I wanna be street(sign)wise
February 7, 2011 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Why did they stop posting street signs on the sides of buildings in the U.S.? Everywhere I've been in western Europe, at least anywhere marginally urban, street names are posted on the sides of buildings. In the U.S., though, they're pretty much universally stuck on a post or hung over an intersection on wires. There are still remnants of the side-of-the-building practice throughout NYC, so the switch must have been relatively recent. Why did this happen? Does it have something to do with American conceptions of property rights? NOMBism (Not On My Building)? Legibility for motorists? Any idea?
posted by dixiecupdrinking to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are still remnants of the side-of-the-building practice throughout NYC, so the switch must have been relatively recent.

This doesn't seem accurate. My own understanding (as seen in 19th century engravings and photos) is that both systems co-existed in New York; in Boston, street corner signs were the norm as far back as the 18th century, though there may have been some on-building signs as well. The photos of 19th-century Montreal that I've been looking at intently for the Big Civil War book also show street corner signs.

There's more setback between buildings and thoroughfares in most North American cities than there is in London or Paris or Amsterdam, especially in the 19th century, which seems like the most parsimonious explanation--on-building signs generally wouldn't work as well in most neighborhoods.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:20 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

While not necessarily the reason, it isn't all that uncommon for street names to change and it's a lot harder to change an engraving on a building than an intersection street name sign. The 208 S. Wells Building. at Quincy and Wells in downtown Chicago is engraved with "Fifth Ave." on the Wells St. side.
posted by hwyengr at 5:24 PM on February 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

My sense of this is that it has to do with motorist legibility; there seem to be more such on-buliding signs in pedestrian-heavy areas. (However, this may be that pedestrian-heavy areas tend to be older and these signs are hold. Correlation is not causation!)
posted by madcaptenor at 5:25 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd also note that the Supreme Court case establishing that any physical "occupation" of an owner's property is a "taking" for purposes of the 5th Amendment was decided in 1982--which strikes me as being far after this change took place. I was living in NYC in 1981, and it's not like there was street signs on buildings then. I'm with Sidhedevil.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:26 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Aside from any property rights (which i imagine are relevant), American cities are highly likely to have building that are set well back from the street; having signs on the buildings would make them illegible from a car and for many pedestrians. Putting some signs on buildings and some signs on posts would mean that people wouldn't know where to look.
posted by Kololo at 5:26 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I suspect it has a lot to do with legibility. On a post (large or small) it is quite easy to see the street without having to crane, squint, or take your eyes off the road (it is also consistent, so you can glance to where you expect the sign to be and normally see it).

When it is on the building, it is written in whatever font they wanted to write it in, at whatever location they wanted to write it in, and may not even be lit at night. Further, as kololo said, the US tends to have larger sidewalks and a larger distance between road and building (some places in Europe, the building is so close to the road that there wouldn't even be room for a sign, even if they wanted one).

Also, signs can indicated directionality (oh, Maple St. goes this way and Oak Ave. goes that way) where writing on buildings (which is invariably on a corner) can make it unclear as to which road it is actually labeling. Compounding the corner thing with the font and location thing above means that a driver driving through at 30 mph has to do a lot of non-traffic facing looking, finding, and reading.
posted by milqman at 5:58 PM on February 7, 2011

I just don't think it was ever the norm in the cities of the US or CAN the way it is in, say, London, so I don't think there was a "time when it stopped"--I don't think it ever really caught on here, even in the 19th century when passersby were moving at the speed of foot or horse.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:04 PM on February 7, 2011

You might be interested in the discussion at Forgotten New York
posted by DanSachs at 6:21 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I could be wrong, but my impression was that it was always the architect's choice to do that, not the municipality saying "you must do this". So if it is a big, stone facade, right at the corner of State and Madison, it probably will have it. A gleaming steel and glass building, or a Wallgreens? Not so much.
posted by gjc at 6:47 PM on February 7, 2011

...the discussion at Forgotten Signs.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:47 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

In (downtown) S.F., street names are molded into the sidewalk curbs for pedestrians. You just have to look down at your feet to figure out what street you're about to cross. Street signs on buildings, as well as engravings built into the building are rare. But here's an example of both! Sadly, it doesn't earn the trifecta, but that pedestrian cutout looks like it's due for repair soon so keep your fingers crossed!
posted by clorox at 7:10 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is a fantastic article on the evolution of NYC street signs with great photos over at Forgotten NY. They say it was common practice in the 19th Century for street names to chiseled onto the buildings. These are still visible in a few places.
posted by EvilPRGuy at 7:51 PM on February 7, 2011

I lived in Berlin for a year, and street signs like this are very common.

In Oxford, England, where I spend my summers, signs tend to be on low walls or posts next to the road, like this or this.

I think it depends on the layout of the streets. If buildings are right up against the street/sidewalk, the signs tend to be on them. If there's a significant setback, especially with yards, the signs are on posts or otherwise next to the street. The former tends to be the case in older cities; the latter in cities that date from the 19th and 20th centuries.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:35 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Occam's Razor explanation: People do a lot of driving in the US. They need to be able to consistently read the signs, and this should take up a very small percentage of their attention. Signs put on corner buildings would inevitably be more haphazard and tucked-away than street signs. Not every corner even has a building to put a sign on (for instance, if an old corner building is being demolished).

I'd also bet it has something to do with property rights. Notwithstanding Admiral Haddock's point about the 1982 Supreme Court decision, the Takings Clause of the Constitution existed before 1982. People were free to interpret that clause and be influenced by it before the Supreme Court settled the matter. The 2nd Amendment wasn't authoritatively interpreted until 2008, but you wouldn't deny that that influenced people's views on guns before 2008, would you?
posted by John Cohen at 9:06 PM on February 7, 2011

They say it was common practice in the 19th Century for street names to chiseled onto the buildings. These are still visible in a few places.

That was by the choice of the building owner, not done by the municipality. Compare the street signs in London, which are created by the municipality and attached to buildings. Not the same thing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:11 PM on February 7, 2011

New Orleans' French Quarter uses both posted signs as well as on-building signs. And the on-building signs are actually relatively new -- I believe they were added in correlation with the 1984 World's Fair or some other major event or anniversary, because they are all accompanied by a boilerplate historical placard with the colonial name of the street. In contrast, the posted signs are typically affixed to gas lamps which at least suggests that the custom is older than the modern purpose-built steel posts. Though it's just as possible that that is a recent custom as well. New Orleans is weird.

Quite a few intersections in older parts of New Orleans also use tiles recessed into the sidewalk at the intersection to denote which street is which. These date at least from a time where poured concrete was used rather than slate or stone to pave sidewalks. I'm not sure how far back this tradition goes, though it's fairly pragmatic - the tiles are hard to steal, and bad weather won't knock them down.

To this day, posted street signs are spotty (and not entirely standardized) throughout New Orleans.
posted by Sara C. at 10:22 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, John, I would deny that vehemently. Thanks for asking.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:44 AM on February 8, 2011

Originally in the US signs were on the sides of buildings because they were put there by the owners. Businesses wanted customers unfamiliar with the neighborhood to be able to find their store and without street signs it wasn't easy.

In the late 19th and early 20th century as cities grew bigger, there was a push to have uniformity and to have the local government in charge of that uniformity. Cities started putting street signs on posts because you couldn't put signs in the same place on different buildings. Also with the rapid growth of many American cities, new buildings were popping up on street corners faster than signs could be changed.

Some cities created a uniform system after a major revision of street names and addresses. Milwaukee revised their address system and changed many street names throughout the city in 1930. This was a huge push towards uniformity and the consistent location of street signs were part of that effort.
posted by JJ86 at 6:37 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interesting answers, guys! Thanks for the background. Your opinions were pretty much what I'd figured (practical issues of legibility and urban layout not making the building ones useful, and maybe some element of American uppityness about guvmint signs on my property), though it sounds like maybe there isn't a single authoritative reason. Sidhedevil, that is interesting that the types of signs coexisted in NYC and especially the photographic evidence. And the comparative cities stuff is fascinating, with regard to New Orleans etc.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 2:49 PM on February 8, 2011

I suspect the answer really is a matter of applying consistent uniform standards, as part of federal grants and the like.
posted by wilful at 9:47 PM on February 8, 2011

Yeah, the current standards are set by the FHWA in the MUTCD. These standards specify letter height, reflectivity, colors, height above street, etc. This guidance needs to be followed if the municipality seeks federal dollars to pay for replacement. If the city/county/state wants to pay for it themselves then it is just a guide.

Many times a neighborhood or district wants a special look to their signs and will set up a fund to cover the costs of unique signs that don't meet the guidelines. I sincerely doubt that the assumption about signs not being placed on buildings is a result of hatred of government.
posted by JJ86 at 8:29 AM on February 9, 2011

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