Friday, April 25, 2014

New Buildings, New Past

While leaving my local beer store in Sycamore, Illinois, I noticed what appeared to be a "ghost sign" on the side of the Portillo's building next door. If one squinted, one could make out the lettering fading behind two brick arches:

Norris And Sons
Furniture and Undertaking

I wondered if this Portillo's might have renovated an old factory, and was paying stylish homage to the building's former tenants:


Amy reminded me when I came home that no factory stood on that site before Portillo's showed up. Was this a fraudulent "ghost sign," an other-century father and son business fictionalized by Portillo's in an attempt to evoke and celebrate vanished local commerce, quaint industry befitting a Sherwood Anderson story?

I contacted Patty Sullivan, Executive Assistant in the Portillo Restaurant Group, who forwarded my request to Jeff Atkins, who works at Mercury Studios, a design firm based in Chicago. Atkins told me that Norris And Sons was in fact a business in West Chicago, Illinois that operated in the first half of the twentieth century. He directed me to a site devoted to the history of the Amity Lodge No. 472, in West Chicago. In 1890 Norris and Son erected a building on Main Street for their furniture and undertaking establishments; they added a third floor for the Masonic Hall, which held meetings there until 1926. Atkins informed me, "At the time it was common practice for carpenters/furniture makers to make coffins as well," adding, "If I remember correctly I think we recreated the ghost signage from an old newspaper advertisement that we found."

~~

So: Norris and Sons at one time existed in West Chicago. Twenty-eight miles west and decades later, a design firm creates a faux "ghost sign" against faked bricked-over windows on the side of a building that was erected in 2006. What interest me is the decision to recreate a faded sign on a new building, a kind of architectural Instagram. If in fact Mercury Studios did recreate the sign based on an old advertisement, then it's likely that the sun-faded look is imagined, or projected. Either way we have a terrific early 21st Century creation: a faked advertisement further dissembling as vintage further dissembling as weather-faded; and if you want to throw in the notion that the sign suggests a Norris And Son once stood on this spot, go ahead. We have a lot of filters from which to choose on Instagram, Hipstamatic, Magic Hour, etc., when we curate and post our images. A picture taken last night cropped and filtered through Instagram 1977 with Tiltshift invokes nostalgia for a past that didn't exist. What does a paint-peeling ghost sign on a restaurant building less than ten-years-old project? Tradition, community, quality, sentimentality, all qualities I'm sure Portillo Restaurant Group doesn't mind washing over its customers as they idly line up at the drive-thru to order an Italian Beef or B-B-Q Ribs. A ghost sign also signifies loss: perhaps if I order my dinner at Portillo's—sitting in one of their themed interiors, or eating at home in front of the TV—I'm forestalling that loss just a bit more by honoring a business that once existed. To say nothing of the sense of constancy and permanence, the rootedness and the sturdiness implied in the solid foundation a building that appears to have been standing since the end of the nineteenth century.

The history of the Amity Lodge concludes with this quote, the origin of which I can't find. It feels appropriate to Portillo's reclamation of the past:
We know that memories of men
Will fade and then be gone.
But records of our fathers' deeds
May pass from son to son
~~

Related: I recently interviewed Derek Stenborg here about his many photographs of ghost signs.

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