Signs Of The Times

July 30, 2006

Web site preserves the era when buildings doubled as billboards

by Leigh Remizowski
Staff Writer
The Democrat & Chronicle

Twenty years ago, Pat Domaratz’s friend pointed out a faded advertisement for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 re-election, painted on the exterior of the building at 217 W. Main St.

“Victory, Peace, Jobs, Security — Vote for Roosevelt,” the just barely visible sign reads.

When another friend, Jason Crane, started www.SignWall.com, Domaratz decided that this piece of history should be documented. SignWall.com, which is devoted to old and abandoned signs and etchings, is a growing archive of the history seen on the walls of Rochester buildings.

“In a lot of cases, this is the only physical evidence we have left of companies, local dignitaries, economic conditions and lifetimes of past eras,” says Crane, a 32-year-old Rochester resident and organizer for the union UNITE HERE. “And in many cases the memory of these things has completely passed out of existence.”

Crane and Domaratz have found signs for French’s mustard at the old factory on Mustard Street, an original Beech-Nut factory at the corner of East Main and North Goodman streets, a 1936 Valley Cadillac dealer on East Avenue near Union Street and other businesses and products dating to the 1800s.

The Web site has been up since March, and Crane has collected more than 50 photos. He relies not only on his own findings but also those of the community.

“I hope people will find their local history interesting,” says Domaratz, a 43-year-old Rochester resident and labor relations specialist for New York State United Teachers. “I also hope that people will take an interest in helping to preserve these things.”

So far, archiving has been Crane’s main goal. But he hopes to help restore and maintain significant signs.

For the FDR sign, Crane met with the building’s owner and with the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, Dutchess County. He hopes to raise money so they can restore the sign — which is on the backside of a building in the midst of renovations. “I think it could actually be a tourist attraction for history buffs,” Crane says.

The urgency with which they work comes with knowing how quickly and easily the city’s history can be destroyed.

Just a few months back, Domaratz found himself staring at a sign for a bakery on Goodman Street. Thinking he could come back later for a better quality photo, he snapped one with his camera phone and left. About a month later, he returned with a digital camera. But the sign had been taken down in a renovation project.

“All of Rochester’s built-in history, you can’t get it back. You can’t re-create it,” says Crane.

Many signs that have made it through the years have survived because of luck, says Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator at the Landmark Society of Western New York. Factors such as weathering and the building owner’s budget can mean the difference between life or death for a historical sign.

“Most of these signs have survived out of neglect,” she says. “They might be too high up or not a maintenance priority.”

Howk’s job has brought her across Rochester and its surrounding areas. In her experience, she has found that raising public awareness is often the key to keeping these signs in tact. For that, she praises the work of Crane and Domaratz.

Now, both of them carry cameras with them. “I drive down the streets with one eye on the road and one eye looking up at buildings,” says Domaratz.

After a photo is snapped, often from several angles, the hunt for the history begins. Crane researches and then posts whatever information he can.

“What I’ve learned about urban America is that there’s an amazing wealth of history right in front of our eyes that has become visual wallpaper,” says Crane. “And if you just stop and focus on it, it’s a window into the history of the place we live.”

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