Sign Museum expands space for eye-popping Americana

Double the dazzle

Tod Swormstedt needs more room.

He’s the founder of the American Sign Museum in Camp Washington. And searching for more square footage has become a way of life for him.

When he launched the museum in 1999 – called the National Signs of the Times Museum  – it was more a pipedream than a reality. The museum existed on paper, but there was no space that the public could visit. There was a warehouse. And an office. But nothing else. When the museum moved into a 4,500-square-foot space in the Essex Studios in Walnut Hills in 2005 patrons had a place to visit. But Swormstedt still wanted more space. Lots more.

An interior shot of the current museum shows a range of neon signs from the 1930s to 1970s.

Then came the big step forward, the opening of the American Sign Museum that we know today. That was 2012. The then-new museum measured 20,000 square feet as it took over a former machine tool factory built for the Oesterlein Machine Company in 1918. Later, Oesterlein would be purchased by a women’s clothing company called Fashion Frocks Inc., which was called into service to make parachutes during World War II.

You’d think that would be enough for Swormstedt. Hardly.

Think about it. Signs are meant to be noticed. If they’re not, why bother? And some of the signs that Swormstedt and his pals had collected over the years consume immense amounts of space.

There was an 80-year-old illuminated opal glass sign that proclaimed “Locksmith.” It was 20 feet tall. There was another equally large one that was saved when the State Theatre in Tallahassee, Fla., was demolished. Large as they were, both of them were dwarfed by the towering 1970s-era Holiday Inn sign that sits near the entrance to the museum’s parking lot.

“It was great to be able to display those signs,” Swormstedt said. “But even before we opened to the public down here, I knew we’d need more room.”

Born under good signs

Swormstedt was, quite literally, born into the sign business. He spent 26 years working for Signs of the Times magazine, an industry trade publication founded by his great-grandfather in 1906. Later, he would become the fourth-generation editor of what many called “the bible of the sign industry.”

As Swormstedt got into middle age – he’s 70 now – he was looking for some other project to devote himself to. As early as the 1980s, his uncle, Jerry Swormstedt, had been talking about creating a museum devoted to American signs.

It might take some time, he told The Cincinnati Post in 1988, “but as I live and breathe, I am committed to making it happen.”

Jerry Swormstedt did live long enough to see his and Tod’s dream become a reality. Jerry died in 2015, three years after the museum took up residence in Camp Washington.

Making it all happen was, Tod Swormstedt admits, something of a “miracle. Before Camp Washington, I raised money more quickly than I imagined.” Beyond his fundraising prowess, he proved a logistics wizard as well, shaping the massive open space into a dazzling maze of blinking lights and eye-catching graphics. But when it came to marketing the place, he admits that he didn’t have a clear idea of whether the public would be interested.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know if people were going to show up at the museum when we opened,” he said.

Only in Cincinnati

They did show up. Tourism publications oohed and aahed about the museum. Today, the ASM has become one of the must-see destinations for out-of-towners looking for intriguing things to do in Greater Cincinnati. No offense to other arts organizations, but there are art museums everywhere. And theaters. And baseball teams. But a large former warehouse filled with every type of sign imaginable . . . well, there was nothing else quite like it.

Locals heard about the museum, but until out-of-town relatives came to visit, they tended to stay away. Camp Washington was then a mostly unknown territory, a place where you might roll up your car windows when you drove from the University of Cincinnati and the hospital district to the West Side.

That didn’t deter Swormstedt. Even before the museum opened its doors in Camp Washington, he was telling people about everything they could do with the other 20,000 square feet adjacent to the new museum.

Sometime this summer – Swormstedt can’t say exactly when – the ASM will expand into that space, doubling the size of what already bills itself as “The Largest Public Sign Museum in America.”

It won’t just be more signs, though.

The ASM has been quite successful as a host of special events: weddings, galas, fundraisers. And the additional square footage – with a new prep kitchen – will allow that portion of the business to grow.

“But our central mission is about education,” said Erin Holland, the museum’s manager of digital communications and engagement. “And we have grown our education offerings in a big way. But the problem has always been that we didn’t have a dedicated space for our educational programs. That was on the wish list from . . . well, even before we opened here in 2012.”

Nor was there ample space for administrative offices. Or for a library to house the museum’s voluminous sign history archives. All of that lived in boxes in Swormstedt’s attic. 

Or, perhaps most important, an area to house temporary exhibits.

Those are increasingly important for all sorts of museums. Once you display your permanent collection, how do you entice patrons to return? Temporary exhibits are the surest way. 

“We’re dedicating 4,200 square feet – more than 20% of the expansion – to host temporary exhibits,” Holland said.

There will also be a large area anchored by a theater marquee from Exeter, N.H., that will show sign-related movie clips and documentaries. 

Architectural rendering courtesy of Platte Architecture + Design features an eastern view of the museum’s new wing and expanded Main Street display.

A place for the craft

For patrons, this new space will allow the ASM to boost its already impressive wow factor. But for Swormstedt and hundreds of others who have dedicated their careers to sign-making, the ASM is providing a legacy, a record for an industry that has evolved in previously unimaginable ways over the past 50 years.

What was once a world of artisans and craftsmen has become a business dominated by computer-driven, machine-cut letters and molded plastic. There is still some call for hand-lettered signs, but those skills are slowly disappearing.

Not in Camp Washington, though. Here, the glories and infinite possibilities of hand-lettered, hand-crafted signs not only survive, but they thrive.

Indeed, the final touches of the expansion will see more than 30-35 master sign-makers from around the country converge onto the museum in the first week of May.

One of those is David Butler, who runs a sign-painting business with his wife Suze in Syracuse, Ind. He’s the one responsible for designing and painting the fanciful winged sign at the ASM’s front door – the one that proclaims “Tell the world with signs.”

“When I started out in this business, we went from the only way to paint a sign involved a pencil and yardstick and some paint,” Butler said. “Today, we rely on a CNC router (a computer-controlled cutting machine) and a wide-format printer and equipment like that. Most of the guys my age – I’m an old hippie – rejected the computers. But we got involved with the technology and used it to our advantage.”

Details amid the dazzle

The Butlers have organized a crew of volunteer sign painters who will create new signs and provide the thousands of details that will turn the warehouse into a Main Street filled with Americana in the form of signs.

“Most of us are pretty much one-man or one-woman shops,” Butler said. As with so many fine craftspeople, the majority of them are near – or well past – traditional retirement age.

“I’d say the average age is somewhere in the 70s,” said Butler, scanning his list and rattling off ages and hometowns of those who are coming to help at the museum. “There’s a younger couple from Chicago – they’re in their late 40s. And some 75-year-old guys. Look, most of us are cut from the same cloth. We share such a commitment to this craft. And when we get there, if we have to work to midnight, we will. We do this because we love the work.”

As for Swormstedt, he’s already thinking about some new space.

“Even after the expansion, we still have a lot of signs I’d like to put on display,” he said. “We have a 12,000-square-foot warehouse down the street. There’s an area in there – 8,400 square feet or so – that used to be a showroom. It’s a nice big open space. And it’s close enough to where we are that I’m thinking we could use it as an annex.”

Sit tight. Clearly, Tod Swormstedt and the American Sign Museum aren’t done yet.

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