Haunted by age, neglect, and weather, London, ON’s ghost signs tell the story of another time.
Ghost signs — faded memorials to businesses past — are common in large urban centres as older buildings are adapted and reused. In London, most of the signs are located in the core where the buildings are older, whether downtown or Old East Village.
The term “ghost sign” itself can be divisive. For example, Frank Jump, author of Fading Ads of New York City, disagrees with the term ghost. Jump argues that the signs are examples of things living beyond their expected life span and are therefore metaphors for survival, not spectres haunting the living. Other preferred terms include faded ads, brick ads, mural advertisements, or urban fossils.
No matter what you want to call them, ghost signs are an endangered species. They often disappear — victims of demolition, construction, graffiti, or just the wear and tear of time and weather. But sometimes, they’re also recovered, after the demolition of another building or the removal of siding, much to the surprise of building owners.
There are more than a few surviving ghost signs left in the Forest City. Enjoy a walk down memory lane with Part Two of London’s Ghost Signs (and check out Part One for more)!
136 – 140 Dundas Street / 132 Carling Street
The Gibbons Building (136) and the Grand Building (140) were designed by London architects Watt and Blackwell and constructed in 1912. Initially, they were home to Brewster’s Dry Goods and Gray’s Limited Dry Goods, respectively. The ghost sign visible from Dundas Street is almost illegible, but you can still make out part of it advertising Gray’s Limited.
Brewster’s incorporated as Metropolitan Stores Ltd in 1920. In 1929, Metropolitan Stores, also called The Met, held a grand opening for its newly renovated and expanded store and head office at 136-140 Dundas. While not as fancy as its neighbours Kingsmills or Simpson’s, the Metropolitan Stores were a staple for many Londoners. What began as a five and dime store — a precursor of the modern-day dollar store — grew into one of Canada’s largest chain stores in its heyday. Though the head office moved to Quebec in the early 1960s, the store was a mainstay on Dundas until 1984. Following its closure, the building housed other discount shops, including Bargain Harold’s from 1985-1992 and Red Apple Clearance from 1993-2008. Throughout 2011, it hosted a weekend market, the Metropolitan Artisans Market, and is now home to Good Value Thrift Store.
A Metropolitan Stores ghost sign is still visible from Carling Street, promoting their low prices with goods available from 5￠ to $1. A second Metropolitan Stores sign was visible on the east side of 140 Dundas until the early 2010s when siding covered it.
256 Dundas Street
Constructed c1886, 256 Dundas Street was first home to Cairncross and Lawrence Drug Store, with a shoe store on the second floor. The drug store moved to a larger space in 1889, and in 1901, Harry J. Boyd’s Stove and House Furnishing Store set up shop in the building. The store lives on with the faded HJ BOYD ghost sign on the east side. According to city directories, Boyd’s stayed at 256 Dundas Street until 1909 when another store, John Maker Stoves, moved in.
From 1913-1926, the building housed London Ready-to-Wear Clothes before becoming a restaurant for almost 60 years — first Mecca Lunch until the mid-1930s, and then the well-loved Maple Leaf Restaurant. From 1985 to the mid-90s, the Household Trust Company was at that address. In 2007 Imperial Hobbies and Games moved in and remains there today.
Given that Boyd’s was only in that location for seven years over a century ago, its lasting presence via ghost sign is impressive.
675 – 641 York Street
It seems unlikely that a company like Esso or Mobil can trace its roots back to London, ON. But they can — their parent company, Imperial Oil — was founded in 1880 in London East when 16 refiners from southwestern Ontario joined together to form The Imperial Oil Company. Their headquarters was in London, with refineries in London and Petrolia. The London refinery was located just east of Adelaide, with York Street to the north and Bathurst Street to the south, as you can see in the 1881 (Rev. 1888) Insurance Plan of the City of London, Ontario.
However, Imperial Oil’s tenure in London ended quickly. In July 1883, after only three years of operating in London East, lightning struck the refinery, causing a fire that burned it to the ground. The lack of fire protection in London East and the complaints of the smell of the oil refineries led Imperial Oil to move their head offices to Petrolia rather than rebuild in London. However, Imperial Oil returned to the area around 1910, when they took over Queen City Oil’s warehouse and tanks on York Street. They remained there until 1953.
Since Imperial Oil left, the building has served as a warehouse for a metal company, an electronic company and housed an HVAC distribution company. Most recently, internet provider Start.ca is redeveloping the buildings to form their new headquarters.
The ghost sign was covered up until recently by a storage shed. When removed in c2018, it revealed the Imperial Oil Co. painted sign and a piece of East London’s industrial history.
228-230 Dundas Street
Oh, the Honest Lawyer. A more recent haunt than some others on this list, the Honest Lawyer and it’s neighbour Downtown Kathy Brown’s closed in 2014 after 16 years of business. The bar and restaurant was a watering hole for many Londoners, known for its live music, open mics, martini nights, and bowling alley.
In addition to the vertical hanging sign that remains out front on Dundas Street, you can also see signs from Queens Avenue. The building has stayed empty, though with recently added construction hoarding, fingers-crossed that may be changing soon. London’s Housing Development Corporation has earmarked the building for affordable housing units with a commercial tenant on the main floor. (Editor’s note: Shortly after the publication of this article, the verticle hanging sign on Dundas Street was removed).
The Ontario Furniture Company, whose name still adorns the facade, had the building constructed in 1909. They operated out of the space until 1969. From 1970 until 1997, it was home to Duthlurs Textiles.
183 King Street
183 King Street is an impressive building; however, the years have not been kind. It was built in 1892 in front of the Marcus Holmes House (c. 1850). It was first known as the St. James Hotel, changing its name to the Fraser House Hotel & Tavern in 1895. According to the city directory, it became the Royal Alex Hotel by 1953 until 1975 and Kelly’s Hotel opened in 1977. In the 1990s, the owners divided the building into offices, commercial spaces, and apartments in the upper levels.
Eight Ball on King, the billiard club advertised in the ghost sign, called 183 King Street home from 2001-2003. The mural, painted on the east side of the building, is in good condition compared to others on this list. It’s faded slightly and has had graffiti added to it.
After Eight Ball on King closed, the building continued to be home to several bars and nightclubs, including Salt Lounge, Club Noir, and Rehab. 183 King Street currently sits vacant. The rear portion of the building and its neighbour, 181 King Street, have both been demolished. The owner has been trying to demolish the building’s remaining portion to build condominiums; however, City Council denied a request for demolition.
211 King St
Well-known and well-loved, Novack’s called 211 King Street home from 1939 until 2012. The building was constructed in c1890. It contained a concrete machinery company, pawnbroker/second-hand goods store, and a rapid electrotype company prior to Novack’s.
What would come to be known as “London’s most interesting store” was started as a music and luggage store by Harry Novak. Meant to be “Novak’s,” the extra c was added when a fledgling sign maker misspelled the name. It grew into an army surplus goods outlet before becoming an outdoor outfitters and adventure travel store.
Since the retail store closed, the building has been home to UnLondon, 121 Studios, Life of Leisure, Brown & Dickson, Reimagine Co., several photography studios, and even LondonFuse! It has also hosted many events, including book launches, London Fringe and other theatrical performances, a beer popup, and concerts. It’s currently home to Stache Fabric and Notions, web.isod.es, and Fair Chance Learning.
However, Novack’s presence remains. While the building’s facade was repainted a couple of years ago, the familiar red, white and green stripes remain on the east side, advertising the now-defunct website. And while no longer lit, the 1940s-era neon sign still hangs above the sidewalk. Hopefully, if ever removed from the building, the sign finds a home at Museum London as it holds a special piece of downtown’s history.
775-777 Dundas Street
Built c1915-1920, 771-777 Dundas Street is in Old East Village, next door to Aeolian Hall. It first contained a bike repair shop, the Salvation Army Industrial Department, and an auto showroom and service centre. The building, divided up into individual storefronts, has held everything from an electric company to a kitchen supply store, a shoe repair shop to a general store, a bakery, and a comic book shop.
It’s a simple sign — a black rectangle, with “Ace Used Furniture” in white painted on the building’s west side. Currently, the sign is partially covered by a ripped vinyl banner, leaving only the word furniture and a couple of letters visible. The green and white paint on the wall behind the sign may be the remnants of another sign.
According to city directories, Ace Furniture was located at 775-777 Dundas Street for one year in 1977. Another furniture store, Capital Furniture and Appliances, moved in for 1978. From 1979 until 2012, it was home to G & A Book Exchange & Joke Shop. The two storefronts remained empty for several years. 777 was briefly home to a tech repair service and 775 is currently occupied by an e-bike shop.
What London ghost signs have we missed?
Are there any ghost signs that you remember that are now gone? Let us know in the comments below.
And be sure to check out London’s Ghost Signs — Part 1 for more!
A special thank you to Genet Hodder from ACO London for sharing some of her vast heritage knowledge for this article.