Preservation Magazine, Winter 2016

Outside the Box: Old Coca-Cola Advertisements Get a Fresh Coat of Paint

A Coca-Cola ghost sign

photo by: Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated

Give him time to study it, and Andy Thompson can look at a brick wall and see what was once there—perhaps the outline of a bottle or a word or a face.

Since 1958, just days after his high school graduation, Thompson has worked as a sign painter for Coca-Cola, often turning the sides of brick buildings into advertisements promising a drink that’s “Delicious!” and “Refreshing!”

The first Coca-Cola wall signs, as Thompson calls them, were created in the 1890s; more than 16,000 were painted before the company phased out the practice in the 1970s. Eventually, those early signs began to disappear entirely. Some were lost as their buildings were torn down. Others were painted over or hidden behind new construction. Still others simply faded or chipped away.

Then in 2011, Mayor J. Scott Padgett of Concord, North Carolina, approached executives at Charlotte, North Carolina–based Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated (CCBCC), the country’s largest independent Coca-Cola bottler, about a faded sign in his city. He wanted it restored as part of a downtown revitalization effort, and CCBCC called on Thompson to bring it back. The finished product was a hit.

“People were taking engagement and wedding photos in front of it,” says Emilie Nicholls, corporate communications manager at CCBCC. “We saw how well everyone responded to it, and [our mural restoration program] grew from there.”

With the help of Thompson and other painters, such as Roanoke, Virginia–based artist Jack Fralin, more than two dozen signs in the Southeast have been restored so far. There’s a list of 35 others up for consideration—and that list keeps growing.

“These signs will fade away if they’re not saved,” Nicholls says. She’s a stickler for ensuring that CCBCC restores the signs to the early specifications Coca-Cola established, which mandate everything from the exact shades of red and green to how far the tail on the “C” in “Cola” should run.

But Thompson says he barely needs to consult those documents. “I’ve been doing this long enough; I know them all,” he says. Now his challenge is painting on old buildings with damaged or crumbling bricks. He’ll scrape off the old paint and prime the surface, making repairs to the wall where necessary. Then, if the image is too faded to freehand, he’ll measure out his pattern before picking up a paintbrush. People often stop to watch him as he’s working.

“You meet some real friendly people, and I enjoy talking with all of them,” he says. “I’ll come home and my wife will ask me how much work I got done, and I’ll say, ‘Well, today was more of a talking day.’ And it’s true. That’s what I like.”

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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