Signs of the Times

Charting Richmond's history through signage at the Valentine.

The wooden placards are battered and worn. Salvaged from a dumpster in the 1960s, the lettering on the boards are fading away to such a degree that smudged writing in a smaller font at the bottom of one of them has yet to be deciphered.

These weathered planks, used in the first decade of the 20th century, are all we have of a famous Richmond destination, Murphy’s Hotel, later known as the King Carter Hotel. It was originally established in 1872 as a couple of rooms above an oyster shack, and rebuilt in 1913 into what would become an 11-story city landmark, providing accommodations to the rich and the illustrious: Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, and former President Ulysses S. Grant, among others.

These lettered items are among the wall hangings featured in the Valentine’s “Sign Spotting” exhibit, slated to open May 25, a colorful read-through of city signage that serves as the Richmond history center’s first new exhibit of artifacts since before the pandemic. “We planned to open a sign exhibit in the spring of 2020,” says Christina Vida, the Elise H. Wright curator of general collections. “And that didn’t happen because of COVID. But that exhibit wasn’t going to be this exhibit.”

Vida says that this assemblage represents a slew of fresh holdings. One of the newly collected items will be familiar to longtime Richmonders: the red neon sign for the Robin Inn, which closed last year. It, and the Murphy’s Hotel signs, were both acquired from Carol Loupassi, the wife of the late Manuel Loupassi, the founder of Robin Inn, a 60-year mainstay on North Robinson Street. “Everybody lived on that food for years,” says William Martin, the Valentine’s director. “It’s a sign known by generations of Richmonders.”

As curators and workmen hang artifacts and prepare the presentation in the museum’s Stettinius Community Gallery, Martin says this exhibit traces the city’s history in a different way. “I think you can see the broad use of signs to communicate and promote. We wanted to look deeper into these signs because even one, an Overnite sign, tells the story of a major business focused in Richmond that’s now been lost to time. It’s about forgotten stories and how we tell them.”

He points to a large diamond shaped sign for the Overnite trucking company — now known (after many mergers) as TForce Freight. It began as a Richmond-based business with roots dating to a two-truck operation started during the Great Depression. The company would end up serving 95% of the population of the United States by the mid-1990s with operating revenues of more than one billion dollars. Trucks with Overnite’s bold, blue diamond shaped logo were well known to anyone traveling the highways.

“These trucks have disappeared from the roads but this sign would have been on the side of one of those eighteen-wheelers,” says Vida. “I love how the logo implies speed. It’s got wings.”

Next to that is a stunning hand-painted sign – black with gold gilding –advertising a company selling ground glue, which was a major industry for Richmond at the turn of the 20th century. Above it, a more recent large sign advertises Sam Miller’s Warehouse, a once popular restaurant credited with helping to revitalize Shockoe Slip.

This commercial signage is balanced by more serious items, such as a “Colored” men’s room door rescued from VCU’s renovation of the former Richmond & Chesapeake Bay Railway Depot at West Broad and Laurel streets — you can still see the lettering even after later attempts to paint it over.

Another hand-decorated sign is from a community group called Neighborhoods in Schools, which successfully lobbied for the reversal of Judge Robert Merighe’s 1972 decision requiring the integration of Richmond City Schools with schools in surrounding Henrico and Chesterfield counties. “It was a very persuasive campaign,” Vida says of the striking large yard sign adorned in red, white and blue. “And a key Richmond story.” She points out the large holes on the sides of the sign. “The donor kept it, but turned it over and put holes in it and used it to hold tools.”

“This is old-school media that is still very important to communicating a message,” says Martin, standing next to a sign protesting the 2014 push for a baseball stadium in Shockoe, another successful citizen initiative that marketed itself with signs. “Even today, it’s not all social media.”

Wrapped around the pillars of the gallery are photos of Richmond signage taken during the pandemic, highlighting the languages of Richmond’s Asian restaurants and Latino markets. “Signs were so important at that time because it was a way for people to be aware, and for businesses to communicate,” Vida says.

Richmond actually came late to its own municipal signage, the curator adds. “Street signs were standardized here in 1908, a little bit later than many communities. They were really a way to communicate to people who were coming into the city.”

To illustrate, “Sign Spotting” features signs from both Jefferson Davis Highway and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Richmond’s first street signs were made out of iron by a Mr. S. S. Rosendorf, Vida says. They were adorned with white enamel lettering on a blue background. “He got the contract in May 1908 and by July 1908, had put up 1,000 in the eastern end of the city.” No one knows exactly where the first street sign was placed. she adds. But they were necessary to a growing city.

“Before that, people were just walking around trying to figure out where they were.”

“Sign Spotting” will be on display at the Valentine, 1015 East Clay St., from May 25-May 24, 2024. $10 museum admission. Free admission on Thursdays, and on Saturday, May 27. thevalentine.org.

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