- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Sometime before 1947, along an industrial strip in north downtown Omaha, a painter climbed a ladder or scaffold and brushed these words onto the side of a brick building:

Omaha Folding Machine Co.

Designing and Protecting

Modern Industrial Equipment

Machine Shop

In 1947, a new building next door covered up the sign, and it stayed covered for the next 68 years.

The small machining business closed and was forgotten.

Then, on a rainy day this May, a man in a Caterpillar excavator knocked down the building next door, and uncovered the painter’s words. They came back into life, in white, yellow and red.

Ryan Reed saw the sign, stopped and took a photo, posting it to Instagram with the hashtag, #ghostsign.

The Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/1O765Aq ) reports that Reed, an Omaha historic preservationist, was just in time to catch this ghost.

The next day, the excavator knocked down the abandoned machine shop building, clearing the way for future Creighton University development. The bricks of the 1898 building tumbled to the ground, the sign was gone for good.

There are only so many “ghost signs” like it left: the faded or hidden remnants of old advertising and business signs painted onto brick buildings.

Just as historic buildings have fans, so do ghost signs - people who say every developer who paints one over or knocks it down tears a page out of Omaha’s history book, even as the next chapter is written.

“They have their own historic value,” said Ruben Acosta, National Register coordinator at the Nebraska State Historical Society. “They oftentimes are one of the very few sources we have as to what businesses were in the building, or what type of economic activity occurred in the district.”

Omaha’s ghost signs reveal to today’s city dwellers that on the same downtown blocks where they’ll find craft cocktail bars, art galleries, law firms and yoga studios, businesses once sold shingles, plows, hardware, cardboard boxes and wholesale groceries.

They illustrate the city’s role in the country’s westward expansion, as both a manufacturing center and a trade hub, where “jobbing” wholesalers provided product for retailers throughout the region. And the number of signs for hotels, Acosta said, is evidence of the number of traveling salesmen who did business in Omaha.

A 1911 photograph of downtown Omaha, taken from atop the Union Pacific building at 14th and Dodge Streets, shows a skyline littered with these signs. The photo is in the archives of the Durham Museum, in the Bostwick-Frohardt collection.

Some advertise products:

“Delicious and Refreshing Coca-Cola - Relieves Fatigue - Sold Everywhere - 5 cents.”

“Genuine ‘Bull’ Durham” tobacco

“Shirts - Made to Measure”

“Luxus - Liquid Sunshine - Beer You Like”

Others tell what you’ll find in the building they adorn:

“Omaha Tent & Awning Co.”

“Merchants National Bank”

“American Hand-Sewed Shoe Co.”

“W.L. Yetter & Co. Wall Paper”

Scores of these signs have now disappeared. They’ve been painted over, faded beyond recognition or lost to demolition and development. Many were lost in 1989 when ConAgra Foods demolished about two dozen buildings in the Jobbers Canyon Historic District, listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. A 1930 photo of the district shows signs for Victor Hosiery, Carpenter Paper Co., and Harding’s Ice Cream among others.

Reed says that’s to be expected. The signs were never really meant to last, and that’s part of the intrigue: “They’re ephemeral.”

Still, an effort to document what ghost signs remain in Omaha turned up more than 50. They have lingered long after the business or product they promoted closed, moved or went out of fashion.

Some are tucked away in alleys, or covered by newer buildings, and others are faded and hiding in plain view, the letters still legible if the morning sun hits them just right, or if the bricks are wet from rain.

“They’ve stuck around for ages and ages and it really tells a tale of the city’s past,” Reed said.

Ghost sign enthusiasts nationwide have documented these signs in books, blogs, maps and social media. Some note the history behind the signs. Others appreciate the graphic design elements.

Before neon, before interstate billboards, before strip malls with pylon signs, signs painted on brick were the way businesses advertised their location and their wares. They’re concentrated along streetcar routes and placed where pedestrians have a clear view, not blocked by the roof of a car, Acosta said.

The signs are “history in plain sight,” writes graphic artist Lawrence O’Toole in “Fading Ads of Philadelphia,” a 2012 book in which he photographed and researched the history of dozens of signs in that city.

Some of Omaha’s last ghosts are in danger. The city’s historic Old Market, Midtown and North Downtown neighborhoods are seeing heavy investment from developers of new apartments, restaurants and retail shops.

The Happy Hollow Coffee building near 11th and Dodge Streets, with its white-on-black script, could fall to make way for an expansion of the Holland Performing Arts Center, for example.

Still, much of today’s development work aims at preservation or adaptive reuse of old buildings, and the signs, in the process, live to see a few more years.

Several ghost signs decorate interior walls at Scriptown Brewing Co., opened in Midtown’s redeveloped Blackstone district in 2014. One advertises Carnation milk, and two boast that Butter-Nut Coffee is “delicious,” including one that covers an entire wall in the women’s restroom.

The owners could have covered the signs in drywall, but instead left them exposed.

“It’s urban cool,” Scriptown co-owner John Fahrer said.

At the Skinner Macaroni Lofts apartment building downtown, “Skinner Macaroni” ghost signs are one of several “very desirable” historic features that attract residents to the property and make it more valuable, said Dominic Vaccaro, vice president of property developer America First Real Estate.

Vaccaro said he would never deliberately cover or remove a ghost sign.

“You get this collection of features that just doesn’t exist, and is pretty much impossible to replicate, in suburban new construction settings,” he said. “They tend to appeal primarily to a younger demographic, but really to people of all ages. People like living in a place that’s been repurposed rather than tearing something down because it’s old.”

The old style of sign painting is so appealing, several businesses that are relative newcomers to Omaha’s Old Market are painting their new signs right on brick.

A CHI Health Clinic family medicine office uses a painted sign reminiscent of the ghost signs on the same building.

Hudl, the Lincoln-based sports video software firm, uses vintage-style painted signs on its office in a warehouse at 10th and Jones Streets.

These signs use modern fonts and couldn’t be confused with historic signs, which is important under city design guidelines.

The guidelines credit historic signs for lending “much of the character of the Old Market District” and caution that new signs faking a historic appearance “detract from the genuine historical value of the Old Market.”

It’s not in the Old Market, but one of the city’s best-known “ghost signs” isn’t historic at all.

At the invitation of the building’s then-owner, artist Nellie Sudavicius MacCallum designed the now-iconic “Omaha” sign and associated murals in 1981.

She borrowed the “Omaha” typeface and other designs from phone books contemporary with the 1889 building. She oversaw a painting process that involved touching up existing ghost signs on the building, like the Ribbel Paper & Woodenware Co. sign on the upper left corner of the west wall, and incorporated original art.

She sees the “Omaha” sign everywhere — on t-shirts and in tourists’ and artists’ photographs.

“I feel very proud that that has symbolized the old Omaha,” she said.

Not everyone loves the Riley building paintings.

Omaha Public Art Commission Chairman Larry Ferguson said signs like these detract from a building.

“Most architects would like to think that their building is the artwork.”

Ferguson, a photographer, said he evaluates ghost signs on a building-by-building basis. They’re commerce, not art, he said. He power-washed a ghost sign off a building he owns. He said it was a faded advertisement for an auction business previously located in the building.

“It was really ugly,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he opposes all ghost signs - just signs that amount to “visual clutter,” he said.

The Baum Iron sign downtown, on the Baum Hydraulics building? “I love it - all the way,” Ferguson said. Not only is it freshly painted, he said, it still represents the business located there.

Omaha Old Market design guidelines encourage “the retention and preservation of signs and advertising painted on historic walls … especially where they provide evidence of early or original occupants”.

There’s controversy about what that “preservation” means.

Some cities’ historic-preservation efforts include repainting ghost signs to their original luster. The downtown Albany, New York business improvement district hired artists to repaint signs there in 2013. In 2014 Coca-Cola helped communities in North Carolina and Virginia repaint old Coke signs.

Others, including Acosta at the historic society, believe the signs should be left alone - not touched up. Freshly painted signs for out-of-date companies or products are confusing, he said. Faded signs convey the passage of time.

“It’s one of the effective and quick ways for people to know they’re in a historic place, when they start seeing ghost signs,” Acosta said. “It’s a visual and graphic representation of the past.”

If the signs won’t be around forever, their fans at least want others to slow down, take a look and appreciate them, and the history they represent.

That’s part of the reason Reed documents historic signs on his Instagram feed.

He moved to Omaha in 2013 from Missouri and started his account to show the city’s urban core and its “quirks” to friends back home.

“Nobody had any perception of Omaha,” he said. “People thought it was a small city, and didn’t have any history to it.”

The Skinner’s Macaroni Products ghost sign may confuse Omahans.

The building is home to the Skinner Macaroni Lofts apartments, not a pasta factory.

And the Skinner family still works in food manufacturing, but not in pasta, and not downtown.

The James Skinner Baking Company makes pastries and distributes them nationwide to grocers and restaurants.

Brothers Lloyd M. and Paul Skinner started their business in 1911. Skinner’s is credited with inventing the first raisin bran cereal and the first powdered fruit-flavored drink mix, called Quick-Ade.

Unlike some of Omaha’s other original businesses, this one didn’t die; it evolved. Some of its brands were acquired in 1979 by chocolate-maker Hershey Foods Corp. Spanish conglomerate Ebro Foods later acquired and still sells Skinner brand pasta - look for it in Omaha Walmart and No Frills stores.

Skinner’s Macaroni was once a widely known name here.

Today the only reminders downtown are the signs at the old factory. The Skinner Lofts advertise urban living in a “beautifully restored factory” and invite residents to “discover history, live history, make history.”

Lloyd M. Skinner’s grandson Jim is chairman of James Skinner Baking, founded in 1983. About 450 people work at the Omaha bakery complex. Framed historic photos of the macaroni plant decorate the halls of its headquarters building.

Today three of Jim Skinner’s children work in the business and want to carry on the more than 100-year-old family business name.

“They’re very proud of it,” Skinner said.

One hundred years ago, this block of downtown Omaha buzzed with the sound of industry: Inside the massive Eggerss O’Flyng complex workers fed giant rolls of kraft paper into machines that crimped and glued it into sheets of cardboard, then folded it into boxes and affixed printed labels.

The boxes would hold every type of retail product Midlanders were likely to buy: cigars, fur coats, bathrobes, hats, candy and wrenches.

The building typifies the large warehouses built around the turn of the century near rail lines in downtown Omaha.

Eggerss O’Flyng was one of several dozen “jobbing” businesses downtown - those that bought wholesale products and either stored them for resale or, like the box factory, turned partially processed materials into finished goods for sale in towns across the Great Plains and beyond.

There aren’t as many buildings like it left after Omaha’s “Jobbers Canyon” district was demolished in 1989.

It’s unclear what became of Eggerss O’Flyng. A 1945 Omaha World-Herald article describes it as still a going enterprise, having shifted some production to fill wartime needs.

But the factory floor where 40 workers once made cigar boxes was empty, as regional cigar makers were put out of business by national brands.

Since 1993, the main building in the block-wide complex has been used as apartments, six floors at 17,424 square feet each.

The only reminder of its original use are the ghost signs ringing the building: “Boxes - Cartons - Containers - Corrugated Paper Products.”

The signs give the building the historic character today’s tenants want, said Dominic Vaccaro, vice president of building owner America First Real Estate.

“These historic features are definitely part of the story,” he said.

The business behind Omaha’s most prominent ghost sign is, against the odds, not a ghost at all.

In the four-story building with the four-story black-and-white sign, Baum Hydraulics is still going more than 150 years after it was founded. The business has survived by changing its product lineup and even its name to reach new customers, keeping its sign updated along the way.

Founded in 1857, Baum Iron sold products like horseshoes and anvils, wagon spokes and buckboards, to settlers moving west.

In 1910 its sign advertised iron and steel, heavy hardware, wagon and carriage materials, blacksmith tools, lumber and gasoline engines.

By 1942, the sign had been repainted to promote steel, industrial implements, blacksmith supplies, and wire rope.

Business owner Ernie Buttry said the sign has been the same since 1962, and he guesses it last saw a fresh coat of paint in 1998. Today’s sign advertises “Hydraulics, bearings, bolts & nuts, tubing, steel” and “every repair size.”

Baum Hydraulics now sells pumps, motors, valves and hydraulic cylinders to welding and machine shops and implement dealers.

Time has left Baum out of place in the heart of the Old Market business and entertainment district. Across the street is the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, and next door stands a redeveloped historic building housing a jazz bar, coffee shop and a dozen luxury apartments.

But Buttry has no plans to sell the building or relocate to a suburban industrial park.

Like his sign, he says, “We have no intentions of going anywhere.”

A newspaper item in 1906 marked the birth of what’s known as the Happy Hollow Coffee building.

Today the building, and the sign that gave it its name, face possible demolition, as Omaha Performing Arts looks to expand the neighboring Holland Performing Arts Center into the block that’s home to Happy Hollow and three other historic buildings.

Back then, a headline called it simply a “small business building,” for F.D. Parmer & Co.

Frank D. Parmer imported coffee for wholesale, sold under the Happy Hollow brand name. Other newspaper clippings show a growing business: in 1913 Parmer advertised for an “experienced coffee and tea salesman, established territory.” In 1915, the company, by then called the “Parmer-Olson Co.,” needed a “boy for delivering,” and in 1921, the renamed Olson Coffee Co. needed an “experienced girl to pack coffee.”

A 1921 newspaper ad called the product the “Best in the West.”

Olson sold the building in 1935 to the Douglas Coffee company, which apparently kept the Parmer and Happy Hollow signs. Douglas Coffee was later sold and eventually became part of the Coca-Cola Co.

(The news mentions were compiled by Restoration Exchange Omaha.)

Todd Simon bought the building in 1989, converted it to a residence, and lived there until 2005. Since then it has been rented to out-of-town executives moving to Omaha.

Those executives, and most Omaha residents, have probably never tasted Happy Hollow Coffee or heard of the Parmer Co., but the signs painted on all four building sides are a hint at its past, a sign that the building couldn’t be anywhere else but Omaha.

“I think that whenever I see these kinds of retro signs around town — and they are authentic — they add to the character of the neighborhood and they are great for wayfinding,” Simon said.

Because of the signs, he said, everyone knows where the coffee building is. It’s no longer just any small business building.

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