Where to find old commercial
November 12, 2007 10:15 AM   Subscribe

What happens to letters from demolished buildings? What happens to old lettering on commercial buildings in general? Of course, the real question is, can I get my hands on them?

Just occurred to me as I was changing my desktop wallpaper and saw several good looking images I'd snatched off Flickr from people who went on Tobias Frere-Jones' typography tour of New York a few months ago. Wouldn't it be cool to have a few old specimens up on a wall or something? Well, I thought it would.

So, what's the line on something like this? I'm not interested in buying some new letters custom-made, and my budget for the next few years will probably rule this out no matter what the cost. But on the off chance that the market for old signage is small, well, that would be good to know.

I should clarify that I'm not particularly thinking about actual signs or displays or marquees or .... I'm just thinking about actual letters, like so.
posted by electric_counterpoint to Shopping (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Shoot, I screwed up the title to the post — should be "Where to find old commercial letters?" Sorry, RSS subscribers!
posted by electric_counterpoint at 10:16 AM on November 12, 2007

Go to a site and ask someone if you can have them.
posted by C17H19NO3 at 10:24 AM on November 12, 2007

Best answer: You might find letters at places specializing in architectural salvage.
posted by desuetude at 10:28 AM on November 12, 2007

Neato! The best thing to do is ask. Maybe if you asked around at construction/demolition companies? I asked for the number sign from my grandmother's old house before they moved it, and I still have it somewhere.

Or you could always get a ladder and steal them, like these guys did to one of our rival high schools back in the day.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:31 AM on November 12, 2007

Keep an eye on antique stores and ebay, though I suspect that they're usually just tossed.

When Milwaukee tore down the Mecca Convention Center, I tried bribing my poor-Gen Con attending friends to grab me one of the Ms off the building. He didn't, but it did seem like they were just treated like any other building debris.
posted by drezdn at 10:47 AM on November 12, 2007

fandango_matt: okay, that part was facetious. It's pretty obviously a bad idea to steal anything directly off the face of a building and I don't recommend it for a whole slew of legal and safety-related reasons. Sorry for any misunderstanding.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:32 AM on November 12, 2007

Just this last weekend, I came across several examples of just the kinds of letters you're describing. One was in an antique store in New York and I think the flea market across the street also had some. But the market for them isn't small. Every example I came across suggested that it would probably be cheaper to contract a metal working student to craft you look alikes. I wasn't pricing them, but they seemed expensive.

On a side note, over fifteen years ago, some kids in my high school tried to steal a sign from a building by lassoing it and tying the other end of the strong rope to the back of their car. They hit the ignition, and straight out of a comedy, this huge metal letter came flying off the building straight into the back of their car, shattering the glass. No one got hurt (hence the lack of "straight out of a tragedy"), but it is dangerous.
posted by history is a weapon at 12:58 PM on November 12, 2007

We have a place called "Antique and Architectural Circus" here in Buffalo. Seems to be listed under 'Antique dealers' tho I imagine salvage is another heading.
posted by jdfan at 1:24 PM on November 12, 2007

Olde Good Things is architectural salvage.
posted by chelseagirl at 2:22 PM on November 12, 2007

Best answer: Whatever you do, don't follow in Richard Nickel's footsteps.

My parents -- who knew Nickel slightly -- were able to salvage materials from the same building in which Nickel died -- the Chicago Stock Exchange, exterior by Dankmar Adler, interiors by Louis Sullivan. Among them two elevator grilles just like this one that is now displayed at MOMA (one was actually my parents' headboard for years), as well as some metal stanchions and things like that. My parents and two friends had just gone down to the site and talked to one of the construction workers, who sold the stuff to them for "$20 and a pack of gum" which was basically what all four of them had in their pockets.

There was so much anger over the demolition of a major Chicago landmark (before landmarks ordinances) and suspicion surfaced in the papers that Nickel had even been "offed" by the mobbed-up construction industry, who wanted to build new buildings and tear down old ones in lucrative two-fer deals. But nowadays I think few remain who don't accept that he was just in the wrong place when part of the building decided to go.

Anyway, you may luck out on-site. But demolition contracts are generally on the basis that the contractor gets to sell what he can save, and thereby make money over and above the contract. This means that anything "interesting" on-site may already be earmarked for sale to an architectural salvage company. Just be prepared for a flat "no".

They may also tell you "no" for obvious reasons like not wanting you on-site and not wanting their employees wasting time.

Unfortunately, the stuff could be very obscenely marked up if it reaches the salvage market, considering they acquire the stuff for minimal cost. But then they probably bid for it too. I know when my parents finally sold the Sullivan stuff, they got a lot of money, but it was ultimately sold to someone else for at least twice that.
posted by dhartung at 3:34 PM on November 12, 2007

Antique shops / architectural salvage. 3 antique shops within walking distance from here (London, UK) currently have some big letters for sale. I'd rather like to get some myself, if I had the space and a good idea what to do with them.
posted by snarfois at 4:01 PM on November 12, 2007

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