The existence of ghosts is uncertain. Ghost signs? Those are real. In Winnipeg’s Exchange District, they’re easy to spot: fading advertisements for faded firms, splashed across century-old buildings in paint that isn’t quite ready to disappear just yet — unfinished business for finished businesses.
At 281 McDermot Ave., three ghost signs refuse to go to the grave, and Matt Cohen and Craig Winslow refuse to let them.
On Friday night, the duo will flick on a set of projectors to illuminate the huge ads in what they call the world’s first permanent ghost sign installation, overlooking Old Market Square each night from sunset until midnight. Grim reaper be damned.
Cohen, a Winnipeg marketing professional, has been obsessively cataloguing the city’s surviving wall-based advertisements for a decade. In 2016, he first heard of Winslow, who was working on reviving ghost signs across the United States using light projection. The two connected, and a few months later, Winslow was in Winnipeg to breathe new life into five ghost signs for a single night.
"It’s a way to explore history in a dynamic, non-invasive way," says Winslow, born in Portland, Maine and based in Portland, Ore.
The latest project will illuminate three signs all on the same wall, with each successive ad painted overtop an older one in what they call a "palimpsest" – writing material used more than once after earlier work has been erased or covered up. In the case of the building at 281 McDermot Ave., the palimpsest reveals a nesting doll of shifting corporate fortunes.
“It’s a way to explore history in a dynamic, non–invasive way.” – Craig Winslow
Per Cohen’s research: In 1876, a man named D.W. Stobart, a British coal merchant, founded Stobart, Eden and Company, a dry goods distributor. The company was a smashing success, competing with the biggest wholesalers on the Prairies. In 1903, the future looking bright, the company — by then known as Stobart, Sons and Company — broke ground on its McDermot Avenue warehouse.
In 1907, new storeys were added to the building to service the company’s growing manufacturing side. A painter scaled the wall and in a bold uppercase marked the territory: STOBART, SONS & CO.
By 1914, with Eaton’s and the Hudson’s Bay Company — and Sears — finding great fortune with their mail-order business models, the stewards of 281 McDermot shifted gears, rebranding as the Christie Grant Company, emphasized with what else but a fresh paint job.
"They launched about one month before the start of World War 1," says Cohen. Poor timing: by 1921, Christie Grant was in the corporate graveyard.
The next business to move into the building was the Toronto-based Barber-Ellis Envelope Manufacturers, who didn’t mail it in until the 1980s.
All three signs are still somewhat visible. But Cohen and Winslow were interested in highlighting them individually, so their projections will cycle through each.
Winslow refers to this type of project as "augmented restoration" because it doesn’t make any physical changes to the historic ads, but enhances them in such a way that shows viewers what they would have looked like before time took its toll. "We’re highlighting a moment in time, and in ways these feel like time portals," he says. "It tells a rich story."
The artist has also developed an augmented reality app that allows users to virtually overlay "a fresh coat" of paint over the signs, at any time of day.
“We’re highlighting a moment in time, and in ways these feel like time portals... It tells a rich story.” – Craig Winslow
Funding for the project ($10,000) was split between the city and the province, says Cohen, who hopes to establish more ghost sign installations in the future.
For now, though, Cohen and Winslow will focus on the three layers of history coating the northeastern wall of 281 McDermot Ave. During the Winnipeg Jazz Festival celebrations at Market Square Friday night, the projectors will turn on and the ghosts will come back from the dead, forever.
"Or at least until the bulbs run out," Cohen says.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.