When I have a day to myself—when the chores are tolerably done and all my children are at school—I fill a bag with books, a notebook, and my laptop and set off for downtown. I used to look in the shop windows as I walked, at the strings of patio lights and the window displays draped in sprawling pothos vines. But these days when I walk I look up, toward the upper stories of the century-old brick buildings.
When a ground-floor business changes hands, the storefront gets remade, its windows adorned with a new hand-painted sign, sometimes edged in gold. But those upper stories rarely change: the bricks continue to crumble artfully, their cracks and smitten masonry bearing witness to the weather and to the passage of time. Above the awnings, many of these buildings are surprisingly ornate, adorned with discs of green marble, or herringbone bricks, or a floral border cut from sandstone. I’ve seen courtyards hidden up there, their arched openings veiled with weeds, and gabled windows so small I wonder what could possibly be behind them.
At first, I thought I was just looking at these upper stories, but before long I realized that I was reading them. Most of these old buildings have names—elegant ones, like the Clover Block or the Crown Plaza, or names that, like the Windsor Hotel, give some clue as to what they used to be. The year they were built is often etched up there, too, in the peak of a roof, or above an upper window. Walking downtown has become a sort of self-guided history tour to me, full of clues to the size and shape of our city over a century ago.
But my favorite roof line discovery has been the faded signs painted on the building’s brick sides. They’re old and partly scrubbed off by the rain, but most of the ones I’ve found are still legible. To my delight, I learned that these are called ghost signs, and I can’t stop talking about this: ghost signs. That’s about the most perfect name I’ve ever heard anything called.
These signs, when you know to watch for them, are everywhere downtown. Some are only partially visible—just a ghost of a ghost sign up beneath an eave somewhere with a single word just barely visible, like the one above my favorite bookstore that reads simply “Batteries.” But several are still mostly intact, like the collage of ghost signs sprawled across one particular brick wall. There are three or four legible signs on that wall; their lacy layers have rubbed off over the years until “Chew Star Tobacco” looks superimposed over what might have read “Coca-Cola,” which sits alongside a sign for the hotel that once occupied the building: “Hotel Laube,” that sign reads, “European Plan”—whatever that means.
Finding a sign like this one stops me mid-stride. The feeling it elicits in me isn’t unlike the one I experience when I spot a pansy growing wild between slabs of concrete. Nature sparks these moments of awe and wonder in us all the time: a low-slung rose-gold cloud, maybe, or the moment when the ground falls away beside you on a hike. These are obvious pleasures—you’d have to be pretty calloused to beauty not to notice them.
But these upper stories, with their ghost signs and scalloped gutters and hidden arches elicit in me an awe and wonder that is something I want to remain sensitive to: a commonplace, even-in-the-dust-and-debris kind of wonder that marvels over a bit of enduring, well-placed paint.
And so when my daughters are with me downtown, I’ve begun playing this game with them: “Look up,” I’ll say suddenly, and when they do, I ask, “What do you see?”
At first, they answer with the obvious: “A building,” they’ll say. Or, “The sky?”
“Keep looking,” I tell them, as I stand alongside them, looking too. And as we look, the obvious resolves into the specific: “A bird’s nest!” one daughter exclaims. Another spots a curious, key-shaped window, or a geometric detail etched in the peak of a gable. Or that prized discovery: a smudged but still legible ghost sign.
When I invite them to play this game, my hope is that my girls—imaginative as they are, and often caught up in their own thoughts—will learn to see the city around them and the stories etched into its stones. I want them to walk through the most mundane moments with their eyes open, looking for beauty and storing it away as evidence of God’s goodness—even when the beauty is old and the bricks are crumbling and the paint is peeling away.
And so we study the eaves and the gutters together, searching for hidden patterns, for surprises. Until— “Ghost sign!” one daughter cries, exultant.
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