WRITTEN BY JOHN R. GREENWOOD
I’m excited to share this story about my Saratoga Springs search for signs painted by Walter L. “Clem” Clements. Clem was born May 1, 1909 and was a well-known Saratoga sign painter who lived and worked in and around the city through the majority of the 1900s. Clem passed away in 2001 but his signature “Clem” Signs can still be uncovered if you dig deep enough. This is part one of a two-part story about my journey so far.
I can’t recall with certainty when and where I first met Clem, but as a young boy in the '60s I do remember his signature “Clem” Signs, up and down Broadway. There was something about those, “Clem Signs” signatures in the bottom right-hand corner that captured my imagination back then and has stuck with me to this day. They had a simple mystique about them. I’ve always felt in my heart that Clem was a true artist who never found a venue to quench his creative thirst.
Clem was already in his seventies when I first asked him to paint the sides of my Price’s Dairy milk truck. I purchased the milk delivery business from a retiring Victor Price in 1979 and a few years later I acquired a used step van which needed to be lettered. Clem and I agreed on a price of $100 per side—cash only, no contract necessary. Clem lived in an apartment and didn’t drive, so Ron Coleman, a well- known local plumber brought Clem out to my house where he set up shop for the day. Clem used two ladders and a heavy plank to create a mini scaffold. He measured meticulously and laid out the letters in a gentle arch. I found myself fascinated by the detail required to fit everything so perfectly. I recall it being a sunny, spring day. When Clem was well situated I jumped in one of my other milk trucks and left him to work his magic. I remember how pleased I was when I returned at the end of the day and saw the end result. The calligraphic letters brought the milk truck to life. It was now the pride of my aging three truck fleet. Clem painted the sides of my last milk truck around 1987. It may have been his last job too. That was three decades ago, but my curiosity surrounding Clem and his work has kept circling my mind ever since.
When I first posted a cry for help finding “Clem Signs” from my Saratoga Facebook Community I received a tip from artist and Saratogian, Robert Wheaton. Robert told me that the four large A’s on the front doors of the Adelphi Hotel were painted and decorated in gold leaf by Clem.
When I asked him recently if he had any other memories of Clem he paused for a moment then said, “I just picture this elderly man sitting on a cane chair painting and gilding each of those beautiful A’s.” Robert added, “Clem quietly took the time to explain in great depth the delicate process. I’ve carried a love of applying gold leaf to this day.” I’m sad to say those A’s have since been removed as part of the Adelphi’s extensive restoration.
Robert also sent me a photo from the front window of Soave Faire where he manages the Art Department. In the photo is a framed sign that says, “Custom Framing ‘is our specialty.’” Owner Vito Soave confirmed that Clem painted it. I’m also told Clem painted wallpaper designs in a home somewhere in the city. That is a mystery and treasure I’ve yet to uncover or confirm.
My next discovery came in 2013 via another Facebook message. At the time Rhea Gorden Demory, a childhood friend, had been reading about my search for a sign from Clem. Rhea and fellow Saratogian Tom Brophy were standing in front of the Merle Norman Cosmetics store when it was on Broadway one day. Tom happened to look up at their sign and spotted a “Clem” Signs signature in the bottom right- hand corner. I don’t know who was more excited about the discovery, Rhea, Tom, or me! Not long after, and before I could contact Merle Norman owner Terri Guerin, she removed the sign and moved her location to the Art District on Beekman St. After her move I got busy and forgot about my fleeting discovery. One day, several months later, I drove up Beekman St. to see if the sign had made the move too. I was heartbroken when a saw a new, more subdued Merle Norman Cosmetics sign. It wasn’t until last fall that I took the time to call Terri and ask her what happen to her “Clem” sign. She explained that the original sign on Broadway was very old and in disrepair. I was sort of hoping to hear it was leaning alongside a garage somewhere and that I was welcome to it. Instead, she explained that she had it repaired and repainted. My “Clem Sign” was still alive, even though it was now covered in a fresh coat of Sherwin Williams’ Best.
These initial discoveries were just the tip of the iceberg. Tune in to the Simply Saratoga Summer Edition due out June 29th to read about “Clem Sign” news and photographs arriving cross-country from Oakland, California. You’ll hear about a “Clem Sign” from the Adelphi Hotel popping up in a New York City Restaurant, and better yet you’ll get to come along on my latest “Clem Sign” adventure when I reunite with a 1980s Broadway Legend and we uncover the most exciting and “genuine” barn find yet!
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