Friday, September 30, 2011

What Beats Saving a Sign? Saving the Storefront It Occupied Too!

Rohs True Value Hardware opened it's doors in 1933 under the management of its proprietor, Albert G. Rohs, on Vine Street in the Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati.
Rohs Hardware in 2008
Photo courtesy of

Al Rohs with just
some of his wares
Photo courtesy of
I was first drawn to the neon-illuminated, porcelain enamel letters that fronted the building. So, last spring when I saw a 'Going Out of Business' sign in the window, I approached the current owner — Albert R. Rohs, Albert G's son — about the donating the letters to the American Sign Museum. 

Then I noticed the storefront had been retrofitted with porcelain enamel panels, and I thought to myself, “What a great addition the fa├žade would make to our ‘Signs on Main Street’ exhibit area.

When Rohs closed, a local developer named Rick Kimbler of Northpointe Realty, Cincinnati acquired the building. I asked him about plans for the porcelain panels, and he said they would probably remove and discard them. I told him of my plans, and he thought it an appropriate re-use. He would talk with his general contractor, Bill Baum of Cincinnati-based Urban Sites, about the idea.

Baum followed up, giving us a basic go-ahead and suggesting we meet to discuss coordinating the removal of the porcelain letters and panels. But when I met Baum and architect Mark Gunther of Wichman Gunther Architects later that week, Gunther said, “There’s a good deal of Federal money financing the redevelopment,” said Gunther, “and we have to meet historic preservation criteria. Odds are removing the panels will jeopardize the federal money.” My heart sank. “Let me research it,” Gunther said. We would just have to wait for the verdict.

Then, the local daily—Cincinnati Enquirer—featured the museum’s new home in its Labor Day weekend Sunday edition. Mention of the possible reuse of the Rohs storefront prompted Albert’s daughter, Karen Rohs Laib, to e-mail the reporter about how great it would be if the Rohs storefront went to the museum. I sent copies off to all the parties involved.

A few weeks later, Bill Baum called. “Hey, they’re all yours,” he said. Sean Druley, who is building the displays and exhibits at our new home, friend Toby Costello, and I set out on a Tuesday afternoon, grateful that the rain of the day before and earlier that day had stopped. By 5:00 that afternoon, we had all the panels and letters down and strapped onto the trailer, far ahead of our schedule. Wednesday—our original completion day—it rained from dawn to dusk. It was just one of those meant-to-be projects.

Toby Costello (left) and Sean Druley (right) removing the letters and panels
that will be reassembled along Signs on Main Street at the American Sign Museum 

Friday, September 16, 2011

What do Two Genies, a Pig, and a Bowling Pin Have in Common?

Museum founder Tod Swormstedt's article from Signs of the Times Magazine, October, 2012

We actually have two genies, one at each entrance
of the current and new sites. We plan to install the
current site genie atop the front building at the new
site, where he will beckon travelers on I-75.
The outdoor area of the Museum’s new home is starting to look like it's going to feature the three-dimensional fiberglass “sculptures” that were so popular in the mid 1950s through the late 1960s.  Our 20-ft. tall genie, which has become somewhat of a mascot, now stands over the walkway atop two 12-ft. poles at the museum’s entrance.  Two other additions—a 16-ft. long trailer-mounted pink pig and the most recent acquisition, a 16-ft. tall 3D bowling pin—now sit outside in the parking lot awaiting installation. 

“Kahnie” as the pig was appropriately (and affectionately) named, was donated by Kahn’s, a Cincinnati meatpacking company now under the umbrella of Sara Lee foods.  Kahnie had long been a favorite participant in Cincinnati events, and is most remembered for her appearance in the annual Cincinnati Reds Opening Day parade.  In keeping with current trends, Kahnie was replaced by an inflatable counterpart, whose flexibility promoted more practical transportation and set-up.  Word has it that Kahnie is already adapting to her new home.
Kahnie and genie at night, taken before Pinhead's arrival.
Pinhead is happy to be coming to the
America Sign Museum.
She is being joined by “Pinhead,” a 16-ft. tall fiberglass bowling pin that originally identified Greenbrook Lanes in Greenbrook, NJ.  The acquisition began when Phil Smith, Jr. and his father, Phil, Sr., of Ace Sign Company in Perth Amboy, walked up to me at the USSC Sign World show in Atlantic City last year.  They told me that they had this huge bowling pin that had been leaning up against their shop for at least 15 years and wanted to know if the museum was interested in it.  I responded with an enthusiastic yes and told them I’d be up that way the following May and could they hold onto until then. 
Phil, Jr. later told me the whole story.  “The bowling pin had been a local icon since the late 1950s,” he explained, “but the owner sold the business and opened a new bowling alley in nearby Manville and asked us to move the pin.  He told us we didn’t need to install it: ‘Just move it to my new place and tie it down with ropes and I’ll install it myself later.’”

“It was too long afterwards,” continued Smith, “that we got a call from the guy saying the police had called him, telling him to get the bowling pin out of the middle of the street ASAP or face the consequences.  He had obviously not mounted the big guy properly.  We went over and brought it back to the shop to await further instruction and never head from the guy again.  That was at least 15 years ago.”

Smith went on to tell me that the smiling face was added sometime during its tenure at Greenbrook, and that a tin-sheathed plywood top hat was added to top him off.  The hat had deteriorated over the years. 

The bowling pin’s interesting history was not unlike the shop that rescued it.  Ace Sign Company was co-founded in 1928 by Phil, Jr.’s grandfather, David, and  his partner, “Ace” Friedman, a former boxer.  Ace was the salesman; David was the signpainter.  The shop got a big boost when it began doing work for Leon Hess’s oil company, Hess Oil, which was founded in Perth Amboy.  The shop grew to employ eight signpainters at its height.

ACE Sign Company, the early days.
In the early 1970s, Ace Sign expanded to begin offering backlit plastic signs to its local customer base.  It continued to maintain its separate neon plant as it had since the beginning.  Under Phil, Sr., the shop became a beta site for Gerber Scientific Products first vinyl cutter in the early 1980s; computerization was fully integrated by the late 1980s.  Although Ace Signs days of employing eight signpainters are gone, it still paints some of Hess Oil’s local storage tanks.  The company is currently operated by Phil, Jr. and his brother, David.  Father Phil, Sr. is semi-retired. 
Phil Jr. shares stories of other fiberglass giants
Following a tour of the shop, Phil Sr. poses with Tod and Pinhead.