Ernest Blevins: History of Charleston's Stone & Thomas building

Stone & Thomas building

BridgeValley Community and Technical College is considering moving at least part of its South Charleston campus to the former Stone & Thomas department store building in downtown Charleston.

The Stone & Thomas building is in the news as a potential downtown campus for BridgeValley Community and Technical College.

The story of the Stone & Thomas building goes back to The People’s store, founded by Joe Schwab in 1888 “in a building at Clendenin and Kanawha Streets” (now Kanawha Boulevard). In 1915, it moved to Kanawha and Capitol streets, then in 1927 opened at 214 Capitol St., where it operated until 1948.

R.M. Maxwell bought a controlling interest in the People’s Store in 1930, and sold it to Stone & Thomas in 1941. Jacob C. Thomas and Elijah J. Stone established Thomas & Stone in 1847 in Wheeling as the Bee Hive, later changing the name to Stone & Thomas.

In October 1948, the Charleston Store, Stone & Thomas, The People’s Store, and Stone & Thomas of Wheeling were merged together into one corporation named Stone & Thomas by the stockholders.

Stone & Thomas bought the lot at 820 Lee Street in 1941 to bring the store to Charleston, but World War II delayed the effort. Architects Meanor, Griefe, and Daley of Charleston designed the Art Moderne style building.

The original construction permit was issued on April 1, 1947, for a three-story building with elevators and escalators costing $680,000 with Engstrom and Wynn as the contractors. The site was cleared in June 1948, and construction began on a $1,500,000 department store. It was deemed as “one of the most modern in the country.”

“The building is three story steel and concrete structure with a lower main street store.” The exterior is smooth “brick, [travernelle] marble and plate glass, designed in a modernistic fashion most desirable for retail selling.”

The building features the distinctive rounded corners, ribbon windows, and tall sign marquee along Lee Street. The street-level display windows were designed with removable dividers to permit flexible use for large or small displays.

The store exceeds 90,000 square feet with main entrances on both Lee and Dickinson Streets, and nine new departments added in. Like other early modern department stores, Stone & Thomas boasted of its air conditioning — much like businesses today will promote their Wi-Fi.

Construction on the new store stopped on April 1, 1948, for 37 days, while 19 separate craft unions representing 3,000 building trade union members were on strike. Their contracts with the Charleston Building Contractors Association expired. Work resumed on May 10, 1948.

An ad thanked the people who built the new building, noting 160,000 feet of wire, three miles of plumbing pipework, and “the most advanced public address system in the country.” Charleston’s “first invisible windows,” which brought much commentary at the public inspection, “gave the illusion that the merchandise is displayed in an open window.”

Amos-Parrish Company of New York, retail store consultants, designed the interior and supplied all fixtures. The store was described with vivid colors used throughout the store, noting “that 137 different colors were used in the interior decorations.”

Reports referred to the new building as a “$2,000,000 store Modernistic Wonder,” although other sources said the price was $2,500,000.

Stone & Thomas opened on Nov. 18, 1948, featuring Christmas music by the Kanawha Presbyterian Church Choir, the lighting of a giant Christmas tree and an appearance of Miss West Virginia 1948, Jane Ellen Queen of Huntington, who cut the ribbon to open the store.

With the opening of the store, Charleston became the third city in the nation to have “a new large retail establishment ... since the close of the war.”

Citing a need “necessitated by the Increasing [sic] demands of the store’s customers,” Stone & Thomas added approximately 10,000 square feet in 1958, adding a fourth floor for sales and a fifth floor for receiving and storage space. The two floors cost $434,000.

Greife and Daley of Charleston designed the addition. Work was completed in fall of 1958. Robert P. Greife cited the exterior would be buff brick to match the original design. C.H. Jimison and Sons of Huntington built the addition.

At the peak of business, Stone & Thomas had 21 stores in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia. In 1998, the Elder-Beerman Company of Dayton, Ohio, bought Stone & Thomas. In April 2018, Elder-Beerman ceased to exist.

Large department stores are closing down nationally as shopping preferences change. Sears and Macys have closed in the Town Center mall. Kmart closed on Patrick Street and will close in Kanawha City in early 2020.

Such large buildings are unlikely to be reused as a department store in the foreseeable future. Adaptive reuse of Thomas & Stone building would preserve the historic resource while adding pedestrians to the downtown landscape, boosting the downtown economy.

Sources: Various archived Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail stories, e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia

Ernest E. Blevins is a Daily Mail WV historical columnist. He can be reached at blevinsee@g.cofc.edu.

Funerals for Thursday, December 5, 3019

Bays, Bertha - 1 p.m., Montgomery Memorial Park, London.

Brammer, Larry - 1 p.m., Greene-Robertson Funeral Home, Sutton.

Crouch, Patty - 1 p.m., The First Freewill Baptist Church of Chesapeake.

Ferguson, Alice - 6 p.m., First Baptist Church of Kenova.

Harris, Curtis - 11 a.m., St. Matthew Catholic Church, Ravenswood.

Holcomb, Robert - 2 p.m., Mt. Gilead Cemetery, Pool.

Jarrell, Alma - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Lanham, Edward - 6 p.m., American Legion, St. Albans.

O'Dell, Shelvia - 11 a.m., John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.

Russell, Edra - 1 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Stewart II, Randall - 1 p.m., White Funeral Home, Summersville.