I was talking about a ghost sign four stories above the corner of Park and Bernard; most of the time it looks like a black square, but when the atmospheric conditions are right there is some text that is faintly visible.

    Great sculptures, by the way!

  • Hi Christopher,

    OK. Now I get it. I’ll look up next time I’m in the area.

    Sorry for the confusion. I thought you were referring to the photo!

    Glad you liked my work.