1 May 2024

Milwaukee’s Ghost Signs Revealed in a New ‘Augmented History’ Tour

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a local advertising agency has collaborated with the Historic Third Ward Association to deliver a ghost signs walking tour via the technology of augmented reality. The project, dubbed ‘augmented history’, is the work of Hoffman & York, and I spoke with their Executive Creative Director, and project leader, Mike Roe, to learn more.

Typeset title with a 'Historic Third Ward Association' plaque alongside the words 'Augmented History'. This is illustrated with a picture on the left showing a street scene with a large ghost sign on a wall and, on the right, the same scene by seen through a mobile phone screen that shows the ghost sign as it would have looked when originally painted and, below that, some historical notes about the sign itself. The sign advertised the Rex Chocolates brand.
Promotional graphic for the Augmented History application that maps recreated artwork from ghost signs onto their original locations via your mobile device.

The Third Ward

The project is centred in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward district which, in 1892, suffered a huge loss of property following a fire. The reconstruction in the decades that followed have given this part of the city a particular architectural character which is now recognised on the National Register of Historic Places. This grants its buildings a high level of protection from overzealous urban (re)development.

However, in 1970s the area had fallen into decline and it wasn’t until the next decade that its fortunes were to shift.. This is when local businesses and the City of Milwakee formed the Historic Third Ward Association as a conduit for investment in the area, and its heritage. Now, 40 years later, the Historic Third Ward is a bustling commercial and entertainment district.

The Ghost Signs

This Historic Third Ward is only about ten blocks by ten, but within this relatively small area there are between 35–45 ghost signs of varying degrees of fadedness. These, like their host buildings, are protected, and span myriad businesses that used to trade or advertise in the area. They are just a handful of survivors from the plentiful painted wall signs that have come and gone in this part of Milwaukee.

Black and white photo showing a riverside scene with numerous industrial buidlings almost completely covered with hand-painted signs for various different businesses including livery stables, biscuits, picture framers, a shoe manufacturer, and a silversmith.
Bombarded by painted wall signs: Milwaukee’s Third Ward in 1909.

It wasn’t long after starting work at Hoffman & York that Executive Creative Director Mike Roe became aware of this high density of fading painted signs and felt the urge to do something creative with/about them.

Augmented History

Mike soon hit on the idea of using augmented reality to digitally project recreated ghost signs onto the walls that host them. (This, in essence, uses mobile technology to virtually do what Craig Winslow’s Light Capsules facilitate with light projections.)

To realise the idea, Mike brought together an interdisciplinary team within the agency, and also became a regular at the local archives to research individual signs and locations. In some cases this threw up archival images, which then fed into the process of recreating the signs’ artwork. Additional references like old packaging and advertising also helped in isolating typographic and other graphic elements.

Black and white archival photo showing a corner building with a hand-painted wall sign for Blatz beer on it. Lined up in front of this are various vintage cars.
The Blatz beer sign is already somewhat faded in this archival photograph.
Contemporary view of the previous building from the side and showing a graphic for the beer sign mapped onto the wall that hosts the ghost sign.
The recreated Blatz beer artwork used within the Augmented History app.
Archival photo showing large commercial buildings, one of which has two horizontal painted signs on the wall. One of these (top) advertises Gargoyle Coffee and the other is for Shell. There is then a protruding frontage below these with mounted channel letters for H. Barkow Co.
Gargoyle Coffee is another brand whose advertising has been recreated within the project.

In many cases there were dead ends, or old photos that weren’t from quite the right angle, or where the sign was too far in the background to be traced with sufficient accuracy. However, 14 individual signs made it to the final selection.

Graphic of a brick wall with an array of colourful vintage advertisements on top.
Eight of the 14 Milwaukee ghost signs recreated for the Augmented History application.

One of the key technical challenges was making the augmented reality function at street level. The technology works by ‘anchoring’ points in the environment and using these to map images, text, or video onto specific surfaces. (There are parallels with the three blocks in the corners of most QR codes which allow your mobile device to identify and focus on the code itself.)

Anchoring is difficult in urban environments where myriad angles need to be accounted for, and where the anchoring points can be obscured by other buildings, or confused by temporary or permanent changes in the streetscape. The developers working on the project resolved this through the use of GPS; this provided an additional data point, allowing for triangulation and greater accuracy when identifying the walls and mapping the graphics onto them.

Partnership & Delivery

With an early prototype in place, Mike and his team presented the concept to the Historic Third Ward Association. They immediately saw the ways it could support their role in championing local heritage, and encouraging footfall local businesses. A partnership was born, and the association and advertising agency worked together to complete the project’s development and deployment via a dedicated website at augmentedhistory.org.

Promotional video for the Augmented History application.

The web application features 14 ghost signs, allowing you to point your phone/mobile device at the walls and see the team’s recreations of their original artwork. There are also accompanying historical notes for each location, and a map that pinpoints each ghost sign.

For now, the application can only be accessed at street level in Milwaukee. However, I have suggested it would be nice to have a version accessible outside of the city for those unable to travel, or who can’t get out onto the street—something I have integrated into my digital walking tours. In the meantime, another way to learn about the city’s ghost signs is via the book, Fading Ads of Milwaukee by Adam Levin.

Flat image of a folding map, with the top portion having the title, 'Augmented History' and the map itself with 14 pins on it. The bottom half then shows snippets of what can be seen at each of these locations in the form of visible ghost signs and the recreated artwork deployed within the augmented history application.
The folding map that can be used to navigate the district and the ghost signs within the Augmented History application.

Thank you to Mike Roe for sharing the details of this project, and to Danella Uzelac for the various photos and supporting visual materials. The Augmented History site can be found at augmentedhistory.org.

Large wall seen from an elevated position and with traces of fading painted signage across its entire width.
The Rex Chocolates ghost sign is one of the largest that features in the Augmented History application. It is a palimpsest, with at least three layers of Rex signage adorning this wall over the ages. Two of these had enough visual clues to be recreated for the Augmented History application.
The same wall with a mobile phone being held in front of the middle portion. This shows the full-bodied artwork from the original Rex Chocolates sign to give an impression of how it would once have looked.
The Rex Chocolates sign with its recreation partially visible through the use of the Augmented History application.
The same wall with a mobile phone being held in front of the whole sign so that the full recreated artwork is visible in place of the ghost sign.
The full recreation of one of the Rex Chocolates sign artworks mapped onto the wall that hosts the ghost sign.
Artwork for a vintage piece of Rex Chocolates advertising laid over a brick wall graphic. The copy reads "Snirkles, 5c, HOme of Rex Chocolates, King of Bitter Sweets, American Candy Co."
Graphic showing a second layer of Rex Chocolates signage visible on the wall’s palimpsest.

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