Martha Scotford inched her face toward the concrete wall and squinted to better scrutinize the words "Lunch counter."
"Oh boy," she said, as if she had just seen a cockroach scramble across a salami roll.
From a distance, the hand-painted black- and-white signage, on a wall beneath a stairwell and just north of Cuban Revolution restaurant, looks like an advertisement from the 1940s and '50s: Hamburgers are 15 cents, tuna sandwiches, 10.
But Martha, a type sleuth, was not fooled by this tepid attempt at authenticity.
"You see, the background color is not chipped; it's been painted to make it look chipped, and then whitewashed to make it look faded. And you can see the chalk marks"—guidelines for the person painting the letters on the wall.
In other words, someone faked it.
Martha is a professor emeritus in graphic design at N.C. State, specializing in typography, design history, women in design and graphic ephemera. On a late summer morning she agreed to be my urban sherpa to downtown Durham signs.
I had been inspired by On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes, a book by Alexandra Horowitz that explores the unnoticed views of a city. In it, Horowitz is accompanied by several guides, including a naturalist to follow traces of wildlife, a doctor to analyze the gait of pedestrians and a graphic designer to examine the typography of building signs and their cultural context.
The point of the Durham tour was more than a travelogue of two type geeks. As the city transforms from tobacco capital to technology playground, the landscape—buildings, signs, open space—is also changing. Cities and neighborhoods express their personalities—or in the case of the suburban strip mall, the lack thereof—through their signage. The question is how Durham will retain its authenticity while it renews itself.
Martha stopped to admire the lettering on a Pauli Murray mural painted on the side of the 1930s Young Roofing building on Foster Street. Later the TROSA frame and furniture shop, the two-story brick structure is now home to a biotech company.
"Somebody laid this out carefully," she said. "The lettering is controlled, with a single brush stroke, by hand." The material (the brick) and the form (hand painted) "fit as all of a piece. It's very well done."
Down the street, the Durham Armory, rebranded as the Central Civic Center, was built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration. The metal and granite sign, perched above the door, is crisp and clean, a sans serif font. Although the sign is not original to the building, when I stand at the entrance, I expect to be transported back 80 years.
"Look for the idiosyncrasy," Martha said. "The high cross bar of the E."
Yes, that's what it is, the E. I love the E.
Three days prior, Martha had uprooted from the Rockwood neighborhood to a new downtown co-housing community in a very modern building on Hunt Street, near Rigsbee Avenue. "I wanted to move to a place where I could walk downtown and feel excitement," she said, as we rounded the corner toward East Chapel Hill Street.
The idea of co-housing has always scared me, I told her, conjuring visions of Kramer barging into Jerry Seinfeld's living room and rifling through his refrigerator.
"It's not a commune. It's not assisted living. It's not a senior citizens' center," she assured me. The common, shared spaces—a kitchen and dining room for group cooking potlucks, a media room, guest rooms, a garden and a woodworking workshop—complement the private condos, all of which have nice kitchens and balconies. From her perch, Martha can see all the way to the old Liggett & Myers cigarette factory, which is undergoing renovation.
A laundry room, however, proved to be controversial for some residents, the collegiate days of publicly folding underwear long behind them. Ultimately, the communal laundry won. It reduced the cost of the individual condos, and it does force a certain neighborliness.
"That's where you talk to people, while your clothes are drying," Martha said.
We reached The Palms, once a classy restaurant known for its sizzling steaks. It closed in 1982 after 50 years.
On the terrazzo step, "The Palms" appears to be in Metroscript, a font style original to the restaurant's opening in 1932. Martha explained that terrazzo, a small stone and binding mixture, had been poured into the metal outlined letter forms. More terrazzo had been poured for the surrounding slab. It has survived the scuffs of millions of footsteps.
Next door, we became transfixed by the Organic Transit sign. While "RGANI" are from the original business, the "O" and "C" are not, and appear to have been sutured onto new plastic backings.
And "Transit" mismatches new handmade letters that visually collide with the original white plastic ones that are in small capitals.
Because of the lack of trying, the anachronism didn't offend me—or Martha, who was puzzling out the anagram of the original business name.
"What was here before?" she said.
On Parrish Street, we gazed upon the Loaf bakery insignia. I thought it looked like Rue Cler's, but Martha corrected me. Rue Cler is riffing on Paris street signs. Loaf's logo is "hand-drawn and the texture gives it humanity. It's friendly."
Above Loaf is the Carrack Gallery, signified by "C". The letter is built on a slab serif, possibly Memphis font. Red and round like a cherry Life Saver with a bite taken out of it, it's one of my favorite signs in Durham.
At 118 W. Parrish St., Martha noted that the letter forms were dependent on the material—tile reminiscent of the New York subway. (Bull City Arts Collective's logo—each single letter in a circle—tips its hat to more recent subway lines.) "They've cut the tiles to fill in the counters"—the inside of the 8—"It's cute."
We passed 111 E. Main—spelled out one eleven—"otherwise you'd have just 111, a line of boring numbers" and the restaurant Revolution. The thin refined line of the logo screams, or rather, whispers, white tablecloth.
We reached the creme de la creme of letters: The Kress logo crowns the most beautiful building in Durham. The structure is faced with Art Deco terra cotta panels, but the letters for the old department store appear to be from a slightly earlier period, Art Nouveau.
I have always been partial to the K, but Martha was taken by the R.
"Look at the lovely leg of the R, and how it is restricted," Martha said.
We passed DPAC—"The logo is better for a sports arena than a theater. It's a little cool, but it goes with the building," and crossed the tracks to reach the American Tobacco Campus, the pinnacle of new Durham being overlaid onto old.
ATC's wayfinding signs exemplify good urban design—contrasting fonts that mix old and modern, echoing the theme of the district.
Martha spotted the logo for FHI360, mounted on the exterior of Diamondview III on Blackwell Street. "The orange on warm brick presents a problem with color and value," she said. "I can't read it."
"It's so funky. There are three colors—black, gray and orange—and thick and thin strokes, and the 'i' has a rounded top that pushes the dot off. Maybe too many things are happening."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Street views"