Letterforms and signage at the Illinois Railway Museum by Serhii Chrucky

Prior to my most recent visit to the Illinois Railway Museum, a graphic designer friend asked me to make an inventory of the most compelling letterforms that I could find. The museum is known for its extensive collection of bus and rail stock dating back to the mid-19th century, but it also functions as a de facto sign museum. Many different categories of signage are represented here, including neon, enamel, plastic, button copy, metal relief, stone relief, and hand-painted. Zooming in on this wide array of signage acts as a modest transit-related typography source book.

This sign for the Santa Fe railroad sat atop the Railway Exchange building in downtown Chicago until 2012 when it was replaced with a sign for Motorola. The museum acquired the sign in 2016, and it is featured prominently at the entrance.

This sign for the Santa Fe railroad sat atop the Railway Exchange building in downtown Chicago until 2012 when it was replaced with a sign for Motorola. The museum acquired the sign in 2016, and it is featured prominently at the entrance.

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Reflective button copy on a “railroad crossing” sign.

Reflective button copy on a “railroad crossing” sign.

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Chicago Surface Lines Bus Stop sign.

Chicago Surface Lines Bus Stop sign.

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“The 400” was a passenger rail line operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities, so named because it traversed 400 miles in 400 minutes.

“The 400” was a passenger rail line operating between Chicago and the Twin Cities, so named because it traversed 400 miles in 400 minutes.

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The South Shore Line is one of the last interurban passenger rail lines still operating in the United States.

The South Shore Line is one of the last interurban passenger rail lines still operating in the United States.

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These deep purple enamel signs adorned Chicago Transit Authority stations for decades. They were removed gradually beginning in the 1950s, until the last one was removed in the early 2000s. I saw it before it was taken down…somewhere I have a photo of it in situ.

These deep purple enamel signs adorned Chicago Transit Authority stations for decades. They were removed gradually beginning in the 1950s, until the last one was removed in the early 2000s. I saw it before it was taken down…somewhere I have a photo of it in situ.

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The North Shore Line was an interurban that ran from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee until 1963.

The North Shore Line was an interurban that ran from downtown Chicago to downtown Milwaukee until 1963.

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Detail of one the North Shore Line’s “Electroliner.”

Detail of one the North Shore Line’s “Electroliner.”

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James R. Thompson Center by Serhii Chrucky

With the James R. Thompson Center set to go on sale in the next two years, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation placing the building on its 11 most endangered list, I thought now would be a good time to post the images I’ve made of the building so far. Here’s hoping that Helmut Jahn’s monument to transparent governance in the city that works is not remodeled into unrecognizable oblivion.

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Canal Street, New Orleans by Serhii Chrucky

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I’m standing on the neutral ground of Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. It’s early October but today the lighting is uncharacteristically gray. The undifferentiated mass of clouds and the wet blanket of humidity turns the world into a luminous softbox. This type of weather is decent for shooting architecture so long as you crop the sky or need to photograph a north facing building in the colder months. All these years and I’m still not sure how I feel about photographing on overcast days.

I have the tripod set up next to the curb cut, a safe distance from the streetcars whizzing by my back. The camera is pointed southwest at a Walgreens drugstore on the opposite corner. I’ve been meaning to photograph this building for almost ten years. Built in 1938 in the Art Moderne style in vogue at the time, it’s a three story commercial building with a limestone facade, twice as long as it is wide. There is a cylindrical turret on the corner crammed with neon text: “Walgreen Drugs - Photo - Cosmetics - Prescriptions.” A band of rainbow neon tubes frame the text, coming to a semicircular crescendo at the top of the turret next to a yellow mortar and pestle signifying “pharmacy.” The neon glows nicely on overcast days like this, and it looks even better than it did in my mind all this time.

People are coming and going in waves, alternating with cars doing the same, so I wait for the breaks in between phases. There is one obnoxious truck, wrapped to resemble an alligator, parked in an intrusive position. If I want to get this shot now, and I do, I’m going to have to live with the alligator truck. The universe is often ungenerous in this way - there always seem to be objects like light posts, trees, magazine stands, and parked cars getting in the way of an otherwise perfect vantage point. People aren’t as problematic when they walk through the frame since they can be useful to show scale, utility, or both. Is it better to embrace the chaotic disorder in front of a building than it is to fret about it? I’m standing on the neutral ground of Canal Street like the psychological divide between being satisfied with results, or chucking them and trying again tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.

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Chicago Tribune Freedom Center by Serhii Chrucky

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Since 1981, the Chicago Tribune has been printed at the Freedom Center, an immense plant situated on a 30 acre site near the corner of Chicago and Halsted. This may end soon as there are plans in place to demolish the plant in favor of a mixed-use mega-development tentatively called "River District." I've documented as much of the exterior as possible before any work has begun. I'm going to do one more round of this, and then if demolition and redevelopment do indeed occur, I intend to photograph the entire transformation. More to come.

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