‘Ghost signs’ around DC: Take your own haunted tour (photos)

The "Chew Grape" sign in Alexandria (601 S. St. Asaph St.) emerged when plaster was removed from the side of a rowhouse. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The “Chew Grape” sign in Alexandria (601 S. St. Asaph St.) emerged when plaster was removed from the side of a row house. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At the True Reformer Building (1200 U St. NW), a Coca-Cola sign has endured the years. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
At the True Reformer Building (1200 U St. NW), a Coca-Cola sign has endured the years. (WTOP/Dave Dildine) (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
According to Al Cox, buildings like the Christmas Attic in Alexandria (101 Prince St./ 225 S. Union St.) were regarded as just warehouses. “Nobody ever painted over them,” he said. “Nobody cared enough about the aesthetics, and that’s why they survived.” (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
According to Al Cox, buildings like the Christmas Attic in Alexandria (101 Prince St./ 225 S. Union St.) were regarded as just warehouses. "Nobody ever painted over them," he said. "Nobody cared enough about the aesthetics, and that’s why they survived.” (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
According to Al Cox, buildings like the Christmas Attic in Alexandria (101 Prince St./ 225 S. Union St.) were regarded as just warehouses. “Nobody ever painted over them,” he said. “Nobody cared enough about the aesthetics, and that’s why they survived.” (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
Advertising for Uneeda Biscuit (aka "The Nation’s Soda Cracker") is found twice on this haunting tour. The first is at 637 Indiana Ave. NW. (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams)
Advertising for Uneeda Biscuit (aka “The National Soda Cracker”) is found twice on this haunting tour. The first is at 637 Indiana Ave. NW. (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams)
The other Uneeda Biscuit ad makes up a very large sign at 1358 H St. NE, next to Impala Cantina y Taqueria. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The other Uneeda Biscuit ad makes up a very large sign at 1358 H St. NE, on the side of Impala Cantina y Taqueria. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The Uneeda Biscuit ghost sign at 1358 H St. NE shares a wall with another unrelated ghost sign. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The Uneeda Biscuit ghost sign at 1358 H St. NE shares a wall with another unrelated ghost sign. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At Alexandria's Virtue Feed and Grain restaurant, the building's legacy is showcased in the outdoor dining area. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At Alexandria’s Virtue Feed and Grain restaurant, the building’s legacy is showcased in the outdoor dining area. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At D.C.'s old Chapman Stable (57 N St. NW), a once-painted-over sign remains. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At D.C.’s old Chapman Stable (57 N St. NW), a once-painted-over sign remains. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The elements are beginning to uncover an old sign at 300 S. Fairfax St. in Alexandria. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The elements are also beginning to uncover an old sign at 300 S. Fairfax St. in Alexandria. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
A restored ghost sign sits much-more-modern painted sign in the 1300 block of 9th Street NW in D.C. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
A restored ghost sign sits above a much-more-modern painted sign in the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW in D.C. Such painted signs are easier on a building’s brickwork than pin-mounted signs. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
Down the alley, at 1315 Naylor Court NW, another restored sign overlooks an alley. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
Down the alley, at 1315 Naylor Court NW, another restored sign overlooks an alley. (WTOP/Jack Pointer) (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
A sign advertising Firemen’s Insurance stands at 325 7th St. NW. (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams)
A sign advertising Firemen’s Insurance stands at 325 Seventh St. NW. (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams) (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams)
Senart's Oyster and Grille Room, 520 8th St. SE in D.C. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
Senart’s Oyster and Grille Room, 520 Eighth St. SE in D.C. (WTOP/Dave Dildine) (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The ghost sign advertising a storage facility at 1420 U St. NW has itself proven to be indestructible through the years. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The ghost sign advertising a storage facility at 1420 U St. NW has itself proven to be indestructible through the years. (WTOP/Dave Dildine) (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
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The "Chew Grape" sign in Alexandria (601 S. St. Asaph St.) emerged when plaster was removed from the side of a rowhouse. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At the True Reformer Building (1200 U St. NW), a Coca-Cola sign has endured the years. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
According to Al Cox, buildings like the Christmas Attic in Alexandria (101 Prince St./ 225 S. Union St.) were regarded as just warehouses. "Nobody ever painted over them," he said. "Nobody cared enough about the aesthetics, and that’s why they survived.” (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
Advertising for Uneeda Biscuit (aka "The Nation’s Soda Cracker") is found twice on this haunting tour. The first is at 637 Indiana Ave. NW. (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams)
The other Uneeda Biscuit ad makes up a very large sign at 1358 H St. NE, next to Impala Cantina y Taqueria. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The Uneeda Biscuit ghost sign at 1358 H St. NE shares a wall with another unrelated ghost sign. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At Alexandria's Virtue Feed and Grain restaurant, the building's legacy is showcased in the outdoor dining area. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
At D.C.'s old Chapman Stable (57 N St. NW), a once-painted-over sign remains. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
The elements are beginning to uncover an old sign at 300 S. Fairfax St. in Alexandria. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
A restored ghost sign sits much-more-modern painted sign in the 1300 block of 9th Street NW in D.C. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
Down the alley, at 1315 Naylor Court NW, another restored sign overlooks an alley. (WTOP/Jack Pointer)
A sign advertising Firemen’s Insurance stands at 325 7th St. NW. (D.C. Historic Preservation Office/Kim Williams)
Senart's Oyster and Grille Room, 520 8th St. SE in D.C. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)
The ghost sign advertising a storage facility at 1420 U St. NW has itself proven to be indestructible through the years. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

WASHINGTON — Advertising exists as functional art. It’s creative, but implies some call to action.

And like wine, it gains value with age. It accrues a sentimental worth as the years pass. A Coca-Cola ad from today, for example, doesn’t have the value that the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad does.

Such highfalutin ideas probably weren’t on pedestrians’ minds decades ago, back when advertisements were painted on the sides of buildings. In the words of Al Cox, Alexandria’s historic preservation manager, they were nothing more than “painted commercial signs.”

Years later, those that have survived years of weather and redevelopment have that sentimental value, along with another label: “ghost signs.”

In cities and small towns across the country, these hand-painted signs remain, haunting passers-by in a smartphone age.

But they’re all fading. Slowly.

Commemorating the mundane

“What’s killing them is building over them,” said Ben Passikoff, a writer and photographer who wrote a book about New York’s ghost signs. “What’s going to kill them is the weather and the environment.”

Some of these signs remain around the D.C. area, and there’s no better time than Halloween to enjoy a “haunting tour” before these ghosts fade away for good.

In an area full of majestic, historic monuments, these ghost signs commemorate mundane, less-majestic life in the District way back when. They advertise soda and crackers; they mark the location of a local grain company or storage facility.

“Just like the buildings themselves, they hearken back to a different time,” said Kim Williams, national register coordinator for the D.C. Historic Preservation Office.

A cursory survey of D.C. and nearby Alexandria didn’t turn up very many ghost signs: Less than a dozen remain in the District; in Alexandria, about four are left.

Remarkably, that number can increase, as the forces that erase them can uncover new ones.

Take the “Chew Grape” sign at 601 S. St. Asaph St., a 19th-century row house in Alexandria’s historic district. That old advertisement for chewing tobacco re-emerged, Cox said, when a developer was removing plaster from an exterior wall.

“He found that it was enormous good marketing for him to distinguish his property from the others that were for sale in the historic district,” he said.

Uncovered by the elements

A sign is also slowly re-emerging at 300 S. Fairfax St. in Alexandria, Cox said, where the elements are erasing an aging coat of paint that once covered a grocery store sign. A similar re-emergence is happening at D.C.’s old Chapman Stable (57 N St. NW).

The elements, however, will eventually erase those signs, too, and preservation is a challenging proposition. Repainting, as is the case with 1315 Naylor Court NW in D.C., is done at the owner’s expense. And applying sealant or waterproofing to a brick building, Cox said, can lock in moisture and harm the exterior.

“Sometimes you can destroy something trying to preserve it,” he said.

The best way to make them last longer, so to speak, is just to take a picture. Check out the gallery above of some ghost signs, as well as a map below for taking your own haunted tour.


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