Signs of art, possibility and wayfinding

If you are up for a lively discussion or a good argument in Savannah, civic engagement can provide the agenda.

My favorite is the Historic District Board of Review. I grew to love it when Mills Lane IV served on it. He knew his subject, did his homework and doggedly questioned petitioners. While the discussions can delve into mind-numbing detail, it is one of the best places to learn about architecture in Savannah without paying tuition, especially if you walk across the historic district going and coming.

Signs drew me to the board’s July meeting. I was curious how the discussion would go on the request to keep a Panhandle Slim (Scott Stanton) painting on a wall on Habersham Street in the Landmark Historic District. It was listed as an application for a mural.

Painting by Panhandle Slim hanging on the side of the house at 611 Habersham Street

The board members were torn: technically it isn’t a mural. The painting is on wood attached to an 1886 wall. It could be removed anytime. But homeowner Paul Suszynski was asking for permission to leave up the painting and words of Nina Simone rather than asking permission to put it up. Board members do not like after-the-fact requests although some are fans of Panhandle Slim’s Walls of Hope that have added inspirational words and portraits to buildings around town.

Stanton talked about the importance of Simone’s lyrics to the history of the country, state and city. Simone sang “Sunday in Savannah” soon after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Several board members agreed with the relevance of the board preserving that kind of history and public art.

“Art introduces itself into an environment,” board member Dwayne Stephens said.
Board member Mic Matson said the Simone sign made her smile. But photographer and neighbor Tim Coy, who had complied with a city demand to put the s-shaped shutter dogs to hold open his window coverings, was not smiling. Historic Preservation and Urban Planning Director Ellen Harris and Historic Savannah Foundation CEO Daniel Carey also expressed mixed feelings but could not justify the art as visually compatible with the historic buildings.
In the end, temporary inspiration won out, and the sign was preserved at least long enough to go to the Historic Site and Monument Commission for evaluation in August.

As the board members closed in on their seventh hour of deliberations on a multitude of projects, not counting the pre-meeting briefing, the sign master plan for Plant Riverside on West River Street was on the agenda. Architect Christian Sottile talked about the types of signs they would like to use in the massive project – banners, painted signs, freestanding signs, above-parapet signs – eight types of signs, four requiring variances. Plant Riverside could become its own sign district as is the City Market area.

I was happy to hear about the possibility of painted signs, currently not allowed to be directly painted on masonry although ghost signs appear from the past throughout the district. Painted signs add a vibrant touch of information.

Sign commissioned by Mills Lane IV announcing the construction of a new Greek Revival-style house on the southwest trust lot of Chatham Square

Mills Lane IV commissioned hand-painted signs to post in front of his classically inspired infill buildings and restorations as they were under construction in the historic district. The signs made a statement about what was coming. They were unique, hand-crafted, and illustrative of possibilities for Savannah.

Flint North, owner of Speedi Sign, was with Banana Graphics in the 1990s when Mills requested those signs. Flint worked from renderings and blueprints. Mills would walk by the office to check on progress.

“I would tell him I would be finished by so and so, and he would come by, and I would be half finished,” Flint said. “I remember painting those individual bricks” on the sign for the Greek Revival house on Chatham Square.

Flint said that Mills “liked the feeling of the layering. It would take about a month to do one. Now nobody can wait a month for a sign.” As a shop owner whose work today is mostly digital, Flint spoke with pride of the craftsmanship and collaboration of the painted signs. “Mills wasn’t doing it like a contractor. It was his project. The sign was a part of the building.”

When restoring the exterior of the little Gothic church on Troup Square, Mills asked for something different.

Sign heralding Mills Lane’s exterior restoration of the Unitarian Meeting House on Troup Square

“He wanted the background of the Unitarian Church to be kind of ominous,” Flint said with a grin, and he took extra care “to get the patina on the roof.”

After the review board meeting I walked under the Zunzi’s lightning bolt and curved letters to order a sandwich and wait at an outside table, taking in the architectural features of the 1889 Chatham County Courthouse and shapes of the raised masonry letters of the old courthouse sign.

Also across Drayton Street, a door sign, window signs and neon announced the home of a tattoo parlor.

Sottile had described some signs as providing identity and wayfinding. Even in the Landmark Historic District, Savannah finds multiple methods to mark the windows and ways.

Mills Lane IV, Panhandle Slim, the minds behind Plant Riverside and the volunteers who wear out chairs making city decisions have all had aspirations for Savannah. Sometimes the signs are good.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.


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