In this episode of Memphis Type History: The Podcast, Caitlin chats wtih Devin Greaney, Memphis’ very own ghost sign hunter. Sit back and relax because after this episode you’ll want to look up a bit more when you’re out and about! A ghost sign is a sign or ad created many years ago that no longer serves a purpose. Sometimes they peek out from renovated buildings, or can be found on the peeling paint of an exterior wall. In Memphis, we pass by many of these… and these are their stories.
Devin introduces himself as a freelance writer and photographer. He likes writing about a variety of topics including old Memphis in particular. And then jumps into exactly what is a ghost sign because really.. why is it called a ghost sign?
Whether a sign that was covered by a newer building or one that is faded, these ghost signs are signs or ads that were created many years ago and don’t serve a purpose other than peek the interests of a passerby. In Memphis, we pass by many of these. For Devin, he likes to dig into the history of these signs for local history and the story behind them. In particular, he recalls an old Dr. Pepper sign that was uncovered when a building was knocked down in ’86 on Evergreen and Poplar.
What would making a sign from that time look like? In the past, there weren’t as many sign ordinances as there are now so there was less restriction on size and colors. What wasn’t uncommon was finding a few trends through the decades on these signs based on the types of fonts used and colors. However, the best way to date these signs is to look into the history of the building they belonged to and the businesses it housed.
Devin has researched many ghost sign such as Hotel Pontotoc, the Lamar Theater (hear a bit of a rumor on this landmark in this episode), and a sign for a beauty school downtown which also has a rumor that Devin talks about.
Caitlin asks which are the favorites uncovered and Devin says one in particular is Goodman and Son Jewelers which closed in 1989. Located between BB. King and Second Street it had opened in 1862. He also talks about several others, including a Bassoon shop (how often do you come across a bassoon shop?), a Firestone smokestack which Devin compares to what FedEx is to us now.
Though Elvis doesn’t make an appearance on this episode, we learn about how Memphis didn’t become the tourist destination that we know of it today until 1982 when Graceland opened for tours. Devin also gives us an insight into how the Heartbreak Hotel came to life in March of 83′ and how it was originally called the King’s Heartbreak Hotel and replaced a different old motel. The old painted, faded sign can still be found on the building.
One sign that was able to surprise Devin was the Hickman building on 248 Madison, across the street from the YMCA. It closed in 1971 was almost lost in in 1993 fire, and in 2017 began remodeling. It’s fascinating to think about the chapters of a buildings life and how far they survive. Devin also points out one of the unique characteristics of Memphis is that this city still holds a lot of natives that can remember significant events that occurred throughout the city, whereas in other big cities where many occupants are transplants, people can’t relate to things that have happened in years past.
If there’s anything you should gather from this episode, it’s that we shouldn’t keep things from the past just for the sake that they’re old. If they don’t serve a purpose, or are an eye sore, what is the point? Some things are better left re-purposed, like Beale Street when it revamped in 1983. People made comments about how it wasn’t the same Beale Street from the 30s but it really can’t survive to live like the 30s. At some point, we need to think practically about what parts of historic properties remain. Crosstown Concourse is a good example of this.
What other types of stories does Devin have to share about the uniqueness of this city? There’s a spot on the floor that is damaged and the Broom Closet, located in South Main. Story goes, in 1918, officer, Edward Broadfoot goes in to investigate something and was shot down in the store. The blood soaked the ground and that spot remains on that floor. Devin also talks about other historical markers with stories many are unaware of. It’s a good list, so make sure you take a listen. However, there is ONE historical marker that Devin does NOT approve for a reason that you probably wouldn’t guess.