American Sign Museum expands to share more history and really BIG signs

American Sign Museum is a visually compelling testament to the artistry and diversity that signs provide for on-premises advertising.
Since opening at its current facility in Camp Washington in 2012 in the former home of home of Osterlein Machine Co. and Fashion Frocks, the American Sign Museum has continually evolved to showcase an increasingly diverse array of vintage signage reflected materials, technology and design methods that reflect the impactful and often under-appreciated branding signage and graphics provide for built environments.

ProvidedLoomis Camera operated in Elyria, Ohio from the 1950s until 2012, but its engaging sign and camera live on at the Sign Museum’s new wing.
From July 13-14, the Museum will celebrate the current facility’s second expansion with an open house that will showcase an additional wing of new signs, as well as additional educational space and event facilities that will provide more public-facing opportunities to underscore the important role signs play in creating a sense of place for businesses, organizations, and public space.

Cincinnati stands prominently within the sign industry because the Greater Cincinnati region provided the home base for Signs of the Times Magazine and its parent company, ST Media Group, primarily at the intersection of 8th and Broadway (currently the home of KZF Design) until 2008, before migrating north to Blue Ash. In 2021, its brands were sold to Smart Work Media, shuttering ST Media Group.

However, the American Sign Museum endures as a visually compelling testament to the artistry and diversity that signs provide for on-premises advertising. It began as a vision of Museum founder Tod Swormstedt, who began developing the Museum concept in 1999. Its original location opened in Essex Studios in 2005, but it was teeming soon beyond its surroundings, and thanks to sign-industry benefactors and public funding, its current location opened seven years later.

ProvidedAmerican Sign Museum founder Tod Swormstedt began planning the Sign Museum in 1999, and shepherded it through red tape, growth and development.
This latest Museum expansion – the first phase, which expanded administrative space, took place two years ago – adds nearly 20,000 sq. ft. of space and several iconic signs and hand-painted graphics. The project cost $5.4 million and was funded by a contribution from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. Foundation, state and county governments, and private contributions, including many sign industry benefactors.

Concurrently, Neonworks, a neon-fabrication shop and only neon shop with 100 miles of Cincinnati, that has long been located within the museum, has officially merged into it, which, according to the museum, will enhance educational opportunities to introduce the art of building luminous tubing that has long been the backbone of commercial communication.

ProvidedThis vintage neon hotel sign was moved from a former Beaver, UT lodge. Neonworks installed new tubing, transformers, and other neon components to bring the bygone business signage back to life.
Swormstedt remains actively involved in the museum’s development and programming, however a new executive director, David Dupee, assumed the helm of directing its operations two months ago. He previously operated a Milwaukee brewpub and is quickly enmeshed in the industry’s passion.

Provided L to R: David Dupee, Tod Swormstedt, and Erin Holland in front of a sign obtained from an Ithaca, NY restaurant that operated 1919-1981, though the sign remained in place until 2009. The Johnny’s sign is the largest addition to the museum expansion.
“At my pub, one of our most attention-grabbing days was when our sign was installed,” Dupee said. “I’ve come to appreciate how prominent signs are in our everyday life, and the sign industry’s passion and its strong support for the museum.”

A loosely affiliated group of traditional sign makers and muralists called The Letterheads converged at the museum and painted window graphics and murals, and applied goldleaf to elegantly gilded pieces. The Letterheads celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, and discussions are underway to bring the group back to the museum to further embellish the living, breathing homage to their industry’s legacy.

ProvidedThis series of hand painted and gilded panels pay tribute to Bill Riedel Sr., who owned a Toms River, NJ sign company and was a beloved Letterhead participant before passing away in 2018.
Enjoy the gallery of the American Sign Museum’s new additions, as well as some of its longtime stalwarts that celebrate the synthesis of design, history and technology that signage entails.

American Sign Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $15 for seniors 65 and over, and $10 children ages 13 to 18, active military, and first responders. Up to three children ages 12 and under are admitted free with each paying adult.

The unveiling of the new Museum wing begins with a private event on July 12, which will include Mayor Pureval and other local politicians in a ribbon-cutting ceremony, with a public unveiling July 13-14.

Special thanks to Signs of the Times Magazine and the American Sign Museum for their photo contributions.
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.