During July, visitors to State Street could once again glimpse the Universal ghost sign.
Downtown was treated to lost treasure and a ghost story this summer -- a "ghost sign," that is.
Ghost signs are flaking, dimly seen advertisements painted onto the sides of buildings. Most were created in the first half of the 20th century. Often they're revealed when adjacent buildings are demolished.
That's what happened during construction of the Overture-related Block 100 Foundation project, at the corner of State, East Dayton and Fairchild streets. High above the street, a nearly illegible sign for "UNIVERSAL" something or other saw the light of day for the first time since the 1920s. But what was it for?
Madison has many ghost signs. Williamson Street's are well known. "GARDNER BAKING CO." is announced at 849 E. Washington Ave., and "MADISON FIREPROOF" -- possibly 'WAREHOUSE" -- is a few doors away, at 825. The top of Stop & Shop grocery, 501 State St., built in 1860, features two Coca-Cola signs, one painted over the other, faded and intermingled. "JOHN GALLAGHER COMPANY," at 305 S. Bedford St., is a Madison landmark, easily seen from John Nolen Drive.
Lesser-known are tiny signs, such as "FURNISHED ROOMS FOR RENT," on the 1924 building at 658 State St., and "DR. WAHL, PHYSICIAN & SURGEON," in the entry to the 1912 building at 604 University Ave.
At 612 W. Main St. is a masterpiece, on a renovated 1929 railroad warehouse. John Koffel became co-owner in 1989. "It had something to do with Sunkist Oranges," he recalls. "You could see it better when it rained. I walked back and forth every day getting coffee, sort of peering at it and figuring out one more letter at a time."
He had it restored around 1998. "I mean, this is the warehouse district," he says, "and there are very few surviving pieces of that."
Laura Russell is a Portland, Ore., artist, gallery owner and author of one of the few books on the subject, Colorado Walldogs: Ghost Signs Across the State. (Sign painters were nicknamed walldogs.)
"I think they're really important because they're a community's commercial history," she says. "There isn't a huge following for them, although people who do get interested get rather rabid about them."
But back to the UNIVERSAL mystery. It could have been for the Universal Grocery, around the corner on West Mifflin Street, home today of the Coopers Tavern. But it almost certainly was for Duluth Universal Flour. The company was founded in 1900 and went out of business in 1958. Similar examples are found in Michigan.
Like Brigadoon, the UNIVERSAL sign will soon vanish, waiting for a future generation. "It is a brief unveiling, as the new four-story central addition to the block will cover it up by the fall," says project manager George Austin.