Sunday, May 4, 2003

Collector gathers signs of our times


Advertising as pop art his job and passion

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

"Space," Tod Swormstedt is saying. He looks almost blue because of the long neon tube flickering in his face.

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Tod Swormstedt with some of the larger signs in his collection.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
The space he refers to is for the more than 180 signs, most of them neon, that are scattered throughout two Cincinnati warehouses. Soon the collection will be on display at the American Sign Museum.

Swormstedt is founder, director, curator, caretaker, fund-raiser, marketing department, janitor, fix-it man and CEO of the museum - the nation's first devoted to signs from around the country. It opens in spring 2004 on Essex Avenue in Walnut Hills, the neighborhood he calls home.

Uh, why a sign museum?

"I view signs as pop art. They chronicle our culture. And they're important pieces of folk art. And I'm not alone in saying that. There was a project in Los Angeles recently to restore a whole strip of signs to their original look. And in Arizona along a stretch of Route 66, they're also restoring all the signs to original condition."

Swormstedt's not interested in minor signs like those marking exits or restrooms. No, his interest is in huge signature advertising signs such as Holiday Inn motel signs, galloping Big Boys and grinning Col. Sanders. His collection includes a gigantic, weird Sputnik-like thing with spikes and cars running around Saturnesque rings that advertised an Earl Scheib auto paint shop in Los Angeles. There is also an early incarnation of McDonald's Golden Arches from Kansas with a fleet-footed Speedy McDonald running between the arches ($6,000 to buy; $10,000 to restore).

See why he needs space?

Right now he's sitting in the neon glow of the downtown basement that serves as one of his warehouses. The blue tint to his face and ponytail radiates from a GE appliance store sign.

Moving a bit, he takes on a rosy glow, thanks to a large red neon shoe from a long-forgotten shoe repair shop. A few more steps and the tint goes ghostly white in the glare of an early-1900s Cole Batteries sign.

Family in the business

Swomstedt, 49, comes by his sign passion naturally. Since 1913 his family has owned ST Media, publisher of Sign of the Times magazine, the bible of the sign making industry, and five other magazines. His dad and grandfather worked there. His brother and two cousins still do.

So does Swormstedt, in a sense. The company pays his salary even though he's full time on the museum, working out of ST's basement. And do believe him when he says full time.

When he's in Cincinnati, he's doing things like this: Working the phones calling all over the country looking for signs. Calling corporations looking for money. Calling neon tube manufacturers placing orders. Calling restoration outfits, getting signs spiffed up. Crawling around basements, attics and rafters, looking for more display material.

When not in Cincinnati, he hooks a 10-foot trailer to his Toyota Tundra and does things like this: "I just got back from a 12-day road trip looking at signs. I went from Cincinnati to Buffalo to Utica to Albany, then Hoboken and Patterson and back to Albany, then Bristol (Conn.), Boston, Waterville (Maine), back to Boston, Providence and home. Those are the kind of trips I take. I've put 65,000 miles on my truck in the last two years."

Profitable trip? "It was. I found an original Howard Johnson sign. A guy had it in his garage. I've been looking because HoJo is one of the three icons of the sign world. The other two are Holiday Inn and McDonalds. Some people would argue that the Mail Pouch barns are one, too."

There'll be no barn sides in Swormstedt's museum - "I'd love to disassemble one, number it and bring it here, but I don't think it's feasible" - but just about everything else in the sign world will be represented. Signs for gas stations, restaurants, bars, fast food joints, dairies, drug stores, liquor brands (his Golden Wedding liquor sign from the '30s is a hoot), games, mom and pop groceries, the works.

Not all of them will be in the 4,000 square feet he has leased. Some, because of their size, will be in the parking lot, others on the roof. Even with the roof and parking lot, he'll still have to store some signs until he can buy or build his 21,000 square foot dream facility.

For now, his attention is on getting Essex open.

"The idea is Signs on Main Street," Swormstedt says. "In the center portion we'll build storefronts to display the signs. It will begin with a 1920s gas station, then progress to '20s and '30s architecture on a cafe, clothing store, '30s drug store. Turn the corner and you're into the '40s. Another and it's the '50s and '60s.

Some won't be rehabbed

Some signs will be restored to mint condition. Others will be left as is. "My theory is, when in doubt, don't. We'll replace or rebend the neon and rewire if necessary, but unless they're really battered, I want them as they are."

One of the signs, a double-faced blue neon GE appliance sign, will be restored on one side and left au natural on the other - so people can see what it was supposed to look like, and how time took its toll.

Signs on Main Street will be the heart of the museum, but Swormstedt has other features planned. A bone yard of signs waiting to be restored will line a wall.

And the one thing he wants that he doesn't have? "A theater marquee. I tried to buy the entire fa┴ade of the Empire Theater, but you know what happened there. And now, all of a sudden, it's gone.

He says that the planning, the road trips and the cleaning up of signs has been the fun part. Now the tough work begins. "That's fund-raising," he says. "Luckily because of my work with the magazine I have a million contacts."

ST Media ponied up a million bucks. Gemini Corp., a Minnesota product manufacturer that makes plastic letters for signs, came through with $250,000.

"Through all this planning and development, the one thing that hit me in the face is how collectible signs are. Go to eBay and punch in porcelain neon. You won't believe the prices. That's good and bad for me. It's good, because it shows what an interest there is. It's bad, because it's driving prices up.

"Doesn't matter, though. I'm still shopping."

Tod Swormstedt's museum is a year away but he's happy to open his warehouse for tours and a museum preview by appointment. Call 300-5809 or e-mail tod@signmuseum.org.

E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com




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