Ever since putting the book together about Cincinnati’s ghost signs, I’ve been seeing fading advertisements everywhere. Consciously or subconsciously, I’m always keeping an eye out and often come across them while traveling. When I recently stopped in Wheeling, WV, my main plan was to explore the city. I did so, but Wheeling’s hand painted signs are a key component to the urban fabric.
My friend Frank Jump (who wrote Fading Ads of New York City) described Wheeling via Twitter as “an explosion of signs.” His description is damn accurate. These signs are on nearly every block, almost every alley, and seemingly every angle you come at the city from. They keep the city’s history right at the forefront, and combined with a ton of beautiful architecture, they help give Wheeling a distinct, charming character.
Arriving into the city from Pennsylvania via backroads, the first one I came across was in a neighborhood, directly above a more modern sign advertising “Asian Massage.” Once in the downtown proper, like Frank said, Wheeling “explodes.” The first ones I noticed in downtown all advertise the same business on the same structure:
M. Marsh and Sons had opened up shop back in 1840, before West Virginia existed and the city was still part of Virginia. The business produced Marsh Wheeling Cigars, becoming a staple of the tobacco industry. It survived through the creation of a new state and the South’s defeat in the American Civil War. In 1908, the company relocated to the building seen here. The structure is a pretty iconic locally, able to be seen from multiple sides. A perfect advertising opportunity for the business who occupied it.
In addition to several hand painted signs, the building also features illuminated signage atop its roof:
The factory seen here closed in 2001 after Marsh Wheeling was purchased by National Cigar. The building was for sale when these photographs were made in April 2017. You can still buy Marsh Wheeling branded stogies today, although they’re now produced in Indiana.
While these fading advertisements, the building itself, and the once illuminated sign above are physical, local reminders of the city’s industrial history; Marsh Wheeling is an internationally known brand and popular among cigar aficionados while also appearing throughout popular culture.
|- Looking down an alleyway at the Marsh Building.|
A Marsh Wheeling cigar box can be seen in the film The Green Mile (recently selling at a movie prop auction for $600). The brand has also appeared in the movie Jaws as well as the television show Mad Men.
|- Seen from the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, a pair of signs in contrasting states of wear.|
1170 WWVA still exists as an AM radio station based in Wheeling. The station dates back to 1926, increasing the power of its transmitter and reach of its broadcasts over the years. In 1941, the station was approved for 50,000 watts, the highest amount of power granted to AM radio stations by the Federal Communications Commission. The station changed hands under several ownership groups and became known for its news radio format, even broadcasting to overseas troops during the Second World War. Along with the news, the station also aired broadcasts of live country music performances known as Jamboree USA. The country music broadcasts proved so popular that the station eventually adopted a primarily country-western music format in 1965.
After 32 years of focusing on music, the station transitioned to talk news in 1997. Popular conservative radio hosts had their programs picked up by the station as the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck started being transmitted along with local talk shows and the Jamboree. In the early 2000’s, with the station having been acquired by Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia), local talk shows were continually dropped and the Jamboree program moved to rival stations around the area.
These days, WWVA is now a sister station of Cincinnati’s 700 WLW. Both use the nickname of “the big one” and air a lot of identical programming. While the Jamboree still exists on a low-power local radio station, West Virginia's variation of “the big one” is now devoid of most local character, airing the same drivel as almost every other iHeartMedia AM station across the country.
The painted sign overlooking the river is a reminder of the station’s more locally oriented past.
|- A sign reading "Locke Shoe Co."|
|- A covered up sign in the distance on the skyline.|
*millinery are women's hats apparently
|- Looking closely, this building appears to have two advertisements placed on top of each other over the years.|
|- Advertisement for a 3-hour dry cleaning service.|
|- Valuable real estate: located on a main drag and with nothing blocking the view: this building has been the canvas for several signs over time.|
|- If you look closely at the letters in this sign for the Rogers Hotel, you can see how they were also fitted with neon lights.|
Downtown Wheeling features a great collection of beautiful and historic architecture. One of those buildings is the Rogers Fireproof Hotel. Opened in 1914, the owners were once so confident in their fire precautions that they advertised it with a large sign right on the buildings side. They wanted you to know that you could sleep comfortably within their brick walls and have no fears about not waking up because your burned to death. While the attraction of a “fireproof” hotel may seem out of place these days, hotel fires were once a problem in the United States, often providing multiple casualties due to neglect.
The Rogers closed down as a hotel in January 1990 according to this blog. The author of said blog only made two posts back in 2006, but gave a description of what it was like to stay there: 75 rooms, $22/night, double beds, wooden coat racks, furniture from the 60’s, patterned curtains, worn carpet, steam radiators, pastel colored walls, and a bar that “wasn’t elegant,” but was “inexpensive” to spend some time in. While others may not have found a lot of these things as attractions for staying there, that blog's author remembers it fondly.
Since its closure, stories of a potential renovation have come and gone. The most recent time it appeared in the news, the building’s owner was fined $20,000 for code violations, but still believed he could see renovations coming through for a bar/restaurant in the lobby. As of this writing, nothing concrete seems to have come from revitalization talk and some are advocating for its demolition.
The hand painted sign on the side is incredibly similar in style to that of the Dennison Hotel Building in Cincinnati, another former hotel with a ghost sign that’s currently being demolished.
|- The Rogers isn’t the only hotel with a fading advertisements, the nearby Bowers Hotel sign still stands as well.|
|- National Equipment is still in business despite their wall sign still being a bit worn.|
|- The Central Union Building now houses additional offices for WesBanco.|
|- The Wheeling Office Supply Co.’s sign may be worn down, but the “Since 1945” phrase is still accurate: the company still exists.|
As noted in several of the captions seen here: Wheeling has several fading advertisements that, despite what their appearance may imply, the businesses they promote are still active. On the other hand, there’s also plenty of “ghost signs” that were never of the hand painted variety seen so prominently throughout. At the 3-stars-online-average McLure Hotel and Suites downtown, a former sign for the building’s previous branding as a Holiday Inn can be seen. While the former sign was never hand painted, the old Holiday Inn logo stood for so long that it has left a faint remnant:
Wheeling is a place that took me by surprise. I didn't think I'd end up spending so much time there, but it has a captivating character. Ghost signs aside, the city's architecture and atmosphere are attractions in their own right. More on the city itself in a later update. These signs and the history they share deserved their own.
While putting together this series, I cam across the work of Lee Chottiner, a journalist in Wheeling. He's got a great post that catalogs even more of the city's fading ads and has some stellar coverage of the city and things happening there. Check out his website and learn more about Wheeling.