Ghost Signs – Community Design Workshop

Program Profile: Ghost Signs and the Community Design Workshop

It may sound like a Halloween assignment, but photographing and researching ghost signs in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and Chinatown-International District neighborhoods was the task for students in Professor Marie Wong’s Community Design Workshop.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, businesses advertised products and services by painting large signs on the exterior walls of buildings. Decades later, many signs had faded, been painted over, or were hidden by new construction, thus the name “ghost signs.”

These signs provide important historical information about the commerce, business development, and evolution of urban life in the city. The sign painters themselves were part of the growing commerce of the Pacific Northwest. In 1901 they had formed a union, Local 435, Sign, Scene & Pictorial Painters, with 15 members. The union grew to several hundred by 1951.

The City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods was the client. Students in Professor Marie Wong’s Community Design Workshop were the planning consultants charged with providing information to guide the city as it considers policy development to address the architectural and urban artifacts knowns as ghost signs.

“The class was organized as an urban planning studio,” Wong said. “In most universities, this type of workshop would be housed in an architecture or urban planning program only for students in those disciplines. Here it’s known as service learning and is open to students of all majors.”

The class divided itself into two project groups, complete with project managers, editors, graphic coordinators, policy analysts, and researchers. By the end of the 10-week quarter, the 23 students had conducted a physical inventory of the signs and established criteria for evaluating their conditions. They researched preservation policies in American, Canadian, and British cities and restoration practices. They could found scouring the Pioneer Square and Chinatown-International District neighborhoods, photographing, videotaping, and ranking the conditions of the signs. In addition, they had delved into archives to find out as much as they could about the signs, the commercial enterprises they represented, and the artists who painted them.

The term ended with a 397-page report and a formal presentation to the Department of Neighborhoods, members of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, Chinatown-International District, local architects, developers, and sign painters, and others.

“Our students shone during the presentation,” Wong said. “They were thorough and professional, and our clients were extremely pleased. Since the presentation, we have heard from local developers interested in incorporating “new” ghost signs and from other cities that are considering adoption of preservation and restoration policies.”

Copies of the full report are available from Professor Wong.

Wong, who holds a doctorate in urban design and planning and over 30 years of practical experience, teaches the Community Design Workshop every spring.

“From year-to-year, I never know what project will be tackled in advance,” she said. “We may work for a city department, a nonprofit, or a development company. Each project has practical implications and is not a theoretical exercise. The students should see the value of their contribution in making Seattle a better city so I select projects of meaning with the goals of the client organization and student service in mind.”

In 2012, Wong’s students received Honorable Mention for their project, “Seattle Prism Light Reconnaissance Study,” from the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association.

Watch the video: Take a glimpse into Seattle’s historic ghost signs and learn more about the Community Design Workshop.

Ghost Signs - A project of the Community Design Workshop from Seattle University Arts&Sciences on Vimeo.