The Slutty Eye: Power Metal

There's probably more than a little retro fetish involved in my love of signs that spell out a building's name in individual cast-metal letters. The modernist clarity! The austere sophistication! The boner-popping elegance of the typeface! Which is usually Helvetica—as you could probably guess even if you hadn't seen the recent doc Helvetica—but not always. Eugenia Woo, Director of Preservation Services at Historic Seattle, notes that individual aluminum characters were used as early as the 1930s by architect Richard Neutra, predating Helvetica by a couple of decades. In Seattle and most other American cities, says Woo, metal lettering was popular for churches and government buildings in the '50s and '60s before passing out of fashion in the '70s. You don't have to be the sort of dork who thrills to this history to appreciate the excellence of the design. The signs are as legible at twilight as they are at high noon, when they stand out dramatically against their own shadows. Besides, what's come along since that can be considered an improvement? Certainly not the forgettable white-on-purple sign that went up a couple of years ago in place of the letters that for decades spelled out "University Bookstore" with glamour and confidence along the top of the store's awning. Pictured above: Bishop Blanchet High School (8200 Wallingford Ave. N.), Woodland Park Presbyterian Church (225 N. 70th St.), St. John's School (123 N. 79th St.), and the Ballard Post Office (5706 17th Ave. N.W.).

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