Ten and Twenty Years in Cincinnati

asm10bd2This coming Tuesday, April 28, marks the tenth anniversary of the opening of the American Sign Museum. Ten events are planned to celebrate the ten years of success and growth. First up was a birthday party, complete with cake and balloons, last Sunday. Others include special hours and gifts in conjunction with this year’s Major League Baseball All Star Game which will take place in Cincinnati and a gathering of an elite group of sign painters known as The Letterheads for their fortieth anniversary.

asm10bd3asm10bd4The Texas Weiners sign is a recent addition to the museum. Most signs like this have rusted away but this one survives because the flashing sign did not meet local codes and its owner was not permitted to install it. There’s a more complete version of the story here. I know I’ve posted several pictures of “Main Street” but there’s always room for one more and this one includes museum founder Tod Swormstedt taking a break in the chair at the far right.

My Oddment page on the museum’s 2005 opening is here and other blog posts on visits to the museum are here.


kcbp2kcbp1Krohn Conservatory has been around since 1933 but 2015 marks its twentieth butterfly show. This year Butterflys of the Philippines are featured. I actually set out to attend the show on its first day, April 3, and drove by the conservatory about half an hour after opening time. All parking spots were filled and there were a couple of school buses in the mix. Drive by was all I did. The building was hardly empty when I did stop on Monday but it was not overly crowded and there were no lines. The winding marked path and large tents indicated that long lines were fairly common and an attendant confirmed that lines were the norm on weekends.

kcbp3kcbp4kcbp5I’m not much of a butterfly expert but, with the aid of labeled photos viewable at the conservatory, I can say with some hope of being correct that these are pictures of a Julia Butterfly, a Zebra Longwing, and an Owl Butterfly.

Dinner and a Movie – Cincinnati Style

asmdm01I put Wednesday’s screening of the movie Sign Painters at the American Sign Museum on my “maybe” list as soon as I heard about it. It was moved to “probably” when I learned dinner would be included. When I found out the museum’s almost neighbor Camp Washington Chili would be doing the catering, I bought a ticket. I’ve eaten at CWC many times and I’ve eaten many things there but never a salad. I don’t believe it ever occurred to me that they would even have a salad. It was quite good and apparently can be had with grilled chicken at the restaurant. Who knew?

asmdm02asmdm03The beverage table never really got crowded but I hit it before even a hint of a line formed. Local (Mount Carmel & Christian Moerlein) and “other” beer was available along with wine and soda. I made my food line pass after the initial rush. There were 3-ways and coneys in addition to the aforementioned salad and they even had cold-cut sandwiches. I’m guessing those were for the out-of-towners.

asmdm05asmdm04The tables that were empty when I took my picture of the beverage table, were filled as soon as the food was served as were other tables throughout the museum. Paint trays and cans held a variety of movie-appropriate sweets and one pail was filled with small paper bags so you could carry a supply of Lemonheads, Charleston Chews, Bulls-Eyes, Necco Wafers, and other goodies into the viewing room.

asmdm06asmdm07asmdm08As showtime approached, a drawing of museum founder Tod Swormstedt (accurate enough to identify him should he ever go missing) was replaced by the real thing and Tod introduced the movie. Two large screens were filled by a pair of synchronized digital projectors so everyone had a good view. The event had sold out several days earlier. I don’t really know what that means but something like 200 attendees seems a reasonable guess.

Sign Painters features interviews with a number of painters plus quite a bit of footage of some of them at work. A few of the painters are in their thirties but most are older and there is, as you might expect, plenty of talk about the good old days when sign painting was a thriving profession. There is no question that automation and the availability of cheap — in every sense of the word — product have wreaked havoc on the field but not everything is doom and gloom. There are still people who feel called to paint signs and there are still some customers who appreciate the value of hand crafted advertising. In particular, large wall signs are often seen as worthwhile and they remain something that takes a human touch.

At one point in the movie, I found my mind returning to thoughts of a couple weeks ago. I was loosely following an online discussion about ghost signs. Ghost signs are always old so they are almost always faded and they often, but not always, advertise something that is no longer available. They can be considered eyesores or glimpses of history. People may tend to lean one way or the other but opinions are often of the “it depends…” sort. I believe my participation in the discussion was limited to sharing a link to a local radio story on ghost signs. The story uses the words “art” and “pollution” but that’s really just another way to say “history” and “eyesore”. In the movie, when a large and fading hand-painted advertisement is painted over — by hand — with a new and very different advertisement neither of the signs seem very important. It doesn’t matter whether some history gets covered over or if an ugly wall is made beautiful. What matters is that an art form, a skill set, a profession gets to breathe a little.

The museum’s parking lot is not huge and, in addition to the chili and beer and candy and movie, there was free valet parking. I tucked a couple of bucks into my shirt pocket for a tip but by the time my car was pulled up to the door, I’d already heard what the valet would say to me. “No, I can’t take that. No tips. We’ve been taken care of.” Me too.

Cincinnati the Exhibitionist

cte01I visited a few museums this week. One reason was that I realized some temporary exhibits I wanted to see would be ending soon but there was also a lot of happenstance involved. For those of us spared desperate last minute shopping, the week before Christmas seems to be rife with days needing to be filled with something and a little catching up fits nicely. This post will wander a bit but will eventually get around to explaining the nose shortage revealed in the photo above.

cte02cte03cte04Early in the week, I attended the Mummies of the World exhibition at Cincinnati Museum Center. No photos were permitted in the traveling display so I’ve included a picture of the museum’s resident mummy, Umi. Mummies of the World will be in Cincinnati through April 26. The third photo is of the museum’s giant Christmas tree backed by Union Terminal’s brightly painted half-dome. For those who feel a little disoriented by that shot, a more traditional view is here.

cte08cte07cte06On Friday, I went out for breakfast then decided it would be a good time for an overdue visit to the American Sign Museum. There is so much here that it’s often near impossible for me to know if a sign is truly a recent addition or simply something I’ve not noticed before. As I gawked my way around, founder Tod Swormstedt made a point of saying hello and verified that a couple of signs in the local area were indeed newly placed. I clearly remember driving and walking by the Wizard sign many times in the wild but do not recall ever being inside the Clifton area record shop. Tod also gave me a little behind the scenes tour that included a recently acquired 1944 sign truck that will be used in parades and other promotions.

cte10cte11This year’s Fotofocus was in October and, with the exception of Treasures in Black & White at the museum center, I pretty much missed it. However, some related exhibits are still in place. One of them isn’t too far from the Sign Museum so I figured this was a good time to visit it as well. Good thing, too. It had just two more days to run. Documenting Cincinnati’s Neighborhoods at Hebrew Union College contains examples of the work of three local photographers from the middle of the 1900s.

cte13ncte12Maybe realizing how close I came to missing the Neighborhoods exhibit scared me because I next headed straight to the Taft Museum where two photo exhibits were in progress. I didn’t really need to hurry, I suppose, since both Black, White, and Iconic: Photographs from Local Collections and Paris Night & Day: Masterworks of Photography from Atget to Man Ray continue through January 11. No pictures were allowed in either exhibit but amateur photos of photo masterpieces aren’t all that appealing anyway. On the other hand, what I believe is a fairly recent policy change, not only allows but encourages non-flash photography in the other areas of the museum. The two photos here are of displays in the museum’s annual Antique Christmas exhibit.

cte14That opening photo was also taken at the Taft. A trio of reindeer stands in the lobby with an oval cutout that allows anyone to be photographed as one of the group. Apparently red noses were once available so that adding a Rudolph like touch was an option. That option, it seems, was quite a bit more popular than anticipated which led to it currently being unavailable. BYON.

Trip Peek #12
Trip #75
Madonnas and Signs

Foot Print Rock, National Road, OHThis picture is from my 2009 Madonnas and Signs road trip. This was a short trip organized for a small group of friends. On the first day, we drove from Richmond, Indiana, to Springfield, Ohio, on the National Road then to Lebanon, Ohio, primarily on US-68 and US-42. The “Madonnas” in the title refers to the Madonna of the Trail monuments in Richmond and Springfield. The “Signs” in the title comes from the American Sign Museum which we visited on the second day. Since I was acting as a guide and the places we stopped were familiar to me, my journal for the trip is fairly sparse. Other folks on the trip took a lot more pictures than I did.


Trip Pic Peeks are short articles published when my world is too busy or too boring for a current events piece to be completed in time for the Sunday posting. In addition to a photo thumbnail from a completed road trip, each Peek includes a brief description of that photo plus links to the full sized photo and the trip journal it is from.

Trip Pic Peek #11 — Trip #24 — East End of 62

RoadDog Day Afternoon

Don Hatch at American Sign MuseumI get to be part of somebody’s road trip again. Don Hatch is a roadie whose nickname and online handle is RoadDog” and that is the source of my not particularly clever title. He stopped in Cincinnati today on his way back from relatives in North Carolina to his home in Illinois. Unlike Fred Zander, whose road trip I got to be part of last month, Don has been to Cincinnati before and even visited the American Sign Museum in its original location. In spite of that, or more likely because of it, seeing the new and improved set up was high on his list of goals for the visit.

American Sign MuseumTo save time and make sure we didn’t miss the four hour (noon-4:00) Sunday window, we met at the museum. We arrived a little after 1:00 and roamed the museum on our own for awhile then hooked up with about a dozen others for the 2:00 tour. This was my first “official” tour of the museum in the new location. Museum founder Tod Swormstedt did his normal excellent job job while RoadDog took notes.

Neonworks at American Sign MuseumNeonworks at American Sign MuseumNeonworks at American Sign MuseumI experienced another first by going inside Neonworks, the independent sign shop that occupies some of the museum’s space. The shop can be seen from the museum proper through large windows but is usually idle on weekends. Today craftsman Tom Wartman showed up near the end of the tour and we were allowed into the shop for an up close look and a little demonstration. As we watched, Tom sealed and filled then brought to life a length of neon text.

Zip's CafeRoadDog and ZipburgerAnother of Don’s Cincinnati goals was grabbing some chili but, as I’ve noted before, all the independent chili parlors are closed on Sundays. The two big chains, Skyline and Gold Star, have plenty of stores open and both turn out some very fine Cincinnati chili but I talked Don into waiting until Monday for his chili fix and trying out a ‘burger joint today. Probably the currently best known Cincinnati ‘burger joint is Terry’s Turf Club and that’s where Fred and I went. However, Don has experienced — and loved — Terry’s in the past so I led Don to someplace “new”. That “new” is in quotes because, while Zip’s Cafe may be new to Don, but it has been turning out award winning “Zip Burgers since 1926.

Aglamesis ice creamAglamesis ice creamFor dessert, we did exactly what Fred and I had done and ate delicious ice cream at one of the 98 year old marble tables at the Aglamesis Brothers shop on Madison Road. Most people who think of Cincinnati ice cream think of Graeter’s and I don’t want to demean it in anyway. Like Skyline and Gold Star chili, it is an excellent product and I’m proud to live near its source. All three brands are Cincinnati to the bone, if any of them had bones, but they can now be found in other cities in the region. Camp Washington and Blue Ash Chili (which is in tomorrow’s plans) are among a number of independent one-location Cincinnati-only chili dispensaries. Aglamesis does have two stores but all of their ice cream is made on Madison Road. Fred actually had Graeter’s on his list when he arrived but I steered him to Aglamesis. I was happy to learn that he did get to sample their product in Columbus, Ohio, and sent this picture to prove it.

Jake Speed and the FreddiesOver the RhineWe wrapped up the day at Washington Park. The park, which originally opened in1855, had become a somewhat scary place in recent years but an extensive makeover has just been completed. The ribbon cutting was July 6 and tonight a sort of grand reopening celebration took place with a free concert featuring Jake Speed & the Freddies and Over the Rhine. You can’t get much more Cincinnati than that.

The reverse road trip continues tomorrow with stops planned for Blue Ash Chili, Pompilio’s, and Mansion Hill Tavern.

Reverse Road Trip

American Sign MuseumI was part of a road trip today but it wasn’t mine. Roadie Fred Zander from Topeka, Kansas, is in Ohio visiting family north of Dayton and came down to Cincinnati for the day. Like many others, Fred has wanted to visit the American Sign Museum but its limited hours made him put it off. The ribbon cutting was yesterday. Today was the first “normal” day and Fred was among the first “normal” customers.

Although it was the Sign Museum that prompted the trip and Fred even commented that the museum alone would have made the trip worthwhile, this was also Fred’s first visit to the Queen City and an opportunity for me to do a little boostering. I think I did OK in that regard but really fell down in the picture taking department. I had good intentions and almost always had a camera nearby but, presumably since everything was familiar to me, whatever it is that makes me want to click rarely appeared. So, while I showed Fred what I believe is some Cincinnati “good stuff”, I’m going to have to tell about it with few visual aids.

Fred Zander at Roebling BridgeI met Fred at an I-75 exit a little north of the city where he could leave his car. We headed directly downtown from there and drove by Music Hall, Fountain Square, P & G headquarters, and Cincinnati’s oldest bar, Arnold’s. On the way to the 1867 Roebling Suspension Bridge, we got a glimpse of the football and baseball stadiums and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. On the Kentucky end of the bridge, we pulled into a small lot beneath it that offers a good view of the bridge, the river, and the Cincinnati skyline. I even thought to get a picture of the skyline in addition to the picture of Fred backed by the Roebling Bridge. Before moving on, we took a look at the scenes from area history captured by large murals painted on the flood wall.

Fred and Tod at Amrtican Sign MuseumInformation panel at American Sign MuseumThen it was time for the sign museum to open so we headed back to Ohio. I actually remembered to take some pictures there. One reason may have been that the explanatory panels that stand near most signs were new to me. The text had been ready for the sneak previews but not the stands. I wish I had taken a picture of the face of one of the panels as an example. Tod wrote most or all of these and it’s no surprise that they are quite informative. Sharp eyes may have noticed the American Sign Museum sign at the museum entrance in the photo at the top of this article. That’s also been added since the previews as have some plaques and section signs inside. We were not on an official tour but Tod was always nearby answering questions and pointing out things so it was an “almost tour”.

First Sign Museum tourReal tours, which are free, are given at fixed times. Space permitting, walk-ups are welcome but tours may be scheduled and tickets purchased through the museum’s website. The picture is of the first official tour at the new location. Most of the group is on the other side of the wall.

Fred and his favorite signFred's favorite signI also got a picture of Fred’s favorite sign and a picture of Fred taking a picture of Fred’s favorite sign.

After a couple of hours at the sign museum we drove a couple of miles south to the Cincinnati Museum Center. The museum center is in the 1931 Union Terminal and the art deco building with its murals and other decorative features is something of a museum itself. We did not visit any of the three real museums there.

It was beginning to get a little hungry out so we headed over to Terry’s Turf Club. I had originally wanted to stop at Camp Washington Chili which is just a few blocks from the Sign Museum but it’s closed on Sunday. Terry’s is known for its fantastic hamburgers and huge collection of working neon signs. It’s definitely a fitting place to eat after an American Sign Museum visit. Dessert was ice cream at the 1913 Aglamesis Brothers shop just a few miles north.

Although I didn’t do a very good job of recording the reverse road trip, I did enjoy the chance to show someone a little bit of my town. Fred clearly enjoyed his first visit here and declared his intentions to return. I’m looking forward to it.

American Sign Museum Reopening

American Sign MuseumMark your calendars. On June 23, the American Sign Museum begins full five-days-a-week operation at its new bigger and taller location just a few blocks from Camp Washington Chili. There were previews on Friday & Saturday and I assure you that seeing an entire Mail Pouch barn side in a museum is not the same as seeing pictures. I’ve created an Oddment page for those previews and this blog entry simply points to that page and provides a place for comments.

This way to the Oddment.

Signs on the Move

Sign Museum Entrance - pig and genieOne phase of Tod Swormstedt’s dream came true in 2005 when the American Sign Museum moved into a warehouse on Essex Place in the Walnut Hills section of Cincinnati. The next phase is coming true as it gets ready to move out. The warehouse was not the ideal location but it did its job and provided a home for lots of signs and a shrine for lots of sign lovers. Signs come in all sizes and one of the site’s shortcomings was a lack of height for some of the larger specimens. Many set in a parking lot across the street exposed to weather and vandals. That’s not a problem at the museum’s new home about 2 1/2 miles away in Camp Washington. The former factory’s 42,000 square feet will accommodate many more signs in general and its 28 foot ceilings allow the tall guys to get out of the rain. In addition to “normal” museum exhibits, visitors will get to see the sign restoration shop and a working neon shop. In fact, the neon shop, Neon Works of Cincinnati, is already operating there and has been for roughly two years.

The Camp Washington site was initially acquired in 2007. Renovation of the building and installation of new exhibits progressed while the existing museum operated as usual. No more, though. It’s time to start moving. Yesterday, January 7, was the last hurrah for the Essex Place location and a grand hurrah it was.

American Sign Museum Open HouseAmerican Sign Museum Open HouseThe museum announced the closing and accompanying “Done with the Old. On to the New” open house about three weeks ago through its email list and a week ago through Facebook. Apparently a couple of hundred people responded by registering for the event. Then, on Friday, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran this article and registrations skyrocketed. Registration was not required and no really accurate counting took place but it’s safe to say that over a thousand people visited what many consider Cincinnati’s best kept secret on Saturday. These photos were taken after 4:00 when things were thinning out. (The Cincinnati Bengals lost last week but, because some other teams lost, too, backed into the playoffs and a 4:30 game. Football fans left the museum to position themselves in front of a TV. The Bengals backed out of the playoffs by losing again.)

Sign Museum Director Tod SwormstedtIt takes more than two men and a truck and a weekend to move a museum but Tod and crew think a couple of months should be enough. They have targeted April 28 for the Camp Washington Grand Opening which will be exactly seven years after the Essex Place Grand Opening. I was there at the original and I fully intend to be there for the sequel. With the new location, the huge jump in space, and increased hours, I don’t think this place will be a secret much longer.


Even though this was my last visit to the sign museum on Essex Place, I’ll probably be back to the building. The museum’s co-tenants, Essex Studios, remain and their Art Walks will resume in the spring. A large number of talented artists from a wide range of disciplines fill the studios and make the Art Walks a cross between a visit to a museum and a festival. It’s another Cincinnati secret I recommend.

Essex Studios SignEssex Studios SignThe Art Walks are in the evenings, however, so it may be a long time before I again see the building in sunlight. Therefore, I figured this was a good time to present this lesson on how a small difference in perspective can make a big difference in perception.


Me with Karen & Bill McKibbonAfter the museum, I met Canadian roadies Bill and Karen McKibbon for dinner at their hotel. The McKibbons both work in the school system which gives them a great chunk of time off in the summer and a pretty decent one around Christmas. They use that time in well planned road trips documented here. We’ve followed each other’s travel online for quite awhile but had never met. The closest we came was when I chased them out of the country in August but they crossed the border at Sault Ste Marie five days before I did. Today they were passing through Cincinnati on the way home from the sun and sand of South Padre Island, Texas. It’s always good to turn cyber-friends into real friends.