All Signs Point to a Bright Future

The American Sign Museum has become a pop culture phenomenon. Now the organization is in the home stretch of a $5.5 million project that will expand its Camp Washington footprint in ways that honor the past and look toward tomorrow.
Tod Swarmstedt and Cynthia Kearns are leading efforts to expand the American Sign Museum’s capacity to display its trademark neon signs as well as other historical signage.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

It’s likely that everyone who was there, as well as plenty who weren’t but heard about it later, thinks Signmaker’s Circus: A Decade of Camp at American Sign Museum was Cincinnati’s best party of 2022.

On a warm Saturday night in June, the museum temporarily opened a 19,000-square-foot space known as the annex. It’s usually off-limits, closed off from the well-visited “Main Street” exhibition space by a large metal garage door.

To accommodate the party’s circus-like theme, the annex became a glittering showplace of usually-in-storage vintage commercial signs, some welded into place along metal trusses and support beams in the 28-foot-high wooden ceiling. Signs emblazoned with multicolored neon or bulb lights conjured the past glory of such places as East End Café (“Stag Only”), Wilson Motors, Damm Theatre (“Talkies”), Pioneer Bar, Norman’s (“Everything In”) Glass, and Robby’s Liquor Nite Club. Prominent on a wall at the end of this mammoth room was a single illuminated word in elegantly flowing script: Pops! It used to serve as a backdrop for Cincinnati Pops concerts.

Performers used a temporary stage to show off their physiques, acrobatic skills, and talents. Many in the audience of about 550 were colorfully outfitted to celebrate the museum’s 10th anniversary of being in and adaptively reusing its Camp Washington home on Monmouth Avenue, a once-industrial site from 1907. Under the leadership of founder Tod Swormstedt, it’s developed a wide following by displaying and telling the history of commercial signage of all types, especially the mesmerizing, hand-made, bent-glass neon signs so iconic today.

Already in the works, but not yet announced at the June party, were plans for a public campaign to raise $5.5 million to expand the museum to 40,000 square feet of visitor-accessible space by renovating the annex. The circus was a test run.

“This museum is different things to different people. It’s pop culture. It’s a memory lane for people who see a sign that reminds them of a first kiss in a drive-in. It’s historic preservation. And it’s also about design and car culture.”

Swormstedt first established the American Sign Museum in 1999, and five years later he opened a leased exhibition space at Essex Studios in Walnut Hills. That layout proved insufficient, so the 2012 move to Camp Washington expanded into 20,000 square feet of space. The public responded to the new site as well as its outdoor boneyard (a resting place for old signs) and hand-painted murals on exterior walls.

Attendance climbed 106 percent and revenue increased 91 percent between 2013 and 2019. In December 2022, the museum was on track to reach a record 50,000 visitors; about 45 percent were from outside the Cincinnati region. A 501(c)3 nonprofit with a staff of nine and a board of trustees, the organization has plans to hire a full-time curator of collections and programming in 2023. It also keeps getting lots of national attention—in 2022, USA Today ranked it the 10th best pop culture museum in the U.S.

Beyond all of the early neon signs from such icons as McDonald’s and Howard Johnson’s Ice Cream (“28 flavors!”), there is vintage material like sign-painter kits, lettering guides, gold-leaf hand-painted signs, a timeline of dimensional lettering, and painted showcards promoting old John Wayne movies as well as nightclub appearances by once-adored singers and comedians Tiny Tim, Totie Fields, and Charo. (Actually, Charo is still popular.) Some of it is as visually compelling as any neon sign.

On display in a Main Street window, for instance, is a 3D architectural diorama of an urban street scene by the influential designer and outdoor advertising enthusiast Douglas Leigh. It features hand-painted human figures and storefronts as well as scale model Railway Express Agency package delivery trucks on the miniature street. Creating such a scene was how Leigh would pitch a client—in this case, he was trying to get Railway Express to sell advertising space on the sides of its trucks.

“This museum is different things to different people,” says Swormstedt. “It’s pop culture. It’s a memory lane for people who see a sign that reminds them of a first kiss in a drive-in. It’s historic preservation. And it’s also about design and car culture.”

Announcement of the Sign Museum’s expansion came several months after the circus, on an October evening before a group of about 70 supporters. Cynthia Kearns, hired in 2019 to manage the expansion campaign and named the museum’s third director in 2021, revealed the news in the Camp Washington event space. She picked a dramatic backdrop for photos, an easy thing to do since they’re plentiful at the museum—a mural-length Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco sign and the vertical wooden barn slats on which the advertising message had originally been painted. Swormstedt had rescued them from a deteriorating barn in Lanesville, Indiana, in 2006.

By the time of the October announcement, some 76 percent of the $5.5 million goal had already been quietly raised. The state of Ohio earmarked $750,000 from its capital budget, the Swormstedt family committed $1.6 million (and got naming rights for the museum’s expanded portion), and major “leadership” gifts came from the Haile Foundation, the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry, and the sign company Gemini.

Additions to the museum’s footprint will include a library for the study of signs, a workspace for artists-in-residence and other makers, a locally themed outdoor boneyard bordering the building’s long Monmouth Avenue frontage, space to introduce temporary exhibitions (Swormstedt would like the first show to feature West Coast neon signs), and a doubling of the permanent Main Street exhibition space by extending it into the annex.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

The expansion’s first phase is almost done; the second may well be finished by year-end. Perhaps the whole thing would have been completed by now except for the unplanned impact of the pandemic in March 2020, which created hardships because of the necessary cancellation of private rentals and related staff cutbacks. But it also provided time for leadership to define what else it wanted the museum to be, looking beyond event rentals and the stories of old signs and related historic paraphernalia. “We also want to talk about the people behind the signs and explore the difference between the industry and the individuals who do a craft,” says Kearns. “When is this a trade, and when is it an art form? That’s what on the surface now during a visit.”

There will also be space to allow the museum to experiment, which could open up possibilities for radical change. “We do history very well and explain the history in a way people can understand, because it has a linearity to it and an immersive experience that many people really appreciate,” says Randy Smith, a museum trustee who leads a new programming committee. “What we don’t do as well is talk about today and into the future. So part of what we want to do is create a space where people can experiment. We’ve carved out some room that maybe will be available to an artist-in-residence who’s trying a new technique in digital signage, or it could be used for something with interactive signage. Things that are participatory and really push the limits of technology will be interesting to visitors and younger guests.”

The Sign Museum already rents space to NeonWorks, a commercial neon shop that visitors can see into from a distance. “We want to look slightly into the future instead of always being focused on the past,” Smith says.

Everyone agrees one goal is to be able to display more objects and publications from the permanent collection, since there are currently some 3,300 in storage, says Kearns. Examples of recent major acquisitions that may be able to be displayed after the expansion include:

In July 2022, Swormstedt worked with Clifton Heights groups to save a lookout-tower-shaped yellow metal sign spelling out, in shaky green paint with a white outline, “The Mad Frog.” The building was being demolished. “We want to get off the top layer of paint because underneath it could say ‘Corry’s,’ which back in the day had H. Bomb Ferguson [the popular wig-wearing Cincinnati blues and soul singer who died in 2006] and others playing music there,” says Swormstedt. “It would be really cool to have the resurrected Corry’s sign. That’s one a lot of people can relate to.”

Swormstedt went to Chicago recently after a sign-painter there discovered “ghost” hand-painted signs on the wood of a century-old building. The structure was being prepared for demolition and a layer of siding had been removed, revealing the long-hidden signs. Swormstedt carefully removed one sign advertising Ward Bread, which was owned by the family that later made Wonder Bread and Hostess Twinkies.

The museum is currently storing a neon sign with so many devoted fans in New York City that some even made a short film about it. It’s from the Palomba Academy of Music in the Bronx and has two segments: The word “Palomba” is tilted upward like a ramp, while the rest of the name is horizontal. The museum acquired it along with its bright red porcelain enamel backing in 2020, after the owner shut down the business.

The museum received a large triangular marquee in 2021 from the Ioka Theater in downtown Exeter, New Hampshire, along with the individual oversized letters spelling “IOKA” that sat atop it. Because messages can be placed on the marquee using changeable letters, Swormstedt says the plan is to use it to promote events in the renovated annex.

Up to this point, and probably as long as he wants it that way, Swormstedt, 69, will be the Sign Museum’s driving force and public face—a distinctive one, given that his hair is kept in a ponytail and his beard is thick. He’s aware that others might think of him as a “crazy long-haired guy.”

“It’s a perception that I’m a child of the ’60s, and I have a little bit of attraction to  that,” he says during an interview in a quiet space at the museum where he likes to go to think. Swormstedt can be funny, but also candid, when talking about the challenges of his past. He refers to the museum as his “midlife crisis;” he’s been married twice and currently has a girlfriend. He’s also inspirational and even evangelical when talking about the value of signs and sign-maker culture.

Photograph by Devyn Glista

He was born in 1953 under a very good sign: His family had owned the Cincinnati-based Signs of the Times business magazine since 1914. It has chronicled developments in commercial outdoor signage and “sign-making arts” even longer, since his great-grandfather, H.C. Menefee, had been an editor for the man who launched the magazine in 1906.

Representing the fourth generation of Menefee’s family (one of H.C.’s daughters married a Swormstedt) to join Signs of the Times, he arrived in 1975 as an editorial assistant after receiving a bachelor of arts in English literature from Eckerd College in Florida. “They asked me if I could come and help out because I could write a sentence,” he says. “So I stayed and worked, and then they asked me which magazine I would like to concentrate on. I said Signs of the Times. Probably my thinking was that signage is pretty neat. I always had a respect for tradespeople, craftsmen, design, and art. And this was the epitome of applied graphics and tradespeople like neon tube benders and sign painters—everything I respected was all in the craft or science of making signs.”

Through the decades, Swormstedt climbed the company hierarchy to become the magazine’s editor, and then publisher for all seven magazines in the Signs of the Times media group. But he also became interested in preserving sign-making history.

He wasn’t the first. In 1972, New York artist Rudi Stern opened a gallery called Let There Be Neon and wrote a book that helped spur interest in “lost” urban neon signage. “He came to my uncle and wanted to start a neon museum,” says Swormstedt. “They put together bylaws and had a board, but it never went anywhere. They ran a couple of full-page ads in Signs of the Times looking for old signs, books, and catalogues. Every once in a while somebody would call and say, We’ve got this old sign we want to bring you. And I always got assigned to go to the dock and help them get it off the truck.”

In the early 1990s, when he was working on special projects, Swormstedt asked his uncle whatever came of that effort. “He gave me two boxes of stuff, like letters and pictures and things people had sent in,” he recalls. “Most had never been responded to, and it was now eight to 10 years later. We hired my daughter, who started writing to these people or calling when we had a phone number and saying, Hey, you sent a letter eight years ago. And we found lots of stuff!”

In 1999, he activated the moribund National Signs of the Times Museum. In 2001 he changed the name to American Sign Museum to be a nonprofit separate from the magazine. (The family sold the magazine company in 2021.)

Starting to look for a home for the museum, Swormstedt initially didn’t consider Cincinnati. He discussed and even looked at locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis, but they all fell through. Meanwhile, he went through seed money from his family and collected artifacts. “Finally, I just said, You know, I need to land somewhere and open up to show we’re real and I’m not just crying wolf.”

He brought the museum to Essex Studios because he could afford it and opened on Saturdays and by appointment. It was a former industrial space—Hamilton Tailoring Company once manufactured the famous green jackets of the Masters golf tournament there. Hamilton still has offices in the building, but the rest of the space is available for artists.

In 2007, the Sign Museum bought one-half of its current building for $50,000, according to Hamilton County Auditor records. It also acquired a second parcel, which it had been using for storage and is now the planned expansion space. In 2012, after a $3.5 million campaign, the museum moved to Camp Washington. This building, like Essex Studios, also has a fascinating history related to the manufacture of clothing—it once housed Fashion Frocks, which sold women’s fashions door-to-door and has a current following among mid-century design fans. In 2005, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Oesterlein Machine Company–Fashion Frocks Inc. Complex.

All along, Swormstedt has had a secret weapon in James Weinel, who founded Minnesota-based Gemini Inc. in 1963 to make dimensional letters and logos for the sign industry. Gemini provided an early leadership contribution to the current expansion, and Swormstedt says Weinel gave significant money to the earlier campaign to move to Camp Washington. Weinel also donated $2 million to create two dedicated sign-related positions at UC: the Terence M. Fruth/Gemini Chair of Signage Design and Community Planning in the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, and the James S. Womack/Gemini Chair of Signage and Visual Marketing in the Lindner College of Business.

“We feel terribly obligated to this industry to return to it some of the earnings we’ve made,” says Weinel, now retired but still busy at age 89. “I know my son-in-law is just as obligated, and he’s running the company now and owns it.”

At one point, Weinel was advocating that the University of Cincinnati take over the Sign Museum and operate it as a centerpiece of a Camp Washington-based sign industry education center. “I wanted to make sure the museum had a life beyond the people involved in founding it,” he says. “I saw the university as one of those who could be involved, and they were very, very interested at one time.” But that time passed, both he and Swormstedt say, with the changing of UC administrations.

James Kellaris, the current Gemini chair at UC’s business school, says Weinel has an expansive vision for turning Cincinnati into a sort of sign industry Mecca. “By tying multiple endowed chairs at UC together with the American Sign Museum, he envisions a center for interdisciplinary research and education for parties interested in the design, use, and regulation of signs.”

The American Sign Museum’s growth isn’t an anomaly or outlier in the museum world. All across the U.S., pop culture museums are, well, popping up. Many are music-focused, like the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis. The Vent Haven Museum of ventriloquism in Ft. Mitchell—closed until spring as a new building and other renovations are completed—could also be classified as a pop culture center.

But the interest in historic signs, especially neon, has been gaining on pop music. In 2016, the Museum of Neon Art partnered with Glendale, California, to relocate into buildings owned by the city’s redevelopment agency. The Neon Museum in Las Vegas, founded in 1996 by a city employee charged with figuring out a future for a boneyard filled with historic signs, just celebrated the 10th anniversary of a visitor center adjacent to that space. Philadelphia’s Neon Museum closed in December after two years but is looking for a new home.

There are all sorts of experiments happening in cities big and small related to restoration and re-lighting of existing neon or even recreating famous bygone signs. Tulsa, Oklahoma, for one, recently recreated three old motel signs that once towered on Route 66.

And as the American Sign Museum contributes to national cultural trends, on a smaller level it’s also a boon to Camp Washington. The historically working-class residential and industrial community is reinventing itself to attract artists, makers, small-business entrepreneurs, and visitors seeking them out.

Its 48-year-old nonprofit redevelopment corporation recently changed its name from Camp Washington Community Board to Camp Washington Urban Revitalization Corporation. Executive Director Sidney Nation pronounces its acronym CWURC as “quirk,” which she says is intentional. “It’s known as being the quirky neighborhood of the city.” And how does the Sign Museum fit into her description? “That explains itself. Have you looked at their signs?”

So the museum’s future appears to be bright—literally, in the case of its illuminated signs. But it does have one challenge that could be difficult to resolve. As it becomes increasingly known, it’s inundated with offers of old signs. It’s hard for Swormstedt to say no, Kearns admits. “I’ve probably received four e-mails this past week alone,” she says. “We have people drive up, drop off signs, and drive away. Like bringing home strays, right?”

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