Preserving Signage on Historic Buildings | Wisconsin Historical Society

General Information

Preserving Signage on Historic Buildings

Preserving Signage on Historic Buildings | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeProjecting sign

Ripon, Wisconsin. A sign projecting perpendicular from the face of the building such as this example is an appropriate way to add signage to a historic building. Goose neck lighting is a common way to illuminate projecting signs. Source: Phil Thomason.

Signs were an important part of the appearance of downtowns from the 19th century and into the mid-20th century. Your historic commercial building may still have historic signs from past businesses attached to it. Your signs might even be an integral part of your building — etched in the masonry or sheet metal, for example. These signs are part of your building’s heritage, so you should not remove or alter them. Even signs that were added to your building later can be important in defining the character of your building. You can take any number of different approaches to preserve your historic signs or design new signs that are in keeping with the historic character of your building.

Retaining a historic sign is often a good marketing strategy, too. You can use the recognition value of the old name to appeal to the public's nostalgia for the business that used to occupy the building. An old sign may also provide a sense of history and continuity to your downtown’s past.  

Historical Commercial Signage

Historic photographs of Wisconsin’s commercial districts show a wide variety of sign locations and designs. Signs might be projected from the face of a building or hung or mounted inside windows. Other traditional sign locations included storefront belt courses, upper facade walls and awning valences. Movable sandwich boards or “menu easels” were also widely used. Commercial building signage could also include datestones added to the upper facade, names or dates etched in cornices or even lettering

EnlargeSign locations

Traditional storefront design allows for appropriate sign placement in many locations. Source: WHS - State Historic Preservation Office

or dates incorporated in entryway tile or terrazzo flooring.

Most original commercial signs were made of wood, but during the early 20th century signs of various metals and glass began to be used. By the early 20th century, new materials such as porcelain and aluminum were used to make signs. Metal and/or glass signs were sometimes added in the early- to mid-20th century. The development of neon led to a new method of advertising that was popular for signage for several decades beginning in the early 1920s. 

In the decades after World War II, signs were transformed by a group of materials now known generically as "plastic." Plastic was a malleable material that could take almost any shape and color. Plastic was also translucent, allowing signs to be lit from behind.

“Ghost” Signs

EnlargeGhost sign

Beloit, Wisconsin. Signs were commonly painted directly on the brick building. Maintaining such extant signs is recommended. Source: Phil Thomason.

Your commercial building might have “ghost” signs hand-painted on a wall. Painted wall signs were generally placed on the side elevation of a corner commercial building or on a side elevation of a building taller than its neighboring structures. Painted wall signs are called ghost signs because they fade with time if they are not regularly repainted, and sometimes they are barely visible.

The ghost signs on your building connect your building with its past by displaying its association with a product or company that is part of your town’s history. By preserving your ghost sign, you can retain your building’s identity and show your interest in preserving a part of your town’s history. You should consult a specialist to determine the appropriate treatment of your building’s ghost signs. Although repainting a ghost sign may restore it, the restoration could give your building an appearance that no longer evokes its historic past. Experienced sign painting companies can often provide an artistic “touch up” that leaves the sign’s historic character intact.

Neon Signs

EnlargeProjecting neon sign

Kenosha, Wisconsin. Neon signs became prevalent starting around 1920. Projecting neon signs such as this one was a great way to advertise your business or product. Source: Phil Thomason.

Many sign companies in Wisconsin manufactured neon signs from the 1920s to the 1960s. Neon was popular not only for the wide variety of colors and its brightness, but also because the tubes were long lasting and economical. Neon signs have become popular again in many communities. If your building has an original neon sign, you should preserve and maintain it. If it is no longer operable, consider having it repaired instead of replacing it with a new sign.   

Mid-20th Century Signs

Wisconsin’s downtowns contain numerous buildings constructed from the 1940s to the 1960s, when sign materials and designs underwent many changes. Buildings from this period were often designed with simpler facades than those of the early 20th century. Some buildings had exteriors of undecorated concrete, brick or metal with few or no windows on the upper floors. These blank surfaces allowed signs to be prominent and serve as the focal point of the building. As a result, signs from this time period may be of particular significance in your community. Mid-20th century signs include metal lettering spelling out the name of a business, illuminated or backlit letters or logos and internally lit plastic designs. If your building has a mid-20th century sign, consider how to preserve it in place, find a new use for it or donate it to a local historical group.  

Standardized and Prefabricated Signs

Some historic commercial districts display prefabricated sign designs for chain stores, gas stations and restaurants. By the early 20th century, many companies had specific designs for their building signage that could be prefabricated in factories and built on-site. These standardized, planned buildings used materials such as aluminum or porcelain as exterior wall treatments.

This trend in prefabricated designs grew in popularity after World War II, when franchising became particularly popular in the food industry. For example, the White Castle Restaurant chain built many restaurants throughout Wisconsin from the 1930s to the 1950s. This chain’s unique sign design featured a castle-like structure with an exterior of white porcelain panels. Like White Castle, other restaurants used a standardized plan and signage to readily identify and “brand” their business. As automobiles became more prevalent, many gas stations were built in downtown areas using standardized plans with prefabricated materials. If your building has a standardized, prefabricated sign, consider retaining it or displaying it somewhere in your building.

Historic Sign Reuse

When you are making decisions about the signs on your historic building, be aware that most communities today have ordinances that dictate the size, materials and placement of signs. In addition, your building could be located within a historic district that has specific sign guidelines. Typically, sign ordinances regulate the number, size and type of signs. Some municipalities prohibit moving or projecting signs. Often such ordinances also regulate sign placement and prohibit signs on rooftops or banners that extend the height of the building. Sign materials are also regulated. In many older downtown areas, wood is encouraged while plastic is discouraged or forbidden altogether. Sign ordinances often specify appropriate lighting sources, as well. Indirect illumination (light shining onto the sign) is often required instead of the bare light bulbs, or "backlighting," that is used in most plastic signs.

You may be able to keep or restore a historic neon or metal sign even if your business is of a different type than the old business. Ideally, you should leave the old sign in its historic location. If this is not practical, you might be able to move the sign elsewhere on your building or to a location inside your building. You might also be able to modify a historic sign for use with your new business. You may not be able to do this without destroying essential features, but some signs can be modified by changing only a few details. If an old sign simply is not compatible with your business or that of your tenants, consider donating it to a local museum, preservation organization or other business owner downtown. 

New Sign Design

When you are designing a new sign for your historic building, choose a design that is based on your building’s age and architectural character. Consider using an iconic logo to identify your business, such as an ice cream cone for an ice cream shop or eye glasses for an optometry shop. In the early days of commercial signage when literacy was not as common as it is today, signs often featured a recognizable symbol or color scheme to identify the type of business. For example, a barber shop would feature a classic barber pole, and a pharmacy would feature eye glasses or a crucible.

Best Practices

Follow these best practices to preserve, maintain or replace signs on your historic commercial building:

  • Keep and preserve your historic signs. You should try to keep all your historic signs, including ghost signs, neon signs and signs from the mid-20th century, as long as possible. If an existing sign on your building is incompatible with your business, consider reusing the sign elsewhere in your building or donating it to a local historical group.
  • Maintain your historic signs for their long-term preservation. Inspect your historic signs periodically for evidence of damage and deterioration. Replace any weakened screws and bolts or burned-out light bulbs. Clean out any dirt and other debris that has accumulated in the sign. Make your signs watertight to prevent interior rusting or damage to electrical connections.
  • Repair and restore your damaged historic signs. If you have a damaged historic sign that is structurally intact, restore it by supplying missing letters, replacing broken neon tubing or splicing in new parts for deteriorated sections. Hire a sign professional for more extensive repairs. Avoid "over restoring" your sign so that all evidence of its age is lost.
  • Hire a sign professional to repair or replace a neon sign. Hire an electrician or sign company to repair or replace your neon sign. Neon transformers have an output of between 4,000 and 12,000 volts, which can be lethal if not handled properly.
  • Use appropriate lighting for your signs. Install signs that are non-illuminated or indirectly illuminated. Ensure the lighting for your signs is unobtrusive, indirect and compatible with the historic character of your building.
  • Follow your community’s sign regulations to design a new sign. Before you have a new sign made for your historic building, check your community’s zoning ordinance and your historic district requirements for sign regulations. Many communities with strict sign ordinances will allow variances for historically appropriate signs in historic districts. It never hurts to discuss your vision with your local authorities. 
  • Design your new sign so it is appropriate for the style and character of your building. Design your new sign with traditional materials, styles and placement that are appropriate to the historic character of your building. Use traditional materials such as wood, glass, copper or bronze letters. Avoid using plastic, substrate or unfinished wood signs. Sandblasted wood signs are appropriate.
  • Do not damage or conceal the historic fabric of your building when installing new signs. When you are installing a new sign, anchor the mounting brackets and hardware into the mortar, not the masonry. Do not allow your signs to obscure or conceal architectural features of your building.