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One ghost sign salvaged from soon-to-be-demolished North Center building; preservationists fight to save others

Preservationists fight to save historic signs on North Center building
Preservationists fight to save historic signs on North Center building 02:26

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Local artists are working to preserve a part of Chicago history – hand-painted advertisements that could date back almost 100 years.

As CBS 2's Marybel González reported Wednesday night, the signs were painted on the side of a frame building at 3609 N. Ravenswood Ave., near the six-way intersection with Lincoln Avenue and Addison Street in North Center. But for generations until recently, aluminum siding had covered them up kept them out of sight.

The ghost signs were discovered during the early part of the process of tearing down the building.

"Them taking off the aluminum siding of this building unraveled an amazing, amazing find," said Bob Behounek. "It's like the holy Grail of all the signs of here in Chicago."

Behounek is a longtime local sign painter himself. He was awestruck by the advertisements.

One sign advertises Shell Motor Oil and Shell Gasoline along with the name of a coal and wood merchant named Martin William Roth Coal and Wood. 


Another smaller sign on the same side of side of the building advertises Martin William Roth's "high-pressure greasing" and promises "batteries charged."


On the other side of the building was an advertisement for Ward's Soft Bun Bread – "fresh, with better flavor."

American Sign Museum

"I saw the artwork and I knew right away that this is a very historic piece," Behounek said.

Behounek asked to come and inspect the signs. He believes at least one of them was painted by a man who would later go on to become one of the founders of the Beverly Sign Company – a prominent Chicago-based design shop that operated around the 1940s.

What is unique about the signs isn't solely the retro style, but also the material on which they are painted.

"These signs here are painted on wood," Behounek said. "Most of the wall signs in Chicago are all painted on brick – and I have never seen a sign painted on wood like this."

Now, Behounek and a group of local artists are racing against the clock to get the signs salvaged before the building is demolished on Monday, Aug. 22.

On Wednesday, the Ward's Soft Bun Bread sign was taken down salvaged. Tom Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum, drove down from Cincinnati to take down the Ward's Soft Bun Bread sign board by board.

It will be on display at the American Sign Museum.

"We'll put it back up inside, so it won't be subject to any more weather, but it will be preserved for everybody to see," Swormstedt said.

The fate of the other signs – including the Shell Oil sign - is in limbo. But Behounek, along with fellow artists, are hoping to find a home for them as well.

"We want to save history here. This is our mission, and we know how important this is to Chicago - and also to our sign-painting genre here in the city," Behounek said. "It's major."

The local artists have started a campaign online to raise funds for the removal of the signs. For now, they plan to store them in a safe place until they find a local history museum to display them.

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