Meacham Place and Owl Cigars by Kasey Smith



Finally someone left the gate unlocked! That’s a very intriguing Owl Cigar sign overlooking this alley. Wrapping around two sides of 921 Post Street, I’ve had trouble pinpointing where this sign was originally meant to be viewed from. The back side of the sign isn’t visible from Post, isn’t visible from Geary, and is only vaguely visible from Hyde. So where was it meant to be viewed from?

Peekabo, I sorta see you. As shot from Hyde

Peekabo, I sorta see you. As shot from Hyde

Originally I thought it was viewable from Meacham Place – a short public street blocked by a private gate. The internet seems to disagree as to why the street is locked. Some claim it was done illegally by the resident(s), some claim it was done legally by the resident(s), and some claim it was done by the city to protect the PG&E substation. Regardless, the gate is usually locked; except for yesterday when it wasn’t. Despite a last minute case of the nerves/indecisiveness I walked through the open gate, to the end of Meacham Place, and tried to photograph the Owl Cigar sign. No dice. Only the very edge of the sign is visible. This was obviously not the intended vantage point. Which leaves us with two possiblities: The intended view has been blocked by new construction or the sign was designed to be viewed from adjacent multi-story apartment buildings.

The Owl Cigar sign as seen from Meacham Place

The Owl Cigar sign as seen from Meacham Place

So what if the sign was boxed in by new construction? Does this neat and tidy little theory stand up to research and testing? See the map below in which I’ve highlighted the sign on 921 Post street in red and included construction dates for all adjacent structures.

Construction dates of adjacent structures

Construction dates of adjacent structures

921 Post, our building in question, was built in 1919/1920.  According to real estate records, the buildings on Hyde predate 921 Post by three to fourteen years. Hence Hyde, at least from the street level, was not the intended vantage point as there’s been no “new construction” to block the sign. Now, the adjacent buildings along Geary were constructed three to five years after 921 Post but I’m fairly certain Geary wasn’t the intended vantage point either. Why? As shown in the photos below, this portion of Nob Hill starts getting steep and Geary sits considerably beneath Post. Even in front of 822 Geary, the sole single-story building in the area, one cannot see the roof of the mid-block PG&E substation let alone the buildings behind it. While the sign may have been partially visible from Geary pre-construction, it would have been significantly, perhaps entirely, blocked by this substation (built in 1900) and the angle of the hill. Hence I doubt that Geary was the intended vantage point either.

The view from 822 Geary

The view from 822 Geary

Hyde Street between Geary and Post

Hyde Street between Geary and Post

Which only leaves us one option – this Owl Cigar sign was meant to be viewed from adjacent multi-story apartment buildings. Now, this theory is a little harder to prove/disprove; most San Francisco residents aren’t going to let some strange photographer/blogger into their apartment to check out the view. So while I might not be able to prove anything I can still use maps and knowledge about the block to support my theory.

Buildings with potential/partial lines-of-sight

Buildings with potential/partial lines-of-sight

See the map above. As before, I’ve highlighted the Owl Cigar sign on 921 Post in red. The buildings highlighted in green have the distinction of being A) downhill from 921 Post B) being taller than 921 Post and C) being taller than the midblock or intervening buildings . Now, not every unit or every floor of these buildings has an unobstructed view of the sign – but perhaps enough do to warrant it’s existence? Especially since it’s connected to a larger sign with broad, and valuable, street visibility? Given what we’ve proved about visibility from other streets/angles this is the only theory I can really get behind.

TL:DR The Owl Cigar sign on the back of 921 Post was not designed to be viewed from Post, Meacham, Hyde, or Geary  – it was designed to be viewed from the adjacent multi-story apartment buildings.

Ghost Signs of Google Satellite View by Kasey Smith

I’ve used Google Maps extensively during the course of the my Ghost Sign Mapping Project – both as a mapping platform and a research tool. For while I try to keep a written record of where I’ve photographed each sign, sometimes I lose the notebooks or slips of paper or just plain forget to record the information. To fill in these documentation gaps, I’ve turned to a combination of Google Street View and Google Satellite View to Iink signs to buildings to addresses. I’ve chased many, many signs down this mapping rabbit hole and it’s become an invaluable tool in my War Against Disorganized Research (otherwise known as Leave No Sign Behind).

One day, while trying to pinpoint the location of a photograph I’d taken in the Tenderloin, I discovered that one could rotate the viewpoint and observe buildings/blocks/neighborhoods from multiple angles. While fiddling with this feature on Turk Street, I came across this set of signs (as well as an AMAZING rooftop airstream trailer) on 124 Turk Street.



Containing between three and four signs – including an Owl Cigars sign – only the front-facing sign of the sequence is visible from the street. So I started looking at more blocks and then more blocks and then more blocks until I’d collected approximately a dozen signs that are invisible from the street. Viola! Behold the fruits of my satellite enabled research!


How did these signs come to be hidden from public view? Accessible only to immediately adjacent neighbors and those with computer access?

Well, I’d wager that some of these signs were never meant to be viewed from the street. Between the hilly terrain and plethora of tall buildings in the Tenderloin, a sign could be targeted at the view of an adjacent high-value hotel or apartment with little concern for street traffic. Think of it as a proto-targeted ad campaign.

Also, I’d additionally wager that some of these hidden signs are the end result of post-1906 earthquake construction. Leveled by quake and fire, the Tenderloin was reconstructed in fits and starts from 1906 to 1912ish (and in some cases much, much later). Hence a sign that was visible to street traffic in 1907 might have been obscured by new construction as early as 1908 or 1909.

For example: 572 O’ Farrell Street – which contains a MJB Coffee sign on it’s Geary-facing side – was constructed immediately post-quake in 1907. While I’m not sure of the sign’s vintage, I do know the sight lines to Geary weren’t blocked until the construction of 669 Geary in 1922. That means it’s possible the sign enjoyed 15 years worth of high impact visibility – that’s more than enough time to pay off the salaries of the walldogs who painted it.



Have I missed any secret ghost signs only visible through Google Satellite view? Can you get me an up close and personal pic of any of the signs listed on this map? If so, please let me know!

Thwarted By Gates and Rennovations by Kasey Smith

I never managed to get a clear shot of this sign before it was removed. I am not a fan of the locked gate that prevented this...



Actually, the gate was often unlocked, but Comcast vans usually blocked the Nestle sign. My kingdom for some bolt cutters and the ability to hot wire a car and turn back time.

Given the sign’s western-facing direction, that it was considerably less dilapidated than the surrounding corrugated metal, and the modern can shape & pull tab I’m guessing this sign was “fake old” (or at least restored). However, I couldn’t find a lot on this specific ad/campaign so I’m unsure at this point. Still a gorgeous sign with a great retro color scheme. The sign says:

You’ll look better and love it!
Drink Nestle Sweet Success
Health Shake
Creamy Milk Chocolate

The front of the building can be seen  This sign was also removed during renovations.

Until recently, there was a twin Nestle Sweet Success sign above CounterSpace on Mission at 9th. It was effectively obscured by new high rise construction on Jessie Street and then painted over all together.


Temporary Ghost Advertising Zone by Kasey Smith


1018 Mission Street at Sixth Street; a five story SRO dating to 1911 and currently operating under the name Kean Hotel. Clear Channel occasionally removes and updates the billboard on the building’s western wall, temporarily revealing the long-hidden Coca Cola sign underneath. Does this sign remain visible for long? Usually not. The billboard re/deinstallers never remove their scaffolding/platforms and they usually return within a few days to finish the job – and by “finish” I mean install a bigger and better billboard. 

This is actually one of two Coca Cola ghost signs on 1018 Mission Street. The other sign can be seen on the eastern wall facing towards 6th street. Both appear to be of a similar vintage. And what is that vintage? Well, they both feature the iconic “contour bottle” which was adopted in 1916 so they’re definitely no older than that (remember, the building is from 1911). However, it seems that until the mid-30′s a significant portion of Coca Cola’s advertising involved their soda served in a glass with the contour bottle gaining visual dominance somewhere in the late 30′s to late 40′s. So, if I had to make a vague, grasping, quasi-educated guess, I would put these ghost signs at the late 30′s through the late 40′s. Any Coca Cola experts care to further pinpoint the date?

Awkward Paint Job by Kasey Smith





Incomplete paint job is both awkward and incomplete. Above are before-and-after shots of two piano company adverts on the side of 1020 Market Street. Built in 1908, the building recently underwent it’s third graffiti/ghost sign abatement paint job, completely obscuring the C.G. Horn Pianos sign. However, this most recent (and most opaque) paint job frames the Pianos for Rent sign in a really lovely way. If you’re going to paint a third of a building in garish brick orange you might as well kern it to the ghost sign.

Also, I’m very curious about those triangular windows – they don’t exactly match the time period and/or architecture of this building.

Electric Railway & Manufacturers Supply Co by Kasey Smith



Sent to me by a friend – this ghost sign is virtually invisible from street level but can be viewed from various windows facing Stevenson between 2nd and New Montgomery. The Electric Railway and Manufacturers Supply Co was an early 20th century electrical supply company located at 24 2nd Street. Oh look, you can buy a copy of their catalogue here.

I love finding secret signs like this. It makes me feel like I’m somehow “winning” against the ever-changing cityscape and it’s shifting vantage points.

Why? and Why? by Kasey Smith


Same ad campaign. Same vintage. Different sides of the bay. Very different fates.

Founded by Max J. Brandenstein in 1881, the MJB COFFEE WHY? slogan dates to 1910. MJB was one of three major coffee brands founded in San Francisco – the other two being Folgers and Hills Bros.

Washington at 8th, Oakland

Washington at 8th, Oakland


Clay at Powell, San Francisco

You Win Some, You Lose Some – A Signage Progression on Market Street by Kasey Smith

I love how the paint is weeping off this sign. 1576 Market July 2011

I love how the paint is weeping off this sign. 1576 Market July 2011

Built in 1907 and abandoned to the pigeons and homeless in the 1980′s; 1576 Market  Street was demolished in August of 2011. I doubt this double lot hole will sit empty for long. While much of Market Street languishes in functional disuse – it’s proud department stores and theaters of yore having been torn down and segmented into dollar stores and discount clothiers – this lot is eminently buildable with a prime location on the edge of Hayes Valley.

And what should be revealed during the above building demolition but a long-hidden ghost sign on the adjacent building, 1586 Market Street. Eat Carnation Mush, Three Kinds. Rebranded as polenta, mush is essentially dry corn boiled in milk or water. I’m assuming the “three kinds” refers to differing grades of fineness/grind although I could be wrong.

And some info on the brand from their corporate site:

In the late 19th century, Bernhard Albers, a young German immigrant, worked for a Pacific Northwest wholesale grocer, saving money with the goal of going into business for himself. Convinced of the opportunities in Portland, Oregon, he persuaded his four brothers to join him. In 1895, with $15,000, the brothers and another partner formed a milling company. By 1899, the Albers brothers bought out their business associate and formed the Albers Bros. Milling Company, and Alber’s Cornmeal was born.

Over the next 30 years, the Albers Brother’s Milling Company continued to thrive and grow absorbing other mills along the west coast, including Carnation Wheat and Carnation Oats. In 1929, the Carnation Milk Products Company, makers of Carnation Evaporated Milk, purchased the Alber’s Brother’s Milling Company uniting two family owned west coast companies known for their dedication to producing products of the highest quality.

 In 1984, Nestle purchased the Carnation Products Company and the Alber’s brands of Cornmeal and Grits. Over one hundred years after its founding in the Pacific Northwest, Continental Mills, another family owned, Seattle based company, purchased the Alber’s Brands from Nestle. With its roots returned to the Pacific Northwest, as part of the Continental Mills family of brands, Alber’s will continue to provide the highest quality corn meal and grits for generations to come.

Still recognizable on the Albers orange and blue corn meal package is the fresh ear of corn. The Albers grits package remains familiar with its red and blue colors and traditional breakfast plate of grits and eggs.


1586 Market

1586 Market

Worth noting; the above excerpt says the Albers/Carnation branded color scheme is orange and blue but the sign above is orange and green. Does this sign predate that branding/packaging decision or is the coloration the result of unstable paint? It seems unlikely that blue would fade to green but I’m not a color/paint expert. If you are I would love to hear more.

Also worth noting; this building appears to have held TWO Carnation Mush signs. See below where the brick has been painted red? Now look at the seam between the paint and the original brick. Notice the white, orange, and green band? It’s a perfect match to the border on the intact sign.


Here’s a similar sign in the Mission. The Victoria Theatre on 16th and Capp has a refurbished sign for another Albers product – Albers Flapjack Flour “Look for the Miner”. Here’s what the sign/building looked like in 1968. Notice that the That Good 44, 2 for 15¢ sign was not restored and a mural was added in it’s place. Interesting restoration decision.


And in the grand tradition of transitional neighborhoods and progressions in construction, the building cranes have gone up next to the Carnation Mush sign. Its days are numbered so go take pictures of it while you still can.

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