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The ghost signs of Cincinnati past

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Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-25 11:26:16-05

The next time you walk past an old brick building in downtown Cincinnati, look up and you might find yourself getting the same view as the camera lens of Northern Kentucky University Class of 2013 graduate Ronny Salerno.

The Fairfield native and West Chester Township resident has written a 160-page book that tells the compelling history behind Cincinnati’s fading advertising signs – often called “ghost signs” – through 106 color photographs and descriptive essays.

Ronny Salerno's “Fading Ads of Cincinnati,” which was published by The History Press in November, sells for $23.

Fading advertising signs seemingly are everywhere: on the south side of the old 125-year-old Dennison Hotel at 716 Main St. (“105 rooms – 60 baths,” the signs reads), or on the west side of a vacant, single-story building at 118 E. Ninth St. (“Sam Caldwell & Co. Inc., Painters – Decorators”).

These signs have fascinated Salerno for years, and he has been photographing them since transferring to NKU after studying photography at Ohio University for 1½ years.

Up until writing “Fading Ads of Cincinnati,” which was published by The History Press in November and sells for $23, Salerno has been known for the local history he has captured and posted since 2007 on www.queencitydiscovery.blogspot.com.

He took time to talk about his passion for the Queen City’s fading signs.

Question: What was the first ghost sign you remember being drawn to and photographing?

Ronny Salerno, a Fairfield native and West Chester Township resident, has written a 160-page book that tells the compelling history behind Cincinnati’s fading advertising signs – often called “ghost signs” – through 106 color photographs and descriptive essays.

Salerno: The first “ghost sign” I remember being drawn to was a Coca-Cola advertisement on the side of a warehouse-turned-parking garage near Procter & Gamble headquarters. For years, Coke would rotate in new vinyl ads every couple months to advertise various products. I’d look for it every time my family would come downtown for Reds games or to see the holiday trains. Occasionally, you’d catch a work crew changing out the vinyl and you could see the mid-’90s “Always Coca-Cola” advertisement that remained behind the vinyl ads. In 2009 or so, Procter & Gamble actually bought the building and the vinyl came down. The paint was still clinging to the walls, and when demolition started, the “Always Coca-Cola” ad remained for a while. I and a fellow photographer actually went to the building with the intent to photograph/explore its abandoned and half-demolished state, but I ended up photographing the fading ad because it reminded me of my childhood. The building was finally torn down and replaced with P&G’s daycare center.

The other ad I remember is the one for “Provident Camera” above West Seventh Street. It’s the one that has always stuck out to me – still pretty bright with its yellow paint – and I always recognized the image of the digital single-lens reflex camera. When I was recruited to write the book, it’s the first one I went looking for, and it was the first on my mind. I had only visited Provident a few times when it was still open, but I always appreciated that up until their last days they still used a painted advertisement on the side of the building to highlight their location.

Question: What are your two favorite Cincinnati signs and why?

Salerno: One of my favorites has to be “The Beehive” on the bottom of U.S. Bank Arena – mainly because of the story behind it. It’s actually just a stencil of letters with an arrow, but it used to provide direction to an elevator at the street level. Arena patrons could take the elevator up to the top, where there was a club called the Beehive. In the ’70s, many cities were hungry for professional sports, particularly NHL hockey teams, and the NHL wasn’t particularly interested in expanding. An ownership group in Cincinnati had tried to acquire an NHL expansion franchise, but the league wouldn’t budge. They did, however, get the arena (then Riverfront Coliseum) built. They joined with several other cities and teams to create the World Hockey Association (WHA), a rival, top-tier professional hockey league. Cincinnati’s team was called the Stingers, and their logo was the letter C stylized as a bumble bee. The club level of the arena was dubbed “The Beehive.” My book covers it in greater detail, but essentially, after several attempts to merge the two leagues, Cincinnati was about to join the NHL. At the 11th hour, however, the Stingers' owners backed out and didn’t join. The Stingers played one more season as a minor league team before folding. I love that the old, hand-painted “Beehive” sign has such an incredible story behind it. I’m also a huge hockey fan, and it pains me that Cincinnati was so close to being in the NHL.

One of Ronny Salerno's favorite ghost signs is the Little Kings Cream Ale sign on Central Parkway. He loves its design, which is unintentionally retro. The Central Parkway sign is left over from the brand’s first life, before Schoenling went out of business.

Another favorite sign would have to be the Little Kings Cream Ale sign on Central Parkway. I love its design. It’s unintentionally retro. The Central Parkway sign is left over from the brand’s first life, with ’70s-era branding and all, before Schoenling went out of business. In a way, Christian Moerlein beer still benefits from that old advertisement today. It’s in a pretty prominent spot.

Question: Have you sensed any movement here to preserve these signs?

Salerno: Not in any real organized sense. So many of the buildings that feature these ads have changed owners over time. Many haven’t bothered to cover or remove the old signs, but I think it’s more out of expense/hassle concerns than historic preservation. Coca-Cola actually will work with groups around the country to try to restore old Coke advertisements, but there’s been a lot of controversy over that because, even though it’s historic American folk art, it’s still advertising for a massive corporation. I also don’t think many people realize these things exist or how many there are. In a way, just leaving them alone is kind of like preserving them. As they wear, it gives more character to them, in my opinion. I like that they’re constantly in action, fading away and eroding. They have a life cycle like living things.

Question: Have you considered hosting a walking tour and, if you did, what area in town would you cover in an hour?

Salerno: I’ve always liked the idea of creating a local tour company, renting a bus and doing the kinds of tours you see in places like New York or Chicago. I think the city’s marketability for local and out-of-town tourists could be grown in some ways. If I had to do a walking tour of these signs in an hour, downtown has probably the richest collection. Not only is the collection there the biggest, but you can see how the ads line up with the streets and pedestrian activity; you can see why advertisers chose those spots. This city is really booming right now, too, so if you’re doing a walking tour on a nice day with crowded streets, you can kind of imagine the bustle of the city when these signs were created. As the city has returned to prominence, so has our appreciation for its history.

Question: Given the growing popularity of ghost signs, have you seen any fakes out there?

Salerno: Not really any “fakes,” per se. The use of hand-painted advertisements still exists, mainly in larger markets. Los Angeles and New York often have them, and there are a few in Chicago. With advertising space at a premium in those cities, though, the painted ads don’t really stay around long enough to “fade.” Shake It Records in Northside uses a painted advertisement on the side of its building that has aged a little bit, but the business is still very active. The use of that kind of advertising fits well with the store and looks natural on the side. In the Kenwood Towne Centre, OshKosh B’Gosh has a vinyl advertisement on a wall within the mall. It’s made to look like a fading ad, with fake markings of wear and a “retro” flair. The Pub, with a few locations around town, has some hand-painted advertisements deliberately created to invoke a retro flair, but they fit well the establishment’s decor. There aren’t really any fakes, but definitely people are still utilizing the practice and mimicking it.

Question: How is the book selling, and do you have plans for a second one?

Salerno: From what I can tell, it seems to be doing well. I didn’t really do it to make money, but more so to preserve a memory of these signs as they appeared at a specific moment in time and highlight a unique aspect of the city’s history. Once I started talking with the publisher and doing research, it was apparent that the subject matter needed to be covered in a larger sense than just an article on my website. Response has been very positive though, with good reviews coming in. At the moment, I don’t have plans for another fading advertisements book, but I have started working on another history book as well as a new photography book.

Question: What do you think the ghost signs of the future will be, given that painting is out of style?

Salerno: Recently, I was driving back to my hometown of Fairfield, and I passed a gas station.
Growing up, the place was an AmeriStop, but now it’s part of a local chain with new signage and branding. However, on the top of the building you can still see the faded outline of the AmeriStop eagle. I don’t know if in the future we’ll have fading signs in an advertising sense, but I think you’ll be able to look at a place or structure and see how it’s a “sign” of its former life. For example, fast-food chains typically design their buildings with a specific style in mind. It’s part of their overall branding strategy, to make their locations instantly recognizable without using a traditional sign. There’s a dance studio off Alexandria Pike near NKU. The front of the building has a large, glass solarium. You can look at the building and know instantly that it used to be a Wendy’s. Even when these types of buildings are re-purposed, typically you can make out its former use. Interestingly enough, The Onion highlighted this phenomenon in satirical fashion with its 2000 article titled “You can tell area bank used to be a Pizza Hut.” Companies are so focused on branding and having a consistent, recognizable image these days that I think their physicality will be more of a “ghost sign” than a traditional sign.

Also, there’s the murals being painted by ArtWorks Cincinnati on the sides and fronts of buildings. First and foremost, I want to say that those murals are awesome. ArtWorks does incredible work. However, as time goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how those murals age. In a way, the aging adds to their appearance. However, with the murals being works of art, rather than advertising, maybe there’ll be a steadfast plan to preserve them.