LAKEVIEW — Bob Behounek has worked in the sign painting industry for decades. He knows the craftsmanship when he sees it.
So when Behounek saw recently revealed ghost signs — decades-old painted ads on a Lakeview building that were found when its siding was removed — he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime piece. I don’t know if they’re ever gonna find another one like this in this in the city,” Behounek said. “This is like the Holy Grail for the outdoor advertising business here in Chicago.”
The siding on 3609 N. Ravenswood Ave., a two-flat from the 1890s, was taken down last month, revealing well-preserved walls of hand-painted advertisements for Shell Oil and Wonder Bread’s predecessor. But their future is at risk — and preservationists are scrambling to save them.
When the facades came down and the signs became visible for the first time in decades, they stirred up attention on social media, with people coming in person to marvel at the slice of Chicago history.
“They took the cover off it and it just came alive again,” Behounek said.
Local experts dated the ads to the late 1920s and early ’30s. They were painted directly onto wood panels as opposed to the common practice of painting onto brick, adding to their rarity.
But a six-story development is set to replace the two-flat, an adjacent strip mall and another multi-unit home, Chicago YIMBY reported in October. The transit-oriented development will include 52 residential units and ground-floor retail.
The developers gave preservationists until Aug. 22 to try to save the signs.
McClellan and a collective of Chicago painters have been in contact with the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, which has offered a permanent home for the ghost signs — if they can be removed and transported.
“If we aren’t able to get these signs down before the 22nd, the whole building will be essentially bulldozed,” said sign painter Kelsey McClellan, who is working to rescue the ads. “The signs will go in just into the garbage and will be destroyed. We’re really hoping that we’re able to save them … .”
McClellan started a GoFundMe so people can donate to save the signs. They hope to raise $20,000 and have gotten more than $4,800 so far. The money will go toward the costs of removing, moving and storing the ads.
“The initial step is definitely taking the wood down so that it’s it doesn’t break and then keeping everything in order so that it can be reassembled properly,” she said.
American Sign Museum founder Tod Swormstedt came to Chicago to examine the signs Wednesday.
“It’s gonna take a lot more love and care” to properly remove the near-century-old wood siding, he said. “But I think it’s really going to be worth it.”
Swormstedt said the Cincinnati museum could be a home for the ghost signs, but he hopes the facades find a home in Chicago.
The clock is ticking, but organizers remain hopeful. McClellan said she’s been overwhelmed by the “awesome” support for their efforts.
“It’s great that people seem to be on the same page as we are and believe in keeping the signage and just not letting it get demolished,” she said.
McClellan is taking inspiration from the preservation work of Chicago architect John Vinci, who helped save artifacts of legendary architect Louis Sullivan. She sees the ghost signs as a history lesson for Chicago, she said.
“It’s an interesting look into how people were able to build their lives in Chicago as immigrants and develop businesses and provide to the community,” McClellan said. “It’s kind of like uncovering a time capsule.”
Behounek hopes he can help keep the signs — pieces of Chicago history — alive.
Behounek said the Ward’s Soft Bun Bread sign on the building’s south end was the work of Jack Briggs, who was essentially the ambassador of all things outdoor advertising during this era in Chicago.
Briggs played a role in the Beverly Sign Company, which was at 7517 S. Halsted St. in Englewood. The company shaped the sign-painting industry nationwide, he said.
“Beverly Sign Company basically changed the course of sign design with some of the techniques that they were doing, [like] color combinations in the panelization,” he said. “They influenced signs across the country. That’s a legacy for Chicago.”
To the preservationists, this legacy is worth saving.
“You can feel the emotion the designer put into this, you can just feel it. The brushwork, everything,” Behounek said. “It’s just amazing.
“I can stand all day looking at it.”
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