Signs of the times 

Paying homage to Missoula’s wall dogs

The term alone drips vintage style: wall dogs. Sounds like some scrappy sports team or a neighborhood gang. But back at the turn of the century, artists disguised as advertiser lackeys would hoist themselves onto buildings with brushes and buckets of lead-based paints and create bold signage to attract passerby. They called themselves wall dogs, and their work, battered by time and rendered obsolete with the advents of billboards and laser printing, has become known as ghost signs.

You can’t miss the wall dog’s contributions in Missoula: Even today the Atlantic Hotel’s faded façade leaves a more indelible impression than the smattering of freshly painted overhangs that now dominate downtown. Then there’s the modestly sized, white-on-black “Diner Café” square in the alley next to Red’s Bar on Ryman Street, which, from the right angle, can still draw a discriminating eye away from the neon sign right next to it. Local graphic designer-cum-photographer Ben Ferencz captures those prominent examples—along with five others—in Seven Buildings, an exhibit debuting at Gallery Saintonge.

“It’s a project of preservation, really,” says Ferencz, who started to document the ghost signs a year ago. “Take, for instance, Macy’s, who bought the old Bon Marche. They’re still trying to get the sign off their building in the alley. Why? I just feel like there’s a lack of value in history sometimes if it gets in the way of someone’s marketing. It’s shortsighted…I see this as a wonderful celebration of craft that’s really lost in modern advertising.”

To help complement his seven images, Ferencz teamed with historian Allan Mathews to offer the full account of Missoula’s wall dogs. Mathews, who served as Missoula’s historic preservation officer for 11 years and authored A Guide to Historic Missoula, provides the rich back story of, say, the Montana Hotel, one of the oldest hotels along Railroad Street. He surmises Hardenburgh Signs painted the building’s ghost signs, since it was Missoula’s dominant sign company once Floyd Hardenburgh started the business in 1911. Mathews’ text appears alongside Ferencz’s black-and-white prints in matching 16 x 20 frames.

“I think what appeals most to me is it feels like a real merging of arenas,” says gallery director/curator Kerri Rosenstein. “There’s a photography element, a graphic design element, and a historical versus contemporary context. We’ve found with past exhibits that the community shows a real interest in Missoula’s history, and I think this will be another opportunity for them to learn another part of our past.”

An accomplished graphic designer who’s admittedly obsessed with classical crafts, Ferencz was perfectly situated to execute such a show. After attending the University of Montana and working at local advertising firms, he moved to New York City and landed accounts with the likes of MoMA, Gucci, MTV, Reebok and Pepsi. Four years ago he moved back to Montana and now lives outside of St. Ignatius with his wife, where they operate a working farm.

Ferencz still pursues graphic design through his work with Adventure Cycling and as founder of The Design Cooperative, which creates T-shirts sold at local retailers, such as Betty’s Devine.

Every weekday, Ferencz rides in from St. Ignatius on the Van Pool, which drops him off downtown around 7:15 a.m. It was one of those mornings when he saw the Montana Hotel and got the idea for Seven Buildings.

“Town is beautiful early in the morning,” he explains. “It’s really quiet and sometimes the light is just perfect. A lot of times I’ll just wander before I head to the office and I always have a camera with me. One day I happened to catch it in the most beautiful light and just shot it. All of a sudden, I was turned on. I figured these are images that need to be captured and preserved and celebrated.”

As he learned more about the ghost signs and the wall dogs’ history, Ferencz started to notice how the dying art form is being swallowed up by images of contemporary society. In each of his photographs there are subtle examples, such as a handicapped parking sign, and not-so-subtle examples, like an enormous satellite dish.

“I wanted there to be a documentary appeal,” he says. “I wanted them to be a capture of the moment, and really nothing more. There’s no Photoshopping, no staging—what was in the photo was in the photo. If there’s a car, there’s a car. If there’s a porn shop next door, there’s a porn shop.”

The result is a commentary packaged as history lesson, and a rare opportunity to honor the work of Missoula’s largely forgotten wall dogs.

“As a graphic designer, I connect with this work because that’s how people produced signage in that time period, that’s what commercial artists did for a living,” says Ferencz. “But it’s also more than that. Those signs are up and people are sandblasting them or painting over them. They may not be there forever. Before they’re completely gone I thought we should have some reminder of how things used to be.”

Seven Buildings, including photography by Ben Ferencz and historical text by Allan Mathews, debuts at Gallery Saintonge on First Friday, April 4, at 5 PM.
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