Saturday, October 22, 2011

Downtown Welcome Maps' Amuse-Bouche: History on the Flip Side

You may have noticed a bunch of the new signs have gone up. Naturally, we thought a review of the historic part was in order!

Somewhere we think we read there are eight signs, but we've found only seven. On one side they have a stylized map of downtown. On the other side is a little history lesson with historic photos and captions. The frames are brightly colored and topped with a whimsical icon.

The first thing we noticed is the history's always on the same side, the north-facing side. This means sometimes you can't flip back-n-forth easily between a modern view and an historic view. We wanted the ability to rhyme in time with our eye!

It wasn't long before we realized the city installed the historic photos away from the sun so that part fades more slowly than the map, which presumably will be easier to replace.

But this also means that you might have to squint into the sun to look at them. The maps, of course, are easy to see with your back to the sun. Since they're the main course, and the history the amuse-bouche or dessert, the priority is probably right.

Still, protecting the historic images in this way makes for some goofy views. If they win the pragmatic and preservation test, sometimes they lose the information test.

We'll do one batch today and another batch some other time.*

The General Layout and Plan

The top half of each sign tends to be a large historic photo and caption. This gets varied: the image is sometimes printed full bleed, past the edges; other times the image enjoys generous margins. The bottom half gets broken up in different ways, some more regularly ordered in columns, some a little more random across the "page." Each sheet seems to have a footer. The overall plan is flexible.

The photos vary unevenly. Some are wonderfully detailed at the enlargement. Some are obviously reproduced from newsprint half-tones. Still others are badly jaggy from being enlarged too much. One on the sign at the Reed Opera House is particularly awful.

The idea seems to have been to select historic trivia, much of it related to the location of the sign - though as we will see, this breaks down. There's not an overall interpretation of Salem history or a narrative that links sign to sign. The lack of a master interpretation is ok, but something to pull the viewer and visitor to the next sign might have been nice - a teaser, to create interest. Maybe a sort of scavenger or easter egg hunt?

Strangely, there's nothing about the walking tour on the signs. You'd think the signs would encourage people to stop at Travel Salem or other places for a walking tour brochure. That seems like an unfortunate omission or lack of coordination.

It's not clear, in fact, that the sign placement consistently thinks through the logic of pedestrians, whether walking downtown or driving downtown and then walking. There is, then, a basic tension between places important in 19th century Salem, and places a 21st century Salemite is likely to walk. The signs don't always synchronize the two.


Since the design is flexible, the most consistent element might be the type. Somebody likes the smart fonts of emigre! They're a terrific choice for something intended to bridge old and new, and meant to offer little tastes of amusement, delight, and learning.

The main text font is an excellent choice. Though it looks vaguely antique, it's not antiquarian. But neither is it contemporary.

Indeed, it looks like Mrs Eaves from emigre fonts, a modernized revival of Baskerville. It's a modern update of a classic font from the 18th century, and a lively choice for historical signage. Nothing stuffy here!

Fairplex, also from emigre, appears in the footers and a few middle headlines. Its slightly angled serifs are also terrific. As with Mrs. Eaves, Fairplex suggests an older face, this time a 19th century face, like something on a "wanted" poster in the Wild West - but with that modern twist, again.

Less successful are the upper headers. The ones in Engravers don't quite work for us.

If the Mrs Eaves has a nice vintage air, the Engravers puts on airs. It's fusty and stuffy, monocled and bankerly. Not a good match for the martini olives, dog, eye, hand and other icons.

We wonder if a non-serifed font might have made for a better contrast with the text face and also been somewhat more legible than the Engravers. At the very least something less rigid and more inviting. That's the great thing about Mrs. Eaves: It has this human whimsy and fineness without also being fussy. She wears funny plaids and hats sometimes!

In the pictures you may have also noticed that the "B" in "Buildings that Move" is different from the "H" in "Historic Waterways." The initial capitals vary from sign to sign, and some of the typographic elements don't seem to have been used much in other signs. There was maybe a missed opportunity for a tighter theme-and-variations approach.

In the end it's clear the history trivia is a bit of a throw-away, an ode to serendipity rather than part of a vision or program. It's tasty, but it's only an amuse-bouche to whet your appetite for more.

Here are four signs, and observations nit-picky and not.

Church and Center

For history, of the four this was our favorite. The site of the old high school isn't much known, and this commemorates it nicely. Though when you look at the sign, you are looking across the street at the wrong block. You should be turned around and looking at the Meier & Frank/Macy's parking garage!

(1905 Salem High School, Salem Library Historic Photo Collection)

The other part about the sign's location that might be a little odd is that it's next to the entry to a parking garage and ugly chain link fencing. At the corner are a couple of banks and the shabby Greyhound station is just up the street.

It's not adjacent to a high-traffic pedestrian location, but instead is adjacent to a high traffic auto location! If it is intended to lure people out of their cars, it's too far from the driveway - and to the east, away from major destinations. If it is intended to be seen by people walking around, locating it next to the main Macy's entry on High and Center might have been better. Since there aren't many storefronts on Church in this area - the record store a block away looks like it's closing - and since Center street is busy with cars, the logic of site placement for pedestrians is not clear here.

Church and Ferry

Highlighting the old mills and the significance of the waterways was neat - but the stream of mystery was missing from a map purporting to show the waterways in the 1880s!

On this detail from the 1895 Sanborn map, you can see the mystery waterway along Mill Street, the the northmost arm of a trident at Church Street, where the Pringle, Shelton, and mystery creeks converge.

The map on the sign shows the confluence only of Pringle and Shelton creeks.

It's also directly across the street from First Methodist, surely on the shortlist for most important historic buildings in Salem. It is odd that a sign in this location doesn't acknowledge that in any way.

Still, the placement here, at a sort of gateway from Willamette, the Parkway, and the Bush Park/Gaiety Hill neighborhood makes some sense. People are likely to be walking here.

High and State

Here's where the sign orientation gets tricky. To look at this sign you look south down High Street, but the view in the photo is west down State Street, so you have to turn 90 degrees to the right.

Look closely and you'll see the mystery "bathroom vents" on the old Courthouse grounds! (This photo looks like it's from later in the 1930s, so it muddles rather than clarifies the question of date. Strangely, it's from Mission Mill, and one wonders why they didn't reproduce it on their own blog post, since it's much higher quality than the photo they used.)

And though the headline talks about the theatres, the theatres are to the south. They aren't in the photo!

There's a pretty significant disconnect between text, image, view, and site placement here.

At the same time, by the Courthouse and across from the nascent "restaurant row," it is a good high-traffic walking location. The apparent mandate to orient the photos on the north side does interfere with good information design, however.

Liberty and Commercial

Though the information on this sign is nice, the location is lousy. This is a total location fail!

When you look at the photo, you also look south down Liberty. But the photo shows Commercial! Why didn't they align the location with the photo, either both on Liberty or both on Commercial? Moreover, the view is north up Commercial from the corner at State, rather than an equal view down south from the Corner at Chemeketa. That's complicated: Your orientation is turned around 180 degrees and displaced two blocks south and one block west. It's a knight's move in chess! This sign is too random and general, insufficiently responsive to site.

This matters because right at the mall entry, this is a very good walking location. This is a good site with a mismatched sign.

The brick, reading "Convict Made, 1912, O.S.P." from the Oregon State Penitentiary is a nice detail, though. That's one of our favorite bits, and something completely new to us.

So do you have a favorite sign or observation about them?

* Or maybe not. It's possible another round would just be otiose. If you're curious, they're at the Grand Hotel, Riverfront Park, and the Reed Opera House. So where's that eighth one?


  1. I can answer the mystery about why the WHC didn't use the photo in the blog post. At the time I didn't know we had it! The Willamette Heritage Center has over 200,000 photographic images in their collection. Only about 20% of these are searchable in our electronic database to varying degrees of efficiency. I posted the awful picture I did because it was the one that spurred the conversation about the toilets with the volunteers that were cataloging it. It is nice to have the photo enlarged and to be able to see the tower. Now if I could just think of a good keyword to tag it with so we can find it in the future...

  2. Ah-ha! The ol' digital keyword search bugaboo.