Ghost signs — the old and faded signs of businesses and people of days gone by — serve as reminders of the changing city, culture, and styles.
According to the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario (ACO), ghost signs are “the faded signs that can be seen on commercial buildings in old parts of a city. The signs were painted on or carved into the walls many years ago by the businesses that occupied the buildings, and are a valuable link to the past.” Ghost signs most often refer to hand-painted signs on exterior walls. It was a popular form of advertising until the 1940s and 1950s when billboards became more popular because they were easier to update regularly.
A Sign of the Times
The term ghost sign only emerged in the late 1980s. Other terms used to describe the timeworn signs include faded ads, brick ads, mural advertisements, and urban fossils.
What qualifies as a ghost sign has also been up for debate. Factors such as the level of fadedness or completeness, whether the company, product, or place still exist, and the skill used to create the sign are all considered. As hand-painted signs have become rarer, some have expanded the definition of ghost signs to include other types of signs and displays, including overhangs, lit or neon signs, billboards, and mounted placards.
No matter their name, they serve as a reminder of the city’s past. They provide clues about past generations, making you take a second look at older buildings and wonder — what was there before? What has been covered up? What has faded away, lost to time?
London, ON’s ghost signs are slowly disappearing — victims of demolition, construction, paint, scaffolding, or just the wear and tear of time and weather.
Even in the past seven years since the London Free Press published this article, three of the five signs listed are no longer visible, whether covered or demolished. And as digital signs become more prominent, one wonders what future generations will look back on.
Luckily, there are still some surviving ghost signs in the Forest City.
623 Richmond Street
In the middle of Richmond Row, located on the northwest corner of Richmond Street and Hyman Street, is a building with a rectangle of white paint on the northside of the second floor – the remnants of Mrs. O’Donnell’s Store and dwelling. O’Donnell’s is the only discernable word, with a chimney is obscuring all but the g and y of grocery.
Designed by well-known London architects John M. Moore and Frederick Henry and built circa 1905, Mrs. O’Donnell’s Store began as a small neighbourhood grocer run by widow Bridget O’Donnell. The front half of the main floor served as the store, with the back half and second floor used as a dwelling. James O’Donnell, Bridget’s son, took over in 1907 or 1908 and operated it as a neighbourhood grocer until 1957. He also renovated the upstairs apartment to rent out rooms.
It has also been home to Ann McColl’s Kitchen Shop, C. Johnson Bookseller, David Finlay Women’s Apparel, and at present, Little Labels Boutique.
387 Clarence Street
Located on the west side of Clarence between Dundas and King, the building at 387 Clarence Street was constructed in 1892. It was first home to the Featherbone Corset Company and held two subsequent corset manufacturers until the 1920s. In the 1940s and 1950s, the London Shoe Company used the building as a warehouse. According to city directories, the building has also contained a bank, a hair salon, and an auctioneer.
Bud Gowan Custom Clothing moved in in the early 1970s, and they purchased a building nearby on York Street focusing on men’s formal wear. Bud retired from the clothing business in 1985, leaving his son in change. But in 1990, he went back to work, opening Bud Gowan Antiques at 387 Clarence Sreet, with “four floors of antiques.” Gowan retired, for good, in 2012 and sold the building.
Both sides of this historic building have ghost signs. On the north side, an over 60-year-old faded sign advertising wholesale boots, shoes, and rubbers from the London Shoe Company. And on the south side, a mural advertising Bud Gowan Antiques remains, accompanied by a large clock that no longer ticks.
710 Dundas Street
Located in Old East Village, the Palace Theatre currently sitting at 710 Dundas Street is not the first Palace Theatre in London — or at the address even. The original theatre, constructed in 1929, was praised as “London’s first high-class neighbourhood theatre.” In addition to having a stage and orchestra pit, the theatre played silent movies.
The 1950s saw massive renovations as the building transformed into a more modern movie theatre. Renamed Park Theatre, it operated until 1989. In 1990, a local theatre group — the London Community Players — purchased the building and returned it to the original name. They undertook extensive renovations, utilizing the 1929 blueprints to recreate the original lobby ticket booth and marquee. As of 2020, the theatre was rebranded to the Palace Theatre Arts Commons and is home to the London Community Players (LCP), London Fringe, London Youth Theatre Education (LYTE) and New Stage.
350 Talbot Street
The ghost sign at 350 Talbot Street might be the hardest to spot. Not because of its fadedness but because of the surrounding buildings. If not obscured, the words Massey Harris would be seen on the north side of this impressive building, a memory of its first tenant. It was constructed in 1890 as a showroom and repair shop for Massey-Harris. The manufacturer of agricultural machinery and implements occupied the building until 1950.
According to the city directories, in the 70 years since Massey-Harris left, the building has been home to furniture companies, apartment rentals, chemists, Ann McColl’s Kitchen Shop, a print shop, and London’s Metro News. It currently houses an interior design company and a marketing company.
In the above photo from the 1990s, you can see the full sign from the top of the old Covent Garden Market parking garage. The only way I could find a more recent image of the complete sign was through Google Earth (thank you, technology).
186 York Street
The building, located at 186 York Street, known as the Granger-McMahen Block, was built in 1908. William George Murray designed it as a warehouse for the dry goods wholesaler McMahen, Granger & Co, which became Granger-Taylor Wholesale Dry Goods in the 1930s. They remained in the space until 1970. The building’s facade is unique as it is one of only two glazed terracotta buildings remaining in the city.
Gardner Galleries moved in in 1971. The Gardner Galleries sign, dated 2011, advertised virtual fine art auctions. The ad looks to be painted directly onto the brick with a mounted frame on its east exterior wall. Gardner Galleries sold the building in 2014, though they still operate in the city on Hamilton Road. Some may argue it doesn’t count as a ghost sign because the company is still in operation. 186 York Street was home to Design House London from 2016 to earlier this year and now houses Race Roster.
466 Dufferin Avenue
Once known as Fitzgerald Corners, the building at Dufferin Avenue and Maitland Street has stood since 1888. The building was named after James Fitzgerald, who started a grocery store at 466 Dufferin Avenue in 1890. It remained a neighbourhood grocer until 1972, when it became a variety store.
The most recent tenant was Woodfield Variety, which closed in 2015. Peeling green vertical signs that say variety remain on both sides of the building. The building is currently vacant, though an amendment passed in February 2020, allowing the development of an eat-in restaurant on-site.
2809 Roxburgh Road
The former London Gardens is located in the south end of London, just off Highway 401. The building, completed in 1963, was first called Treasure Island Gardens. The London Knights junior hockey team (named London Nationals from 1965-68) played there from 1965 until 2002 when they moved to the newly constructed John Labatt Centre, now Budweiser Gardens.
In addition to hockey games, the building hosted infamous events such as Johnny Cash’s proposal to June Carter in 1968 and the 1965 Rolling Stones concert riot. In 1994, the London Gardens was rebranded to the London Ice House and underwent renovations. The Forest City Velodrome now owns the building, which boasts an indoor cycling track — the world’s shortest permanent velodrome.
The ghost sign is located on the back of the building. Though the sign is faded and parts of it are coming loose from the building, it still boasts the London Gardens as “Your Total Entertainment Centre.”
How many of these ghost signs have you seen around the city?
Are there any ghost signs that you remember that are now gone? Let us know in the comments below.
A special thank you to Genet Hodder from ACO London for sharing some of her vast heritage knowledge for this article.
If you know of ghost signs in London not on this list, don’t worry because London’s Ghost Signs — Part Two is coming soon!