Through thick and thin, development and redevelopment, some aspects of Hoboken life manage to survive the changing landscape. One time-tested feature of town is the historic “ghost sign.” These aged advertisements for local stores are often painted on the walls of buildings and remain there long after the stores have left.
Not long ago, Hoboken resident Jack Silbert took a liking to a sign for a long-defunct art store that still graced a brick wall at Fourth and Washington streets. But last summer, he was surprised to notice that the sign was being painted over and replaced by a beer ad.
The sign had advertised “Grumbacher Art Materials,” a manufacturer of art materials that still exists today, but is no longer in Hoboken.
On June 8, Silbert snapped a photo as the transformation of the sign began.
“Two days later I saw the sign had been totally whitewashed over, but also there was an orange ‘Stop Work’ order on the window below the wall,” Silbert explained last week. “It looked like they had stenciled in an ad for Blue Moon beer.”
“It’s a way to make people comfortable in the town they live.” – Bob Foster
the Grumbacher sign was gone.
Until two weeks ago.
“Nothing happened for months,” Silbert said last week. “On February 4 there were some ropes and some men up there again. There was a guy on the ground level looking at a photo of what the wall used to look like. On February 5 it was taking shape more.”
As it turned out, the man was actually repainting the original sign.
“Now it looks fairly close to what it looked like in the first place,” Silbert said.
Silbert wondered why the old sign was painted over in the first place, and why someone bothered to repaint the original sign.
As it turns out, “ghost signs” in some parts of Hoboken are protected.
“The ‘Stop Work’ was initiated by the zoning office because the property owner had not obtained the proper approvals from my office or from the Historic Preservation Commission,” said Ann Holtzman, the city’s zoning officer, in an e-mail last week. Apparently, even façade painting may violate rules protecting Hoboken’s historic districts, including all of Washington Street. Building owners must get permission before making any major changes.
Ironically, former Mayor David Roberts, who had pushed to extend the historic designation to all of Washington Street back when he was a councilman, is the person who owns the building.
He said he was happy to work with the commission following notification that the sign had protected status. “It’s been restored,” he said last week.
The Blue Moon advertisement was part of a national art contest that placed one sign in Manhattan and another in Hoboken, he said.
Silbert took a special interest in the old-time sign.
“I think Hoboken is kind of divided into people who care about the town and its history and people who don’t,” he said. “I fall into the camp of those who take some interest. I also have a personal interest in old-timey things. Anytime you see history disappearing, it’s a sad thing because it’s gone forever.”
Paul Somerville, the head of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said any alteration to signs in historic districts in Hoboken must be approved by the city.
The Grumbacher sign faces Fourth Street, not Washington Street, but it was still protected.
“The building has a Washington Street address,” Somerville said. “Our purview goes several hundred feet down Washington Street.”
There are four historic districts in Hoboken. One spans the entirety of Washington Street, east and west. Another is near Hudson Place by the Hoboken Terminal. A third historic district runs on Hudson Street up to Fourth Street, and another district is near Eighth and Hudson streets, toward Elysian Park.
One fake sign
Historic signs abound in Hoboken, but not all of them are as old as they look.
“Everybody thinks [the Doc Izzo TV sign near Seventh and Washington streets] is old and historic,” said Bob Foster, executive director of the Hoboken Historical Museum, last week. “It was done by Kevin Shaughnessy, an artist in town. He actually did the sign in the 1990s in exchange for a refrigerator…it honors the earlier business but it’s not from the [historic] time period.”
Doc Izzo’s Home Appliance store did exist on Washington Street until the 1990s, but the sign is not as old as the business.
Coldwell Banker recently preserved a ghost sign on the corner of First and Washington streets, advertising Goodman’s Haberdasher. A haberdasher is a retail dealer in men’s furnishing, such a shirts, ties, gloves, socks, and hats.
“We told them we wanted them to apply a protective coat and preserve it,” Somerville said. “It’s another page of Hoboken’s history. Depending on who you ask, you get a different answer [about what should be done]. The city is moving toward preserving these signs.”
Will do an inventory of old signs
One ghost sign on Adams Street was actually discovered by accident.
“On Adams Street there was another part of a building they took down and it revealed an old sign for shoe shining,” Foster said. “It was in perfect condition. And then of course they went ahead and rebuilt the wall and it’s covered again, to one day be discovered another 100 years from now.”
The zoning officer has asked the commission for an inventory on the signs, and Somerville said the commission will soon do that.
Meanwhile, Hoboken isn’t the only city that celebrates these old-time signs.
“There are entire blocks devoted to these [ghost signs] in New York City,” Somerville said. “Every city had them, because until the framed billboards came into being, the sides of buildings were the recipients of these ads.”
Holtzman believes that these signs still have a place in Hoboken.
“It is important to conserve the character of old Hoboken while simultaneously moving the city ahead with new smart growth design and development,” Holtzman said. “One reason Hoboken’s Washington Street was recently awarded ‘Great Places in America’ status by the American Planning Association is that character continues to shine through.”
Foster and Somerville agree that the signs are a page of Hoboken’s history.
“I think they’re important because they remind people of the past,” Foster said. “It’s as simple as that. Businesses come and go, but they’re a visual link to the past…it’s a way to make people comfortable in the town they live.”
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com