Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Hold that Paint! ‘Ghost Signs’ on Old Mill Stir up Tempest in Tempe
A link to the past in Tempe, Ariz., will lose some of its authenticity if a coat of white paint obliterates all traces of that past.
That’s the argument being made by a local architect who says simply applying a new coat of paint to the exterior of the historic Hayden Flour Mill will erase “ghost signs”—partially obscured or faded images and lettering that remain visible on the mill’s exterior.
The architect, Robert Graham, made his case in a letter to the city of Tempe, which owns the historic mill and is working to turn the site into a point of interest and event venue with a plaza and historic markers, according to news reports.
The plans for an upgrade also include a paint job for the mill building, to address peeling paint and staining.
Alas, beauty (and art) are in the eye of the beholder. From Graham’s point of view, the mill’s exterior, including the ghost images, represents an important aspect of the structure’s history.
“I fear that this approach will result in the loss of highly significant ‘ghost signs’ and the patina of age that give the site much of its historic character,” Graham wrote in a letter to the City of Tempe.
Tim Hacker/East Valley Tribune
| Hayden Flour Mill, Tempe, Ariz.|
Graham, who says he has worked as an historical architect in the Phoenix area for 24 years, said in the letter that “The treatment of the exterior wall surfaces is one of the critical aspects of the preservation of the Hayden Flour Mill.”
He adds that this issue had previously been studied “at length,” with the review coming down on the side of retaining the historic markings. Quoting from a 2008 historic preservation plan for the mill, submitted by Archaeological Consulting Services and its consulting historical architect, Don Ryden, Graham said:
“Symbolic of the sanitary conditions of the milling process, the white-painted, smooth finish of the exterior concrete walls is an important character-defining feature of the building exterior…the [original] skimcoat finish of the concrete walls must be restored. The preparation of the concrete surfaces and selection of the appropriate paint system must be specified with great care.
“Of high significance are the identifying and advertising ‘ghost signs’ on the Mill Building and the silos. These signs either must be preserved in their faded condition or be restored to their original condition.
“The overlay of two generations of the ‘Hayden Flour Mill’ offers an interesting opportunity for the interpretation of the evolution of the milling business.”
Graham added that his current understanding of the plan for the mill exterior is for application of a coating of white paint, with the exception of the large flour-bag advertisement on the south side of the structure, which might be restored with new paint.
“While this is certainly the most visible and important feature, it is far from being the only significant sign,” Graham said in his letter. “Close examination of the wall surfaces reveals numerous other signs which have been partially exposed as some of the outer layer of white flakes off. Large letters reading ‘Hayden Flour Mills’ are clearly visible on the silos.”
In the letter, a copy of which Graham provided to Durability + Design, he says the partial visibility and layering of the signs are “an important part of what gives the buildings an ‘historic’ character. The rust staining visible on the walls also contributes to the historic feeling of an earlier industrial age. To paint over these features would be like refinishing a treasured piece of antique furniture—it may make it look like new, but is that really the highest value? Or do we value the patina of age, which cannot be recreated once lost?”
Graham concludes, “I highly encourage the City to reconsider the paint-over approach,” and instead “preserve the existing character to the extent possible. Similar issues have been dealt with at other historic sites, and with great success. I’m sure it is possible in Tempe as well.”
There was no immediate reply to phone and email inquiries to the city from this D+D news bureau.
An Iconic Tempe Landmark
The city’s plans for the mill site are outlined in a section of the city’s website; see Hayden Flour Mill. While the long-term plan is to attract a private development proposal that will incorporate and retain the historic mill, the short-term solution is to create a “temporary event space” with landscaping and display of the mill’s old equipment through windows, with interpretive signs explaining the mill’s operation.
The city calls the mill “one of Tempe’s most iconic structures,” with a location on one of the city’s busiest intersections.
A previous private development plan for the site and mill was torpedoed by the recession of 2008-2009 and the resulting impact on the real-estate development market.
The existing mill was built in 1918, and was the successor to two earlier wooden mills built by Tempe’s founder, Charles Trumbull Hayden. The mill closed in 1998 and the property has been vacant since then.
Let's Hear Your 'Ghost' Stories
We invite opinions on this tempest in Tempe, and any experiences readers can relate that might involve similar situations and historic structures. Please share any views or stories you may have by adding a comment at the end of this blog entry.
Meanwhile, Few Regrets as ‘O-Arena’ Bites the Dust
While news accounts related to the historic Hayden mill demonstrate strong community support for retaining the structure—with or without the “ghost images”—the same can’t be said for the much younger Orlando Arena, a.k.a. Amway Arena, in Orlando, Fla.
The sports arena, formerly home to the Orlando Magic NBA basketball team, was leveled at just 23 years of age Sunday by means of implosion. But the event apparently didn’t cause a great deal of wailing or gnashing of teeth. Rather, the occasion was noted in relatively casual passing, and with a flurry of video takes of the flattening. Here’s one of many.
I don’t think this outcome could be considered an example of sustainability in design and construction.
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Comment from Madeline Douglass, (8/1/2012, 2:52 PM)
Ghost signs are an important historical reminder of building identification and commercial advertising. Overpainting them does "erase" the history. Also plenty of issues to debate...are their clear or UV coatings that can preserve the ghost signs as they are? Is making the signs look new again a good idea?