In stripping away the old asbestos and cedar siding of his 1880 Summit Hill home, Todd Johnson unexpectedly uncovered a long-hidden piece of St. Paul history: Rare hand-painted advertising signs from what a local historian believes was a short-lived indoor ice skating rink downtown.

"They didn't have billboards then," said Jim Sazevich, whose has extensive knowledge of St. Paul's old houses and neighborhoods. "These signs were the billboards of the day."

The billboards appear to have been created by an artist who spent a little more than a year in St. Paul.

"I have never seen anything like it," said Sazevich, who has researched thousands of houses in the capital city and across the state. "I know that they recycled everything. But this is extraordinary."

Johnson, who bought the home on the 300 block of Holly Avenue three years ago, is no stranger to historic properties. The Nebraska native's family converted an 1899 high school into historic apartments, even using the old chalkboards as countertops. His parents live in a 1918 Craftsman home in Nebraska; his grandparents own a 1900s farmhouse in Wisconsin.

"Historic houses are my passion," Johnson said. "I just got pulled to this house and to this neighborhood."

But even he had no idea of the history lurking behind his home's outer walls. There, in letters large and small, and in sometimes-rainbow colors, were words like "Dry Goods" and "Suits to order from $20 upward." Here and there are old downtown addresses and partial business names. In several places, the name "Leslie" appears.

Still, the mystery likely would have ended there if Sazevich hadn't happened to stroll past the curious house a couple weeks ago. A local historian known as "the House Detective," he was intrigued and started researching the house and signs. Soon, he found records regarding Charles T. Leslie, a "sign artist" who was in St. Paul from late 1878 to early 1880.

Using clues on the house itself — such as the word "Rink" painted in large letters, and names that appear scratched on the signs while folks likely waited in line — Sazevich surmised that the boards came from an indoor ice skating rink. Such rinks were common in the 1870s and 1880s. Indeed, Charles H. Parmelee, who built the Holly Avenue home in 1880 for his bride, managed a skating rink in 1878, Sazevich said.

So, not only are the signs rare — painted during Leslie's only full year as an artist in St. Paul — but they are also extremely well-preserved, thanks to the rink being torn down and the boards recycled by Parmelee less than a year later.

"That's why they're so vibrant," Sazevich said. "It looks like they were done yesterday."

Johnson, who is working with an architect and the city's Heritage Preservation Commission on the renovation, is keeping the old signs in place — although they will be covered when the house is re-sided. Still, he said, it's a thrill to know the beauty — and the history — that will once again be hidden there.

"To me, it's crazy to see," he said. "For somebody to do that by hand is pretty impressive."

James Walsh • 651-925-5041