Refrigerator Magnetism

Figure 1. A block from Carpenter’s Hall at Independence Mall in Philadelphia.  (Courtesy of Google)

Traffic Control Cabinets are frequently found in urban areas near traffic signals (Figure 1).  These boxes store the switches, cabling, and electronics that operate signals as well as associated cameras.  Over the years, they have become larger and more internally complicated (Figure 2) as our lives have become more complicated and surveilled. The most recent generation of cabinets are the size of refrigerators, and are commonly known as refrigerator controllers, although on aesthetic grounds, this is a slight to refrigerators.

Figure 2. Inside a Controller Box

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, we notice a number of these controllers that were decorated and turned into street art. Some were located in the Silver Lake area (Figure 3) and some were downtown (Figures 4-6).

Figure 3. Silver Lake District
Figure 4. Silver Lake District
Figure 5. Downtown LA
Figure 6. Downtown LA

Los Angeles isn’t the only city to take advantage of this free real estate.  Downtown Denver also has had some of their controller boxes painted (Figure 7).  In fact, you only need to go onto the Internet to see example after example of controller boxes that have been turned into street art. Just Google up “Traffic Controller Box Art.”  Make sure to add the word Box or you will get what is shown in Figure 8.

Figure 7. One of two boxes painted, Downtown Denver, 1500 block of Colfax.
Figure 8. Traffic Controller Art

While this is all well and good and perhaps has become a “thing,” I believe there has been a great missed opportunity to use these spaces and surfaces.

What Happened Here

Coming back to Philadelphia, or any urban area or town, you often find history interpreted through signage and place.  Sometimes, you see traditional interpretive signs on posts (Figure 9); sometimes they are PHMC-sponsored historical markers (Figure 10). You even find interpretive signage on the side of buildings (Figure 11). What all of these interpretations have in common is that they are associated with a particular place, a particular subject, and a particular story.  “Let me tell you about what happened here.”

Figure 9. Traditional Interpretive Plaque – Swann Fountain, Philadelphia
Figure 10. State Historical Marker – Philadelphia
Figure 11. Sign on the Side of a Building – National Museum of American Jewish History

These interpretive displays, these stories, come at great cost and sometimes contention.  The gold standard (actually cast aluminum) is the PHMC Historical Marker, and takes an extended period for review and approval and in the city can cost north of $1,600. Interpretive signs on posts are also expensive and often completed as one-offs.  Having been accomplice to several PennDOT provided signs, through historic resource mitigation commitments, I can report that these signs can be into 5 figures, and may last no more than 10-15 years before fading, peeling, delaminating, etc.

Refrigerator Controllers are ubiquitous in urban areas, adjacent to the intersections with traffic lights.  Most of these are plain aluminum, powder coated in an anti-graffiti surface, or  anodized. In historic districts, they are particularly intrusive, and in areas with narrow or historic sidewalks, also a detriment to pedestrian movement.  They are not sympathetic with the urban landscape, relatively permanent, and in a word, degrading.

Is it possible to turn these installations into something worthwhile, and dare we say, attractive?  Clearly, in the examples above, forward thinking municipalities are turning these controllers into canvases and encouraging artists to use them as such.  The effects seem to be highly variable, ranging from amateurish school-kid efforts, to something that would qualify as street-art. Presumably, this is something Banksy might undertake at some point.  So far, the closest the artist has gotten is a repurposed phone box (Figure 12).

Figure 12. (Credited to) Banksy mural in Cheltenham, incorporating a phone box.

In historic districts, the context is different, and an art-infused refrigerator controller canvas might not do the trick.   The surfaces are there, all right, but the approach might/should be different.  It should be possible to take the premise of the interpretive sign, such as demonstrated in Figures 9-11, and put their contents onto the same refrigerator controller canvases appropriated by artists. In fact, in at least two communities, public historians have done just that.

In Eugene, Oregon, an effort to repurpose the refrigerator controllers was started in 2014, coordinated by the Lane County History Museum and the Johnson Shelton McMurphey House, under the “History Here” banner.  Sara Palmer, at the time director of the Johnson Shelton McMurphey House, and Heather Kliever, registrar of the Lane County History Museum developed eleven locations in Eugene for these signs. As a practical matter, the images were attached to the refrigerator controllers via a vinyl wrap, essentially a giant sticker applied to a clean, smooth surface. The project was kicked off by a grant from the Lane Arts Council   Each installation was estimated at $200 to print and install.  

Figure 13. Sara Palmer and Heather Kliever at one of the History Here locations in Eugene, Oregon, 2014.

In Lewiston, Idaho, a similar effort was undertaken in 2018. Historian Dr. Amy Canfield used her public history course at Lewis-Clark State College to have students develop 10 locations to host interpretive signs (Figure 14). The first of these vinyl signs was installed in 2018, with 9 more planned, each reflecting the unique history of place at that location.  The estimated cost of the effort is $7,000, and is being crowdfunded. Key to the effort was the coordination of the Beautiful Downtown Lewiston, an offshoot of the Main Street program, and helmed by Courtney Kramer.

Figure 14. First Lewiston installation, at the corner of Main and 5thStreets.


Although both Lewiston and Eugene have grasped the idea of using otherwise plain refrigerator controller boxes as canvases for interpretive history, the production methods leave something to be desired.  Vinyl is cheap, easy to reproduce, and easy to affix.  However, it does not have any lasting capability and in a matter of time will peel, fade, and cease carrying the value for which they were designed.  Furthermore, municipal traffic departments have the responsibility to maintain their infrastructure, including the traffic controller boxes.  Very high on the list of desirable features of permanent traffic installations is the need for little or no maintenance. 

Most of these engineers will view the vinyl appliques as a nuisance and evidence that this is a flawed idea, since it doesn’t meet the non-maintenance test.

There is one way around the durability issue.  The aluminum covers for these controllers are generally offered in natural (unfinished), power-coated (to prevent graffiti), and anodized.  The same powder coating protection can be modified to accept a fixed image that should last for many years.  One company, Alto, has a proprietary process to merge any high-resolution image into power-coated aluminum, using dye-sublimation process and a heat and vacuum system. Alto uses 5052 Aluminum, an alloy, which also happens to be a popular choice for traffic controller boxes, (see Nema Enclosures). Duraluxe also uses a sublimation process. Although previous uses of this process have been for signs, there is no reason it can’t be used on a controller box exterior.

Figure 15. Alto process interpretive sign at Transfer Beach, Vancouver Island, Canada.

If it is possible to have the controller box exterior panels powder-coated using one of the available processes to fix an image prior to it being assembled into the finished controller, then it would be possible to manage the process during manufacture, rather than after the fact in the field. In theory, during the order of a series of controllers for a traffic improvement project in a municipality, selected locations would be identified for interpretive treatment.  The historic information for each of these locations would be developed into one or more frames and these images would be provided to the controller manufacturer.  The manufacturer would then provide the aluminum outer panels and images to the printing firm, e.g. Alto, who would affix the interpretive images to the aluminum, then provide the finished panels back to the manufacturer to complete the assembly. The contractor completing the project would need only to know which controller goes on which location.  The finished product would have the same initial effect as the vinyl appliques, but would be durable and resistant to ultraviolet light and the other exterior elements, and would require no maintenance.

Cost and Funding

Developing the interpretive panels in this manner will not be as cheap as the vinyl approach; however, it will be durable and will have the additional critical feature of being maintenance-free, which will please the municipal engineers.  Although I do not have a cost estimate for this type of work, the goal in any region is to have a manufacturer develop a working relationship with a powder-coating operation so that jobs can be handed off in a timely manner, and priced appropriately.  Recent information from the Forest Service suggests that the cost for manufacture is around $100 a square foot.

This would suggest each controller box with images on 3 sides would run in the neighborhood of $2,500 per box.  However, the cost of production would likely be less than the cost of research and design of the images.  Partnerships with the local historical society could greatly reduce the research costs.  Design costs could also be reduced if a template approach were taken, using the same format for each of the controllers throughout the municipality.

Earlier in the blog I alluded to the notion that we were talking about historic districts.  Many traffic improvement projects are funded with Federal FHWA funds, which would put them under Section 106 review.  To the degree that these intrusions into historic districts might be considered adverse effects, the projects would could be mitigated with the application of these interpretive panels.  Conversely, it might be considered a no adverse effect standard treatment to use this type of treatment for controller boxes in a historic district within a larger traffic project.  In either case, the costs associated with design and fabrication of the panels as well as the purchase of the controller boxes would be eligible for 80% federal funding, and generally 15-20% state funding.  Given the total costs of many traffic signal improvement projects, the additional costs for 10-20 interpretive controller boxes would be a small percentage of the total, and would likely be a high-value addition to the municipality.

A Final Word on Refrigerator Magnets

The Title of the Blog, Refrigerator Magnetism, might make no sense given the subject matter.  However, it is inspired by our own refrigerator, which is festooned by many magnets of places we have been, most of which have been historic (Figure 16).  Our refrigerator magnets have always drawn us to places in the past. The refrigerator controllers, properly illustrated, could also magnetically draw the passers-by to the history of that place.

Figure 16. Our Refrigerator, with its historic magnets.