We Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost Signs in Chicago

Look around at the architecture in Chicago and you just may cast your eyes upon a specter…but this is nothing too frightening though! Just one of the city’s many ghost signs.

Ghost signs are historic advertisements, usually painted on the sides of buildings, which have been left up for decades. Many of them, perhaps even most, call attention to businesses which no longer exist. They haunt the sidewalls of buildings all over the city. For curious folks, like us at Chicago Detours, they’re irresistible. What was this business? When did they pay to put this ad up? Why does it still exist after all this time? We picked out a few of our favorite ghost signs in Chicago and decided to investigate.

Ferris Wheel Restaurant Ghost Signs Chicago Detours The Loop State Street
A ghost sign for the Ferris Wheel Restaurant hovers over S. State St. Photo by Alex Bean

The Ferris Wheel Restaurant Ghost Sign in The Loop

We’ll start right in the heart of the Loop with a sentimental favorite of Amanda, our Executive Director. A ghost sign for the Ferris Wheel Restaurant can still be spied on the north side of the historic Singer Building. Located across the street from the Palmer House Hotel, the restaurant was reputed to draw in visiting celebrities alongside office workers from the neighborhood. Amanda fondly remembers the pancakes.

The restaurant closed in 2000, and its gloriously old-fashioned ground floor signage, disappeared in 2000. But way up around the 8th or 9th floors one can still spot the restaurant’s ghost sign. What makes this one unique is its wonky lettering. Perhaps it was done personally by the owners as a cost-saving measure? If you’re looking for it, the best spot is at the northwest corner of Monroe and State. Look about a half-block south and across State and you can’t miss it.

Lightner Building Printer's Row South Loop Ghost Signs street Art Chicago Detours
An explosion of ghost signs and street art in the South Loop. Image by Alex Bean.

Ghost Signs and Street Art on Printer’s Row

Printer’s Row, in the South Loop, is a veritable bonanza of both contemporary street art and historic ghost signs. It’s hard to go a block without coming across a wall emblazoned with something eye-catching. I love the mishmash of ghost signs and street art on the Lightner Building on S. Michigan Ave. The eponymous former tenant, the Lightner Publishing Company, put out Hobbies Magazine. A ghost sign for that periodical, as well as other publications by former tenants, brush up against a massive mural completed just last year.

Head south down Michigan Avenue to view these ghost signs. The building sits at the intersection of Michigan and 11th Street. You can’t miss the ghost signs if you’re approaching from the north. There’s even a parking lot that you can duck into to take a bunch of photos.

Belair Hotel Ghost signs Lakeview Lincoln Park Chicago Detours
A ghost sign for the vanished Belair Hotel in Lakeview. Photo by Alex Bean

Former Hotels in Lincoln Park and Lakeview

I first became fascinated with ghost signs because one appeared on my own block in Lincoln Park. Last summer, a neighborhood grocery store down the street was torn down and revealed a long-hidden ghost sign. The sign advertised the Ambassador Hotel, which is the original name for the building at Diversey and Pine Grove. The grocery store was constructed next door in 1927, which is likely when the sign was covered up. The sign hid behind a masonry wall for nearly 90 years before being rediscovered. Sadly, the Ambassador Hotel’s ghost sign was quickly painted over in anticipation of new construction.

However, another hotel’s ghost sign is just a block away. The Belair Hotel, at 424 W. Diversey, was a single-room occupancy hotel, also in Lincoln Park. These hotels mainly served single men who were new to the city in the 1920 and looking for new jobs. For decades, they were clean, convenient, and hip places to live.

With the downfall of cities, these historic hotels became slumlord-style places. Many of the people who lived in these so-called transient hotels had bad credit who couldn’t otherwise get a permanent apartment or steady job. As you might expect, spots like the Belair Hotel often got a seedy reputation as SROs. The hotel only closed in 2011, making it one of the last remnants of the old working-class Lincoln Park to fall to gentrification (brought about by people like me, to be honest).

To spot the ghost sign, head to the corner of Diversey and Sheridan. You’ll see the sign tattooed on the eastern side of the old hotel building. The best vantage point is from the sidewalk below.

You can find a multitude of other ghost signs in Chicago. Hit the streets and let us know which are your favorites! You can always share with us via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

-Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on pinterest
Pinterest
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn

be a
curious
person!

SIGN UP FOR OCCASIONAL UPDATES FROM CHICAGO DETOURS.

Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
Robert
GetYourGuide

Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
Heather
TripAdvisor

Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
Lorit
TripAdvisor

Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K
TripAdvisor

Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K
Yelp

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F
Yelp

Book a virtual tour

Fill in your details below