Filed Under Businesses

Thoma-Bigelow Building (site)

A Reno focal point from its opening in 1903 to a 1960 Civil Rights protest

The Thoma-Bigelow Building that once stood at the northwest corner of First and Virginia Streets had a rich and extensive history dating back to 1903. It was named after Judge Bigelow and Dr. Thoma, who had hired prominent contractor C.E. Clough to erect the beautiful, three-story brick and stone building in order to accommodate an influential business in town, the powerhouse Gray, Reid, and Wright Company. The locally-owned department store had grown out of its location at the Queen Building at 237 N. Virginia St., and the new Thoma-Bigelow building would provide the popular retail institution with all the room it needed.

The building's grand opening was the social event of the season. Five thousand guests were taken on store tours by employees and serenaded by a six-piece orchestra, then given a souvenir glass bearing the design of the building. The Gray, Reid, Wright Co. (GRW) occupied the building for the next 35 years, but not without substantial change. In 1928, the influential businessman George Mapes, whose family would later open the Mapes Hotel and Casino, went into business with the GRW trio and purchased the building, which was known thereafter as the Mapes Building.

In the summer of 1938, the GRW’s lease in the building expired and Charles Mapes decided to bring a famous chain store into the building—F.W. Woolworth & Company, which was at that point located on the opposite side of the street. Before the store was allowed to move in, the building underwent significant changes. Mapes hired one of Nevada’s most prolific architects, Frederic Joseph DeLongchamps, to renovate the building. DeLongchamps gave it an Art-Deco style with entirely new exterior, new entrances, and remodeled storefronts. The grand opening for the new Woolworth’s took place on July 11, 1938. The basement housed the toy and household departments, the main floor encompassed men’s, cosmetics, dry goods and hosiery departments, and the second floor featured ladies’ ready-to-wear, infants, shoes, millinery and the beauty parlor.

Reno's Woolworth’s store was not simply a site for shopping and purchasing goods, as it became involved in a national issue in the 1960s: the Civil Rights movement. Racial segregation may have been less visible in Reno than in other parts of the country, but Reno rightfully earned its moniker of the “Mississippi of the West.” African Americans were discriminated against in the realms of employment, service, lodging, and housing, and were not allowed to be admitted as customers in any of the large casinos.

Even though Reno’s African American population was relatively small—in 1960 Washoe County had only 1,628 African Americans out of a total population of 84,743—the Civil Rights movement was active, with a Reno-Sparks chapter of the NAACP established in 1945. African Americans were not barred from sitting at the counter in Reno's Woolworth's store, but members of the NAACP picketed in front of it in June of 1960 as a sign of solidarity with the courageous students protesting longstanding segregation at lunch counters throughout the South, all spurred by the sit-in at the Woolworth's branch in Greensboro, North Carolina. These local activists successfully linked Reno to the greater nationwide movement, and helped pave the way for effective change with the integration of restaurants and lunch counters throughout the South and eventually with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Also in 1964, brother and sister Charles Mapes and Gloria Mapes Walker had the Thoma-Bigelow building demolished to make way for the construction of a new eight-story building on the same site. Also named the Mapes Building, it was occupied by Woolworth’s on the first and second floors and in the basement, with the top six floors dedicated to commercial and office space.

Images

The Thoma-Bigelow Building
The Thoma-Bigelow Building Constructed in 1903, the Thoma-Bigelow Building (far left) stood at the northwest corner of First and Virginia Streets, and originally housed the popular local department store Gray, Reid, and Wright. Source: Dick Dreiling
The Mapes Building in 1941
The Mapes Building in 1941 Renamed the Mapes Building when it was purchased by the Mapes family in 1928, the building (far left) was extensively remodeled, and became the new home of Woolworth's in 1938. Source: Mella Rothwell Harmon Date: 1941
Sandbags in 1950
Sandbags in 1950 In preparation for predicted flooding in 1950, sandbags were placed around the ground floor of the Woolworth's building. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: 1950
NAACP Protest, June 1960
NAACP Protest, June 1960 As reported by the Nevada State Journal, members of the NAACP picketed in front of Reno's Woolworth's store on June 11, 1960 as a show of solidarity with demonstrators protesting segregation at lunch counters throughout the American south. Source: Nevada State Journal Date: June 12, 1960

Location

111 N. Virginia Street, Reno, Nevada

Metadata

Alicia Barber, “Thoma-Bigelow Building (site),” Reno Historical, accessed April 12, 2024, https://renohistorical.org/items/show/254.