If this old wall could talk

Canton homeowner seeking exposed brick instead uncovers a sign from the past. But how did it get there?

January 27, 2003|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

There's a story behind the wall in Hilary Jenkins' house, but first a word from its sponsor, because the wall -- before its message was entombed 100 years ago -- did have a sponsor:

CUBANOLA.

Now, on with the story, keeping in mind that, as with any archaeological dig, the mysteries -- both of that word and Jenkins' wall -- will become clearer as the layers of the past are brushed off.

First, go back five years. Jenkins, a furniture maker and woodcarver originally from England, has just bought the rowhouse in Canton. She quickly realizes she can't live with the wallpaper. It has to go, all five thicknesses of it -- one for every generation of owners and renters who have lived there.

Then, a year ago, Jenkins, wanting the exposed brick look, decided the plaster had to come off as well. Choosing a crowbar for the job, she began hacking at the wall in her living room, expecting to soon see red brick.

Instead she hit blue.

And then more blue -- not a calm, subdued kind of blue; more of an electric, aqua blue. "It has a presence," said Jenkins, 36. She was having her doubts about the blue when another whack of the crowbar revealed a patch of bright yellow.

As more plaster fell, the yellow took the shape of a cent sign, about 30 inches high. To the left of it emerged a gigantic "5." Underneath it were more yellow letters, nearly two feet high, running the length of her living room:

"C I G A R," they said.

Back near her stairway, the falling plaster exposed more, even larger letters. These were six feet tall, orange, outlined in black -- rising from the stairway and written at an upward angle: "B," then "A," then an "N" that disappeared into the ceiling.

Originally, Jenkins had just planned to knock off the plaster downstairs. "But by then I couldn't stop," she said. "Curiosity got the better of me."

Taking the crowbar upstairs, Jenkins continued, and so did the word, rising through the floor of her bedroom and climbing the wall: the rest of the "N," then "O," "L" and "A."

There were a few more words under the three-quarter-inch-thick plaster at the top of her stairs, one of which, after being interrupted by a partition, continued into her bedroom. They said:

"All Ha - - na

Filler "

It had taken a week, but after 10 pickup truck loads of plaster were removed and the dust had cleared, Jenkins, with the help of some friends, was able to fill in a couple of blanks and figure out what she had uncovered:

A blue, white, orange, black and yellow, two-story-high, hand-painted advertisement for Cubanola cigars, which cost 5 cents and were made with "all Havana filler."

Such signs were not unusual in the early 1900s. Flour, cigars, Coca-Cola and DeSotos were among hundreds of products advertised on the sides of stores, barns, factories, even the end units of rowhouses.

The sign painters, who roamed both city and countryside, were sometimes known as "wall dogs." The remnants of their work -- long-faded advertisements for often-defunct products -- are sometimes known as "ghost signs."

With its colors protected by a layer of plaster, Jenkins' sign may be the best-preserved "ghost sign" anywhere -- and one of the most mysterious.

Ghost signs are seldom found indoors, primarily because, under most building codes, adjoining structures require two walls between them. Generally, one building's outside wall is not supposed to be the neighboring building's inside wall.

It is stranger yet because rowhouses like Jenkins' -- hers is not an end unit -- were most often built a block at a time, leaving little opportunity for anyone to paint a sign on the side of one before another went up.

There is, though, at least one other case of a building owner uncovering outdoor advertising inside his building. Lee Pambid, an urban planner in South Boston, Va., while rehabbing a 90-year-old downtown building two years ago, began knocking plaster off an upstairs wall.

Once done, one word had clearly emerged, in large orange letters, outlined in black, rising up the wall at an angle:

CUBANOLA.

It's a plant. It's a song. It's a fusion of cultures.

But at one time -- back when Woodrow Wilson's vice president was bemoaning the lack of good ones -- Cubanola was a 5-cent cigar.

Initially, Lee Pambid didn't even know that -- the words "5-cent cigar" are most likely on the first floor brick, behind the wall covering he didn't remove.

"The sign was a surprise to everybody. Nobody remembered it being there," he said. "I guess I just haven't talked to people old enough to remember."

Pambid, as a child, took piano lessons in the building, then known as J.C. Howlett's Piano and Appliance. Later, it became a law office. After its restoration, the first floor became home to a dance studio and Pambid, a 30-year-old Marine reservist whose amphibious assault unit was activated last week, has been living upstairs.

He has named it "The Cubanola Building."

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