The backs of buildings are sometimes as interesting as the fronts, and in Albany’s case, the backs of the row of quite-old buildings along Broadway are absolutely fascinating for their profusion of ghost signs.
Ghost signs are generally hand-painted signs that adorned our commercial buildings in abundance in the 19th and 20th centuries, and are now faded into various states of visibility. As they fade away, they often reveal other signs that were underneath. They have been recognized as an important part of the urban fabric, so much so that there have been efforts to restore various of them to their earlier condition. Sometimes this is done well, sometimes it’s butchery. Mercifully, the ghost signs on the back of the R.B. Wing building have not been risked or ruined.
R.B. Wing was once one of the city’s oldest businesses. It began as a ship’s chandlery, providing basically anything that a ship might need, in 1845. In a waterfront town in the golden age of water transport, being where the Erie Canal met the Hudson River was not a bad business strategy for a chandler. But as time, and shipping, moved on, Wing adapted and moved into all kinds of construction and industrial supplies. That suited it well, and it lasted until 1996.
We’re not entirely sure when Wing moved to its Broadway location; they were at 62 Quay Street in the 1890s, down past South Ferry Street. In 1914, Albany architect Walter Van Guysling created the extremely distinctive facade, featuring a ship and whales that decorated the front of their location at 384 Broadway. It’s lovely. But today we’re talking about the back.
Liberty Street is one of the more neglected of Albany’s streets, but it is gifted with the more incredible collection of ghost signs in the city, and the rear of the R.B. Wing building is simply covered with them.
At the top, the name of the firm (the son was Charles, by the way). Below that, various lists of the products that were on offer by R.B. Wing: rope and tackle blocks, oils and grease, rope, cable, chain, hose and tarps, mill supplies, power tools, welders’ hoists, asbestos goods, and machine tools.
On the south side of the roofline, even more goods are listed: ice tools, oils and grease, roofing material, canvas covers, leather belting, asbestos goods, rope & tackle blocks, dynamite, batteries, fuzes and caps (blasting caps, that is), engine supplies, paints and rubber goods.
But tucked in among the ghost signs is something of an Easter egg – one of the signs isn’t a ghost sign at all. It’s for a business that is still a going concern, right at that location: John G. Waite Associates, Architects. They’re the ones who did an adaptive reuse of this building. Somewhere in the restoration process, they very cleverly snuck their firm into the signage, as cleverly as if it had always been there: