Field Reports

“Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men.” –Richard Nickel

If anyone has photos of today’s collapse and would like to share them, please email me at  (The above was borrowed from


Ongoing site preparations at the future home of the Lancaster Museum of Art recently uncovered a ready-made masterpiece: Seagram’s and Be Sure.


Formstone.  Its the fake rock veneer we love to hate.  The stuff that makes large parts of our city look like Fred and Barney’s Bedrock.  In a self-professed red-brick town like Lancaster, Formstone is not something to be discussed in polite company.  Like a rash we picked up in Baltimore, or the tub of expired sour cream we just found in the back of the fridge, this infamous cement skin is an embarrassing pox on our houses.  And churches and stores and garages.  While Baltimore might be the epicenter of the outbreak (John Waters famously called the stuff “The polyester of brick”), we have no shortage of the stuff.  We try to ignore it, but there is hardly a block in the city that is Formstone-free, and in some neighborhoods it covers a good quarter of the building stock.  Its ubiquity renders it almost invisible, the architectural equivalent of white noise or the gray static of television’s old dead air.


Formstone coverage in part of Cabbage Hill, Lancaster.

As architectural travesties go, however, Formstone has an certain charm.  If you stop and really look at the stuff, there is a surprising diversity of forms.  Some is monochrome, some has four, five, or even six different colors.  There are pinks and blues and purples and tans mixed in with the standard grays.  Some have recessed mortar lines, some have raised beads.  It is a widely-held misconception that the stuff was rolled on or hung in sheets like other veneers– in fact, most Formstone was shaped by hand, on site, with a series of special tools in an extremely labor-intensive process, making it a true (if inexplicable) form of folk art.  The original 1937 patent describes how each “stone” was formed with its own batch of colored concrete, textured with special rollers, and powdered with mica or other surface additions.  Mortar lines were drawn and shaped freehand.  Every mason had his own style, his own abstract interpretation of a stone wall.  Few were convincing, of course, but that wasn’t really the point.  For most of the twentieth century, a red brick house was boring and ugly and needed to be painted all the damn time.  A Formstone house, on the other hand, had a touch of class to it.  In the words of one Baltimorean interviewed in a great documentary of the same name, they were “Little Castles.”


More than dry cleaning

Last week, workers removed this long-defunct neon sign from its perch atop the dry cleaners on the corner of Prince and Orange.  As architectural losses go, this one wouldn’t be too lamentable, except for one sad fact: this was one of the last vintage neon signs in downtown Lancaster.

An informal LBC survey identified only a handful of downtown neon signs, functional or not, old or not.  Pop Deluxe and Empire Furniture, both on Prince street, still operate neon signs, but neither are very old.  The Firestone station on Orange and Water has two large, freestanding logo signs, but these too probably date from the 1980s or 90s.  A few others, like the former King Theater marquee, still survive beyond the central business district, but the the only other vestige of downtown neon was found tucked away in the surface parking lot across from the Brunswick Hotel, the former site of the Lancaster train station and the future site of the new art museum/bus depot/parking garage (reading “Park Here,” its days are also probably numbered, judging from the earth-movers already on site).


The neon sign could be considered the passenger pigeon of the built environment.  Its numbers were once countless, even in Lancaster.  Photos of King and Queen Streets from the 1940s show a still-familiar streetscape inhabited by a long-forgotten flock of electric typography.  Large vertical signboards hung from many, if not most, downtown buildlings.  Rocket ships, pelicans, globes, and lightning bolts animated the streetscape.


Other cities have saved, through choice or chance, at least a few token examples of this once exuberant urban phenomenon.  But now in Lancaster, this stratum of the architectural record has all but vanished.  Even the highly-acclaimed facade job on the Watt & Shand building neglected to save that building’s looming, iconic rooftop sign that once stood sentinel over Penn Square.  (An ugly if unsubstantiated rumor has it that the sign was accidentally shipped to the scrap heap only a few months ago, after being stashed in unmarked crates, Indiana Jones-style, in some forgotten warehouse.  Whether it was ever planned to be reinstalled on top of the new Marriott is unknown, but what a missed opportunity.  They could have named the new restaurant “The Watt & Shand” instead of the unimaginative “Penn Square Grille” and left the sign in place.  Talk about good advertising.)

But all is not lost.  While Lancaster has forgotten its neon past, another type of vintage sign survives in somewhat healthier numbers.  Backlit signs are usually considered the bastard children of neon, and today are omnipresent and largely uninspired (two are visible in the dry cleaners photo above).  But among this dross are scattered a few gems, probably from the early days of the form.  They might not be neon, but they too will be missed when they’re gone.

More photos of vintage Lancaster signs, including some neon in the neighborhoods, can be seen on our Flickr page at

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