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American Sign Museum opens in Ohio

Posted: Thu Apr 28, 2005 10:05 pm
by Lynxwiler
Thursday, April 28, 2005
Signs of the times
Collector's museum features neon icons of the 20th century

Jim Knippenberg | Cincinatti Enquirer, staff writer

Tod Swormstedt, his face tinged with a blue glow coming off four neon windmill blades, is explaining why the world needs the American Sign Museum:

"Signs are the practical history of graphic design, retail and cultural art in America. You can walk through here and get a complete visual on the evolution of the art form since 1900."

He's not kidding. The 6,500-square-foot museum, the first in the nation devoted exclusively to signs, opened Thursday in Essex Studios and is now showing off more than 120 signs, some as old as the 1890s, some as new as the 1970s, all with a story to tell.

The museum's centerpiece is Signs on Main, four vintage storefronts (1900, 1910, 1920s and 1930s), decked out with dozens of signs on porches, roofs, railings and windows - everything from a 1932 oval Ford sign to an old neon Desoto sign, 1932 drugstore sign advertising Dolly Madison ice cream and a Crosley Radio sign from a long-gone appliance store.

Swormstedt has been collecting the signs and building up to the opening since 1999, when he began a series of road trips that put more than 100,000 miles on his Toyota Tundra. His family has owned Cincinnati-based ST Media, publisher of Sign of the Times Magazine (the trade publication of the sign industry), since 1911, so he had plenty of contacts out there feeding him leads.

Those leads resulted in a major treasure trove, including a wall of early 1900 hand-lettered gold leaf signs on glass. There are also examples of opal glass signs that feature holes punched in tin in the design of a business' name that are plugged up with a milky glass. Backlighting gives the signs their glow.

But the real showstoppers are the dozens of 1930-1960 neon signs, including a pale blue Speedy Alka Seltzer from 1930; a Christmas wreath once used to decorate a door; an old Kroger neon; and an elaborate Peter & Paul Florist sign that looks ready to bloom.

There are the dramatic ones, too, that have to go on a "don't-miss" list:

The white windmill with blue neon blades that still spin is right inside the front door, the area Swormstedt calls the sculpture garden. It was originally built for Dutch Boy Donuts in Denver.

The 6-foot diameter Sputnik with 11 pointy arms sticking out, each one ending in a different colored light. It still spins, too. It was originally built for Satellite Shopland in Los Angeles.

The even-larger spinning globe with six neon cars circling a track around the globe, making it look for all the world like the rings around Saturn. It began its life hanging over an auto paint shop. (Be sure to look for bullet holes made by a sharp-shooting vandal.)

One of the original Frisch's Big Boys (from the days when he had the slingshot in his back pocket). He proved to be a major photo op for many who posed with him at the museum's preview.

The 1932 gas station with two well-worn pumps and a rusty old sign that Swormstedt decided not to restore because it looked so authentic.


What: The American Sign Museum

Where: Essex Studios, 2515 Essex, Walnut Hills

When: The Sign Museum currently has no set hours, but founder Tod Swormstedt will open it any day of the week for anyone who calls (513) 258-4020.

Admission: Free, but a $5 donation is suggested

Information: (513) 258-4020;

Posted: Thu Apr 28, 2005 10:07 pm
by Lynxwiler
There's a lot of Los Angeles signs at this Cincinatti museum. If anyone out there lives closeby, pay the American Sign Museum a visit and say hello to a few of our lost loves.

Posted: Thu Apr 28, 2005 10:13 pm
by Lynxwiler
Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Hang up the 'Open' sign

By Jim Knippenberg, Cincinatti Enquirer staff writer

On Thursday, a museum in Walnut Hills becomes a one-of-a-kind American attraction

Tod Swormstedt followed leads, visited collectors, crawled around basements, attics and barns nationwide to find signs for the American Sign Museum.

The first thing you see when you wander into the room is a large white windmill with rotating blue neon blades casting an other-worldly glow around the room.

Normally the sight would be occasion for a double-take. But you just entered the building walking between the legs of a 21-foot fiberglass genie, so what's a 10-foot windmill or two?

Welcome to the American Sign Museum, a project six years in the making and a lifetime in the dreaming for 52-year-old Tod Swormstedt, founder and president of the nation's first museum devoted entirely to signs.

(The Neon Museum in Las Vegas and the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles each have some signs, but mostly those facilities are dedicated to neon sculpture.)

The 6,500-square foot Walnut Hills facility, which opens to the public Thursday, is packed with more than 120 signs dating from the 1890s.

Some of them are, well, spectacles.

How about that huge spinning globe with six neon cars circling it like the rings that circle Saturn?

Or to the left, the spinning, 6-foot in diameter Sputnik with 11 pointy arms and a different colored light at the end of each?

Or the McDonald's double arches from 1956, touting the 15-cent hamburger.

Walk through the museum with Swormstedt and you hear the history of each:

The Sputnik satellite imitation originally spun above Los Angeles' Satellite Shopland.

The globe and its neon cars were atop a Compton, Calif., auto painting company. Swormstedt repainted it, but left the bullet holes from some vandal's target practice.

The windmill is from Denver's Dutch Boy Donut Shop.

The genie came from Aladdin Carpeteria, a Los Angeles carpet cleaning firm.

Swormstedt thinks of them all as his babies, rare treasures that document what he calls "the practical history of graphic design, retail and cultural art in America."

He should know that better than most anyone. Since 1911, his family has owned Cincinnati's ST Media, publisher of Sign of the Times magazine, the bible of the sign-making industry.

He grew up working there. His dad and granddad worked there, a brother and two cousins still do, and so does Swormstedt, though he's currently on loan to the museum. ST Media is also the firm that ponied up the museum's $1.1 million seed money.

Swormstedt needed those bucks from day one, if for nothing else than to fill his tank. He has been crisscrossing the country since 1999 in a Toyota Tundra, towing a 10-foot trailer, visiting collectors and following leads in search of signs. The treasures he found were then towed back to Cincinnati and stored in the basement of ST's Gilbert Avenue headquarters.

Stored, that is, until now and the birth of Swormstedt's museum in Essex Studios, an industrial building subdivided into the museum and studios for the 110 artists who rent space there.

"We really like the idea of being surrounded by artists," Swormstedt said. "These signs are a history of commercial art in America, so it's a really good fit all the way around."

The artists' studios are accessible through Swormsted's foyer or what he calls the sculpture garden. That's where you find the windmill and its eerie blue light, the Sputnik and its pastel light bulbs, a Sky Vu Motel sign with the "vacancy" light lit, a Holiday Inn sign from Las Vegas, an original Big Boy on the run, complete with slingshot, and more, including a big orange Go Gulf sign.

The Go Gulf sign is a fitting welcome because the first sight past the foyer is a 1932 gas station with two battered pumps and a rusty sign. Swormstedt rewires all his signs for safety reasons but he doesn't believe in restoring unless it's absolutely necessary.

The museum's centerpiece unfolds right past the gas station - Signs on Main is four vintage store fronts (1900, 1910, 1920s and 1930s) decked out with dozens of signs on porches, roofs, railings and windows. There's a 1932 oval Ford sign; an old neon Desoto sign next to a 1932 drug store sign advertising Dolly Madison ice cream; and a Crosley Radio sign from a long-gone appliance store.

"I know the place is cluttered," Swormstedt said while winding his way past a case full of point-of-purchase signs, "but clutter is good when you're trying to show the history of signs.

"To tell you the truth, I'm already out of space here. I have more signs tucked away around town and some stored in other parts of the country, maybe 80 of them, that people are holding for me, but I have nowhere to go with them. Most are 20-feet tall, so my ceilings are too low."

Swormstedt isn't kidding about being out of space. The first thing you see when you turn onto Essex Avenue is an outdoor, overgrown boneyard full of signs waiting to be spruced up and put on display.

"My hope is to expand the museum upward and fill the roof with them. The landlord's OK with that, but there are some zoning issues involved. I'm not sure what's going to happen."

What he is sure of is that the sign museum is a hit. Tours - students, seniors, tourists - have been going through by appointment since October.

"Once they get in here, they don't want to leave. It's 'Oh, I remember that from when I was a kid,' and 'We used to stay in a motel with a sign just like that.'

"That's the reason I put a sitting area here, so people could just sit and stare and reminisce. You'd be surprised how many do.

"Over there, that's where I'd like to put my HoJo (Howard Johnson) sign, but there's not room. HoJo really is an icon among American signs. Maybe on the roof if the day ever comes."


The American Sign Museum isn't officially open yet, but it's gathering national attention.

• The Los Angeles Times did a piece about founder Tod Swormstedt and the museum Jan. 9 of this year and referred to some signs as "veritable amusement park rides" and others as "mysteriously artful."

• The Denver Post did a March 13 story on the Dutch Boy Donut windmill now in the museum's sculpture garden.

• In July the Associated Press and the New York Times used Swormstedt as a resource for stories on "ghost signs" (fading signs painted on the sides of buildings) and put them out on their news wire services. That resulted in 20 or so smaller papers contacting Swormstedt as a resource on ghost signs in their cities.

What: The American Sign Museum.
Where: Essex Studios, 2515 Essex Ave., Walnut Hills.
When: Reception 3 p.m. Thursday, ribbon cutting
4 p.m., celebration dinner cruise 6:15 p.m.
Cost: Free, but a $5 donation is suggested.
Information: (513) 258-4020;

The Sign Museum currently has no set hours but founder Tod Swormstedt will open it any day of the week for anyone who calls.

Posted: Thu Apr 28, 2005 10:40 pm
by Lynxwiler
Lynxwiler wrote:(The Neon Museum in Las Vegas and the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles each have some signs, but mostly those facilities are dedicated to neon sculpture.)

By the way, The Neon Museum in Vegas celebrates neon signage and nothing else while the Museum of Neon Art here in LA does a 50/50 split between contemporary electric sculpture and vintage neon signs. Of course I did write a letter to the article's author to explain this. I couldn't resist and also filled him in on Portland, Oregon's Advertising Museum and their display and celebration of signage.

Posted: Tue Dec 08, 2009 10:41 am
by Lynxwiler ... otostream/

There's some footage of Anaheim's Satellite Shopland sign at its new home at the ASM.