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Article Published July 15, 2020

Saybrook Considers Bringing Ghost Sign Back to Life

By Aviva Luria/

On a Thursday morning in late June, a conservator from John Canning & Co. in Cheshire stood on the sidewalk on Sheffield Street in Old Saybrook, inspecting a wall. On the side of the brick building at the southeast corner of Sheffield and Main is a swath of faded brick, almost pink compared to the more recently painted wall that surrounds it. Peering forth, only partially visible, are the hints of words: “Real Es—-” in white block letters and, in flowing black cursive, “—owl—.”

These letters are what remain of a Crowley Real Estate advertisement painted in the early- to mid-1950s, according to Jim Crowley, whose parents owned the real estate business. The building, which today houses Village Barber Shop and Old Colony Package Store, was built around 1834 and is among the oldest brick buildings in Saybrook.

Known today as “ghost signs,” advertisements painted directly on the façades of buildings were widely employed in the late 1880s through the 1950s, according to Preservation Magazine, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and their remains can be found in cities and towns across the country as well as in Europe. The town’s Historic District Commission (HDC) has an interest in restoring the sign and is in the process of assessing the scope and cost of that project, according to Barbara Harms, a member of the HPC who first suggested the idea to the commission and is working closely with Town Planner Christine Nelson.

“The HDC has a small amount of money that it can spend on projects of a historical nature within the community,” Harms explained. “The thought is to see if indeed it could be restored, not to a brand-new look but to a historical look that a nice enhancement to Main Street and the historical nature of the town. We can’t do much more than that until we know what it would cost.”

Once the HDC hears back from John Canning, it will then determine whether and how to raise funds for the project.

“The commission would by no means have that kind of money but could probably fund part of it and then seek grants, or seek other funding within the town,” state, or through federal programs, Harms continued.

Before proceeding with the assessment, HDC Chair Bill Childress sent a letter to the owner of the building to seek his permission, which was quickly granted.

The conservator discovered additional letters on the brick that Harms hadn’t realized existed. The building was originally the home of Sheffield & Sons Store; in the early 20th century, it became the Stokes Bros. General Store. The additional letters on the side of the building are the remains of a Stokes Bros. advertisement, according to Nelson.

Crowley explained to Childress that his father had the Crowley Real Estate sign painted as Saybrook housing development was booming in the 1950s, “in part because of the opening of beach-rights lots in Knollwood (550 lots), Fenwood, and Cornfield Point and in part because of the imminent arrival of the Connecticut Turnpike, now I-95,” Childress said in an April email to Harms.

Crowley, who is now 80 and a priest residing in Higganum, “worked as an agent in his parents’ business for some time [and] spent time as an Old Saybrook police officer when there were only three of them and the station was in the old town hall, now The Kate, and the jail was downstairs,” Childress wrote in his email.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed John Canning & Co. in Chester.