Paint on brick: when you want to advertise for the ages

by Jack Neely

If you're like me, when you see a forgotten sign in faded paint on an old brick wall, you stop and try to read it. There are lots of them, of course, all of them poignant, because they tend to advertise businesses that aren't there anymore. But most of them are too obvious to wonder much about. The ones that interest me are the ones too old to recognize, so foreign they seem like they belong in another city. Some have faded and been painted over with other signs that have also faded, so that now it looks like another language, Gaelic or Cherokee or Viking or something. They can make you feel like you're trespassing in a city of strangers who were here before we were. And, of course, you are.

You can see one from the parking lot on Walnut behind Market Square. Above and below the arched fourth-floor windows, in faded white: PHONOGRAPHS, and a garbled word: DE/RNITURE. And, squeezed in beside the windows, in smaller letters, the address and a familiar command: SHOP HERE AND SAVE. It's on one of the taller buildings on the Square, four stories on the back side. Now, appropriately, it houses Key Antiques.

In the 1920s, furniture stores handled phonographs. This sign apparently dates from that era. The building housed furniture stores under several different names—J.F. Walker, Empire, Housley & Long—until around 1930. Located on the old "spittin' side" of the Square, they wanted to be sure west-side folks knew they sold phonographs. I bet lots of families bought their first one right here.

Nearby, barely around the corner, is one I've wondered about for years because I see it nearly every day, faded but still clearly legible on the Walnut Avenue side of the big turn-of-the-century building on Union that houses Pete's Coffee Shop: UNION MILK & GROCERY. I don't remember the place, and to a modern guy like me it seems like a peculiar name for a business. It seems to say, "You may think we're just a grocery, but look—we have milk, too." Today, a grocery that didn't have milk wouldn't be much of a grocery at all. But it wasn't always that way.

In 1929, the milkman had milk. Groceries had groceries. The city directory shows that Rufus Greenblatt opened the Union Milk & Grocery on this corner that year. Others kept it going, under that name, for about 30 years before it closed—probably some years after the name had begun to seem quaint.

You can see from James White Parkway, high over the Old City: BOARDING & LODGING 112 1/2. It's on south side of the Central Ave. building that houses Tomo Japanese Restaurant. I don't know why travelers won't settle for boarding and lodging anymore, but there it is in big white capitals, almost 19th-century style, the sort of thing you'd expect to see on an urban waterfront decades ago. When this building first featured boarding and lodging, in fact, the Central Avenue Wharf a few blocks away disgorged rivermen seeking whiskey, women, and rooms. This sign faced in their direction.

Run by one Napoleon Ledgerwood—late of Ledgerwood Brothers Saloon across the street—it was operating as a boarding house by 1894, and it was one of the biggest establishments on the Bowery. In those days this was perhaps the most ethnically diverse block in East Tennessee, populated by Jews, Italians, blacks, working-class whites—and it hosted the region's highest concentration of saloons.

By the 1950s, when the phrase "boarding and lodging" had lost all respectability, this was sometimes called the Hotel Alzana. In the 1960s, the roomers were staying long enough to be counted, which makes it an apartment building; it served that purpose well into the '70s. So folks boarded here, in one way or another, for over 80 years. There's no telling how old that sign is.

Nearby, on the side of Sullivan's Saloon, along Jackson, are white-painted letters, partly washed out: Y ICE CREAM CO. / CANDIES / ARMETTO MGR. That Y's the last letter in LIBERTY. That ice-cream store closed about 60 years ago. One puzzle is the spelling of that manager's last name. On the wall, it ends very clearly with an O, and that's how it's spelled in some early city directories, too. However, the family apparently settled on ending the name with a feminine A: Armetta.

The four Sicilian Armetta brothers arrived in Knoxville around 1907—a propitious time for enterprising young businessmen. The year Knoxville voted to close its 100 saloons, confectioners and soft-drink purveyors boomed in this city trying to radically change its habits. Michael Armetta and his brothers ran several confectioneries, all of them in the part of town dominated by Catholic immigrants. In the early '20s he bought Patrick Sullivan's grand old saloon. He ran his ice-cream business here, and moved his family in upstairs. In the late '30s, Armetta experimented with running a restaurant here called Mike's Place; it apparently didn't work out, closed by the mid-'40s. The Armettas moved out of the building, but still owned old Sullivan's Saloon, renting it out to other businesses, as late as the 1960s.

Back down Central, near Commerce (there's still one shred of old Commerce Street left), on the side of a renovated building now used for apartments and offices, is a sign with lettering and slanted exclamation points of a style you see in magazine ads from the 1920s and '30s.

MALT SYRUP / Taste It! Smell It! It's ENTIRELY Different!

I wish I could. To be honest, I'm not even sure what you do with malt syrup. Drink it with your pals at the Saturday night crap game? Or pour it over pancakes? Unfortunately, the name of this malt syrup hasn't survived 60 years of weather.

When you paint words on a brick building, choose them carefully. They may be advertising your product decades after we're all forgotten.