The Donaldson Art Sign Company in Covington and the Donaldson Lithography Company in Newport can be traced back to a partnership between William M. Donaldson and Henry Elms. These two entrepreneurs began a small lithography business in Cincinnati on August 10, 1863 . By the end of the first year of operation, the firm owned and operated seven hand printing presses. With the death of Mr. Elms in 1872, the business became the sole property of Donaldson. The company was officially incorporated as the Donaldson Lithograph Co. in 1883.
The company moved to the City of Newport, Kentucky in 1898, and was housed in the old Duber Watch Case Company facility (6th and Washington Streets). The company flourished in its Newport location. By 1913, plans were underway to expand the firm. William M. Donaldson acquired the old Central Covington Stockyards at 21st and Banklick Streets. Plans called for a 50,000 square foot building that would eventually employ 200 workers. The dimensions of the building, designed by architect Bernard T. Wisenall, were 160’ x 140’. The cost of construction reached the sum of nearly $100,000. Work on the new plant was begun in August 1914. At the Covington facility, lithography work was done on iron, tin, glass and other metals. The Newport location continued in operation and did lithography work on paper and muslin.
William M. Donaldson died on October 22, 1931 at the age of 91. Despite this loss, both the Art Sign Company in Covington and the Lithographic Company in Newport continued to operate. Ownership of the company, however, remained in the family until 1981. That year, the company was purchased by Robert McLaughlin, a former company vice president, and James Keller. In 1987, the Donaldson Art Sign Company ceased operation. The owners of the company declared bankruptcy. The bank which held the mortgage on the property also went bankrupt. The building remained, however, and quickly deteriorated. The company’s facilities were littered with asbestos, solvents, fuel oil, and other hazardous wastes. With no owner to be found, the United States Environmental Protection Agency spent $300,000 in 1988 cleaning up the site.
In January 1990, the ramshackle structure was severely damaged by fire. A 15-year old was later charged for setting the fire which resulted in an estimated loss of $100,000. At that time, the City of Covington , the EPA and the IRS held liens on the property.
Kentucky Post, October 25, 1913 , p. 2, June 1, 1914 , p. 7, June 18, 1914, p. 1, August 19, 1914, p. 1, October 7, 1914, p. 2, October 22, 1931, p. 1, October 26, 1917, p. 1, January 10, 1990, p. 1K, January 11, 1990, p. 3K, August 24, 1996, p. 1K and August 9, 2001, p. 3K. E. Polk Johnson, A History of Kentucky and Kentuckians, p. 1107.