Signs of progress light up museum's new home

Kafka once said, “I do not read advertisements. I would spend all of my time wanting things.” To take it to another level, however, some of us who do read advertisements find ourselves wanting the…well, the advertisements themselves--the posters, billboards and neon, all glittering and beckoning you into their seductive realm of wants, desires and (not infrequently) fast food.  

Ah yes—signage! While at times ignoble or obnoxious, the varied aesthetics of advertising have always occupied a coveted corner niche in the art world. I’ve always been an avid fan and collector of signs, both antique and contemporary, classic and kitschy. I often thumb through boxes of old magazines looking for images suitable for framing: advertisements for 1920’s vintage French throat lozenges, Italian liqueurs, the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, concerts, wine, festivals and art galleries, among others—all occupy space on my walls.

Indeed, one of my prized possessions is a weathered, aluminum, 1949-era ten foot long old neon sign from my old cleaners in Washington, DC. It was rescued when the little known but quite destructive Adams Morgan rioters of 1991 set fire to the cleaners. The new owners, a jewelry shop, had no interest in the relic and tossed it out back, where I retrieved it.

Retrieving signs tossed out to back alleys is something of a specialty for Tod Swormstedt, the force behind the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. Back in its prior location, in the Essex Studios of Walnut Hills, the Sign Museum was a “must-see” attraction for any visitors I might happen to be entertaining. With its strolling “History of Signs” timeline and giant, retro-style neon explosions, it was like a sign lovers Disney World. One couldn’t help but be engulfed and engrossed in the comforting glow of wave upon wave of larger than life neon artistry.

Swormstedt pretty much has neon in his blood. His grandfather founded the “Signs of the Times” magazine here in Cincinnati in 1906; Swormstedt himself is a former publisher and editor, and his brother Wade is the current editor. Finding himself more often than not the repository of signs of all sorts, he started the National Signs of the Times Museum in 1999 as his self proclaimed “mid-life crisis project.” With some assistance from a few early believers, he established the Essex Studios space, the re-christened American Sign Museum, in spring 2005.  

While the original space was indeed impressive, Swormstedt dreamed bigger. After all, many of the signs were, in fact, bigger, such as the 19-foot “Carpet Genie” from the “Carpeteria” in Southern California, whose beckoning Aladdin-esque arms were much too tall to clear the Essex Studio space. More big signs arrived, even taller than the Genie. Golden arches, Howard Johnson’s, oversized red and white chicken buckets and sombreros—they all added up out in the parking lot, and Swormstedt realized they needed a more permanent, and reverential, resting place.

So he turned his neon-hued gaze westward, alighting upon a 94-year-old former tool plant in Camp Washington. With 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, it offered more than four and a half times the space of the Essex, plus a large storage facility. Perhaps more importantly, the new space featured a 28-foot ceiling thereby allowing him to showcase his more massive treasures. The “Great Recession” put a damper on fund-raising, but an anonymous $900,000 donation last fall jumpstarted the process and put the museum on track for a completion this summer, at an estimated total cost of $3.2 million.

The centerpiece of the new space is an ersatz, sign-dominated Main Street, with custom-designed permanent storefronts flanking behemoth-sized centerpieces such as the McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s signs. Swormstedt estimates he probably spent approximately $350,000 in acquisitions, with half of the total collection coming via purchase and half via donations.

The entire collection is insured for $2 million. In addition to the museum’s own workshop, the restoration and manufacturing shop known as Neonworks is also on premises. The company’s shop, relocated from Woodlawn, can be observed through a large window fronting Main Street.

The attention to detail on Main Street is impressive, with meticulously hand-painted storefront windows. In fact, in March of this year, 29 sign painters from across the country, including one octogenarian, converged on the new museum, all with at least 30 years experience.  This army of itinerant, hand-picked signographers transformed Main Street in a single week.

The main drag even includes a replica of Over the Rhine’s old Rohs Street Hardware, in which the former, iconic sign from the 1400 block of Vine Street is resurrected, as is the original front door and crimson porcelain panels which adorned the façade. Fortunately they left out the roll down door grate. Next door, adding to the Cincinnati memory lane appeal, is a Papa Dino’s sign, which previously graced the rear parking lot of Mac’s Pizza Pub in Clifton. Mac Ryan donated the iconic sign.

Other storefronts on Main Street include a candy store, a jeweler, Marshall Fields department store, a barber shop, Ignatz Mayer’s tavern of East St. Louis and a television repair shop, all with signs and images popping in every corner of the display.

Speaking of popping, next door to Main Street is an event space featuring a rather kitschy 60s-era Cincinnati Pops sign which, when turned on, is absolutely hypnotic, as well as a wall made entirely of an old Mail Pouch Tobacco sign which previously occupied the side of a barn wall in Lanesville, Ind.

The whole setup opened last Saturday for a special sneak peek event, and the Grand Opening is currently scheduled for June 23. The museum is located at 1330 Monmouth, just off of Spring Grove Avenue near the rather odiferous remains of the old Kahn’s plant. Indeed “Kahnie the Pig” the old plant’s 14-foot porcine, albeit fiberglass, mascot was parked in the parking lot during my last visit, still relishing its time in the Opening Day Parade.

As mentioned at the outset, the Sign Museum has always been a “must see” destination for out-of-towners. With its glittering new 20,000-square-foot space, it is also a “must see” destination for natives. Don’t miss the grand opening of this uniquely Cincinnati institution. Better yet, become a member. Perhaps they will put your name in lights.

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.