It is a sad fact that modern buildings rarely have the artistic flourishes and details of their forebears. Once buildings were often proudly decorated with eye catching touches, such as elaborate cornices and ornately carved door frames. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, nothing was quite as swish and fancy as a beautifully tiled mosaic entrance. It was the height of fashion and sophistication for shops and swish apartment buildings to display their name in this way, right under your very feet as you walked in.
These store front mosaics were often intricate and colourful. They were intended as an eye catching way for the owner to show they valued fine quality, and aesthetic craftsmanship. They were almost the urban equivalent of a peacock showing his feathers.
As urban redevelopment continues to swallow up much of a city’s past, these old mosaics are increasingly rare, consigned to history almost as much as the famous mosaics of Ancient Rome.
They may be scarce and hard to find, but the old mosaics are almost always beautiful. If you head over to the Instagram account @vintagestorefrontmosaics you will find many, delightful examples!
These artistic mosaics were also a symbol of permanency – the extra effort and money spent on an exquisitely tiled entrance, would showcase that the shop was hopefully going to be there for generations.
Sadly today, that is rarely the case. The lovingly laid out tiles advertising old pharmacies, ice cream parlours, saloons and merchants are now relics of businesses which have long since gone. The old mosaics underfoot belong to the same nostalgic world as ghost signs – those faded old adverts painted onto brick walls, and ghost buildings, the outlined remnants of torn down buildings, still visible on their surviving neighbour’s shared walls.
In a few cases however, the businesses do still exist. Such as Napoleon’s in New Orleans – a treasure of a bar and restaurant in the old French Quarter, which, according to legend, was at the centre of an elaborate plot to rescue Napoleon from exile and bring him to live in the Crescent City. Or Keens Steak House, an historic fixture of Manhattan’s fine dining scene since the 1880s, and whose mosaic showcases their famous pipe club that boasted such illustrious members as Theodore Roosevelt and Albert Einstein.
In Ireland, Liz Hunt has been faithfully keeping an eye out for vintage store front mosaics, which she documents on the Instagram account @IrishGhostSigns. “Quite often I would see interesting mosaics when I would least expect it,” she explained.
“For example traveling on a bus that was stuck in traffic, I could look out the window and see an old mosaic threshold or ghost sign and would make a mental note to photograph it next time I was in the area. Many of these buildings are protected structures but unfortunately, quite a few are not; you might see a beautiful old store front today and in a couple of months it could be destroyed, which is such a shame.”
Quite often, the old mosaics are a treasure trove of fonts, that range from Art Noveau to Art Deco.
For the businesses which have closed or disappeared, they’re a valuable, visual reminder of the past. “They are part of the history of a town or city”, says Liz. “The original building could hold a lot of memories for the older generation. Quite often I will have a conversation with the current owner of the premises, and they will tell me about the origins of the mosaic, so it is interesting.”
The old mosaics are also an interesting commentary on a city’s respect for its past. Lower Manhattan, for example, is the oldest settled part of New York, but the store front mosaics that would have once decorated many of the establishments on the old streets, hardly exist today – most of the old buildings have been torn down several times in the name of development.
Ireland however, is a treasure trove for them. “I think it is because a lot of businesses tend to be family owned in towns and villages,” explains Liz. “So if there is a vintage mosaic associated to the business, it will usually be preserved. Also, there are quite a few heritage towns in Ireland which generally maintain the old look of their town as the tourism industry is very important in Ireland. In Dublin, I have found quite a few in the Grafton St./Georges St./Wicklow St. area, which is on the Southside of Dublin and has a lot of high-end shops some of which are still in operation, so their old mosaics remain.”
Vintage store front mosaics may be increasingly rare, but it is always a delight to find one. “They are works of art,” explains Liz. “A lot of skill and patience went into their creation and I think they should be preserved.”