Photos and text by Amy Davis
Unusual man-made perennials sprout between the shrubs in a secluded backyard garden in suburban Glen Burnie. Some are blooming brightly, in glowing shades of green, yellow, pink, blue and red neon. Other specimen plantings need more tending, their stalwart steel frames in need of maintenance. The gardener of this remarkable sign garden is Norman James, 52, who has been saving these beauties since he was 19. A veteran craftsman in the sign trade in Baltimore, James rehabilitates his private garden with the same tools he uses to create custom signage. His irrigation system is electricity, but before these rusted relics can flourish again, they need sanding, painting, safer wiring, and replacement parts that James meticulously fabricates or commissions from neon craftsmen.
When Norman James was a child, he enjoyed drawing commercial buildings and the elaborate neon signs he saw on Ritchie Highway. Each sign is a paean to vanished Baltimore businesses that hawked their services with bright neon, flashing lights, and colorful backlit plastic signs that often became neighborhood landmarks. Perhaps none resonates more than his homage to the Little Tavern. To properly display the signs he restored from this iconic restaurant chain, James constructed a full-scale replica building, modeled after the former hamburger shop in Laurel.
James recalls that “They disappeared so gradually, and no one noticed. There was competition between the sign men to outdo each other. No computers; you had to be an artist of light.” Sadly, the city equated projecting signage with blight. “With rare exceptions, they all came down, ” James lamented. Like any garden, this homage to Baltimore’s past requires costly and time-consuming ongoing maintenance. Norman James hopes his preserved signs will “be there for future generations to look at in museums. I don’t collect signs, I rescue them.”