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Signs of past life

By Adam Brandolph
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Look up.

Faded advertisements flake off the sides of exposed brick buildings throughout the city. Remnants of a bygone era, these markers tell the story of our city’s rich history.

From companies like Otto Milk, formerly in the Strip District, to the German National Bank on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, and leisure activities like Penn Bowling Lanes, these reminders preserve a piece of how Pittsburghers used to live.

The ads often are pointed out to people on the public walking tours offered by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, executive director Louise Sturgess said. “These snapshots of history are wonderful,” Sturgess said.

But why do these signs remain after so many years? Even the Cathedral of Learning was cleaned last year.

“These signs remain because some building owners have no reason to remove them and are content to let them age along with the building,” Sturgess said. “The signs bring a layer of Pittsburgh history to life, and once you notice them, they are great conversation pieces, especially when you are with a Pittsburgher who remembers the business or product featured in the sign.”

While some signs are beaten and battered, the ones that grace the sides of Joe Mama’s, Uncle Sam’s and Fuel & Fuddle restaurants on Oakland Avenue in Oakland are comparatively new and shiny.

The sides of the stores feature three vintage-looking wall advertisements for Coca-Cola, despite none of them being more than 15 years-old, according to Michael Hanley, co-owner of all three stores.

Hanley said the themes of the restaurants are kind of old-school, so the handpainted ads make sense. “Coke adds to the timelessness,” he said, “and an older aesthetic helps convey our message.”

Adam Brandolph can be reached at or 412-320-7936

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633