A project that began nearly by happenstance has caught the imagination of heritage buffs and regular Montrealers alike. Around 2007, Matt Soar, an associate professor in the department of communication studies at Concordia University, had become aware of a number of old signs from local Montreal landmarks that were sitting in storage around the city in various states of decay. Each sign had “an incredible story to it,” says Dr. Soar.
Collaborating with Concordia archivist Nancy Marrelli, the two came up with the idea of repairing the signs and displaying them as art installations in the newly renovated building housing the communications studies and journalism department.
After they managed to secure a small internal grant, the Montreal Signs Project was launched. By then, they’d had five signs donated, including those from the well-known Warshaw Supermarket, the Monkland Tavern and Ben’s Restaurant, famous for its smoked meat and celebrity visitors.
“We got tipped off that Ben’s was closing down,” says Dr. Soar. “We went down in the van with some grad students, pulled up to the demolition site and grabbed what we could.”
The project builds on a previous research project he led called Logo Cities. “Some signs need to be recognized as part of our urban history, and they need to be afforded the same kind of attention and the potential for preservation that buildings do,” he says.
When the five signs were unveiled, the event attracted about 200 visitors, including a former maitre d’ at Ben’s Restaurant; members of the Levy family, who used to own Warshaw; and the co-owners of the Monkland Tavern.
Dr. Soar says he continues to collect signs “in a very, very limited way. … We figure in two to three years, we’ll sit down again, look at what we’ve got in storage, and we’ll decide what we should maybe put on the walls as a kind of second stage.”