Trained as an architect, Martin Treu employs impressive detail in examining transformations in American downtowns, commercial strips, and shopping centers since the mid-nineteenth century. This encyclopedic survey "explores the nature of the signage Americans once put up and now have lost, as well as the architecture that it embellished" (p. 3), and entertains a desire to "see more layers of history permitted to overlap, to be on display simultaneously" (p. 322). Although an impressive bibliographical essay reveals Treu's historical, intellectual, and aesthetic roots, he confronts American commercial landscapes as an open-minded empiricist without a theoretical paradigm. The study is based on his personal observation of thirty cities, and on total immersion in such trade journals as Architectural Record, Chain Store Age, and, most notably, Signs of the Times. His method involves examining everything published about the subject, including works of fiction, celebrated by Treu as the "most vivid glimpses into the [End Page 672] past available to us today" (p. 374). The resulting work exhibits a density and completeness that might be characterized, paraphrasing anthropologist Clifford Geertz, as "thick history."There are no fashionable shortcuts in this exhaustive meditation on commerce and culture in the everyday landscapes of American modernity.
The book has six chronological chapters, each exploring a different stage in commercial signage and architecture. The first traces the appearance of dedicated retail structures in the nineteenth century—buildings whose eclectic architectural style left little space for signs, which therefore spread flush over entire facades and projected outward to engage pedestrians. Treu next focuses on the first two decades of the twentieth century, marked by electric signs spelling out words or forming pictures with incandescent bulbs. Electricity enabled businessmen to promote individual competition with vibrant projecting signs, whose chaos prompted progressive reformers to push for regulation. The third chapter considers the automobile's impact on commercial signs and architecture during the 1920s as new building types, such as gas stations and tourist courts, appeared on the outskirts of towns. Architectural forms no longer served as neutral containers, but instead became signs. During the Depression and World War II, commercial modernism came to retail stores across America. Driven by federal loans funding Main Street modernization projects, signs and storefronts merged in two-dimensional moderne compositions influenced by European graphic artists and promoted by industrial designers touting new technological materials, such as structural glass paneling, glass block, and neon tube lighting.
From the mid-1940s to the mid-'50s, Treu emphasizes conflicting themes: a continuation of competitive modernism, with Main Street facades becoming angular three-dimensional sculptures and businesses on the strip sprouting stand-alone pylon signs; and the assertion of overarching visual control through aluminum "slipcovering" of older Main Street facades and the construction of coherently designed and regulated suburban shopping centers. Finally, from 1965 to 2010, Treu documents the conflicting efforts at downtown preservation and renovation, whether by stripping away older updates and imposing a faux-historical Disney effect or by encouraging restorations of structures of different periods and styles to produce a more authentic assemblage.
Treu is adept at describing and interpreting elements of the built environment, at weaving together conflicting intellectual and political positions, and at embedding changing Main Streets and commercial strips in larger social contexts. More than 160 well-selected illustrations, a quarter of them in color, are integral to his astute readings of signage and facades. Some are Treu's, some are publicity photos, and others are from historical archives (often selected for unintentional revelations, such as a Cincinnati street with one-story modern facades applied to otherwise intact, gritty-looking [End Page 673] older commercial structures). He deploys obscure verbal texts as convincingly as illustrations, such as the Chicago Tribune's observation in 1907 that electric signs "light the streets of the city better than the regular lighting system" (p. 74). In addition to documenting Main Street and the strip, Treu sorts out various intellectual and ideological positions, playing Robert Venturi, Tom Wolfe, and Reyner...