January 20, 1998
Volume 50, No. 17
Thomas studies the beauty of commercial architecture
In today's flood of junk production in everything from media to building construction to foodstuffs, it's easy to dismiss anything commercial as so much flotsam in the harbor of pop culture. But once upon a time, just because something was commercial didn't mean it was trash.
Bernice Thomas knows that, and more than a decade ago she decided to convince others of it. Growing up in Albany, Ga., the teenage Thomas wiled away countless hours at the downtown Kress 5 & 10 Cent Store, but it was a visit to that same store in 1984, long after its windows had been boarded and its soda fountain run dry, that made the strongest impression on her.
"The sunlight was shining on the brick, and I stopped the car and said, 'Why, you're beautiful. You look just like a medieval reliquary,'" Thomas remembered. "Then I moved a few months later to Honolulu, and I went downtown for the first time, and there is a huge Mediterranean Revival Kress store taking up a whole city block, boarded up, perfectly beautiful. And I said, 'There's a story here.'"
So there was. And a dozen years later Thomas published that story in the form of America's 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy. It is a report of Thomas' odyssey across America, admiring and photographing old Kress buildings, talking to the people who used to work in them.
Samuel H. Kress' chain at its peak operated nearly 250 five-and-dimes nationwide, and though many stores tried to incorporate local color into their designs, each had the unmistakeable "Kress look," designed in large part by New York architect Edward Sibbert. "But Sam Kress kept control over it," Thomas said.
"All the Kress stores were done in New York-they were not local, although sometimes they looked local," she said. "It's no accident that the Kress store in Lubbock [Texas] looked like the Alamo."
With a doctorate in art and architectural history, Thomas brought a keen and studied eye to the project, as she did with her subsequent book. As soon as Thomas finds a publisher, the world will know more about Sign of Good Taste: Coca-Cola Bottling Plants, 1930-1941.
Both books examine commercial architecture, a subject often shunned by highbrow architectural historians. But to do so, Thomas said, is to ignore an entire segment of American culture, one that doesn't always produce throwaway work.
"Some of these Kress stores are knockouts; some of them, and some of the Coke plants in the 1930s, cost a half-million or $600,000. For example, the plants in Cincinnati and Indianapolis are gorgeous," Thomas said. "But because they're Coca-Cola-the five-cent bottle-and because they're 5 & 10 cent stores, and because they're commercial, 'tasteful' architectural historians have ignored them."
An independent scholar, Thomas supports herself by working as a donor records coordinator at Emory, and she didn't in fact turn to academic pursuits until relatively late in life. After graduating from Vassar College in 1949 at age 20, she began graduate work at Columbia University but ended up falling in love, getting married and settling down as a faculty wife in Cambridge, Mass.
Once her children were grown, however, Thomas went back to school. She finished a master's in art history at Boston University and by then it was too late: she was in love again, this time with knowledge. She got her PhD and began a second life as an art and architecture historian, working for such organizations as the State Office of Historic Preservation in Puerto Rico, the Honolulu Academy of Arts and as a guest scholar at the National Gallery of Art's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts.
In 1994, she was well into the Coca-Cola book and needed to move to Atlanta to finish it; Woodruff Library's Special Collections would prove especially helpful. The days of generous grant support for independent scholars were long gone, however, and Thomas realized she would need another source of income to support herself. She worked for more than two years as a temp before landing her current, permanent position at Emory last year.
"I feel at home here; I'm an academic. I know what a university is, I know what courses are, I know what semesters are. Put me at NationsBank, and I wouldn't know what you were talking about," Thomas said. "Emory has been wonderful in helping me make the transition from all the income coming from grants to my having to support myself."
Beyond her search for a publisher for the Coke book, Thomas doesn't quite know what the future holds, except that it probably won't involve another book. "I don't have any five-year periods left in me," she joked. A sometime thespian, she would like to look into documentaries, examining the same sort of Americana detailed in her books. "I'd like to teach and talk about it, to discover things, change people's vision, open their eyes and interpret for them, let them get that 'A-ha!' Maybe I could be the Charles Kuralt of travels to Main Street, U.S.A."