In its heyday, the retail empire of S.H. Kress & Company had establishments in more than 200 communities across the United States. Established in 1896 by pioneering businessman Samuel Henry Kress, the company operated a chain of five-and-dime stores, offering “affordable, durable and cheerful domestic merchandise”* that attracted shoppers by the score. But the Main Streets of bygone days welcomed Kress not only for their quality goods. Designed with beauty and longevity in mind, the Kress stores were renowned for their outstanding architectural styles as well.
With a vision of making his stores public works of art, Samuel Kress hired staff architects to create recognizable establishments designed to contribute to a city’s aesthetic. Some were in the elaborate Gothic Revival style, others in Greco-Roman, but perhaps the most beloved designs were Art Deco. The brainchild of chief architect Edward F. Sibbert, Kress stores with streamlined Art Deco architecture combined sleek modernity with the distinctive classic ornamentation of the style.
When the demand for five-and-dimes faded, the appeal of the distinguished buildings remained. S.H. Kress & Company was sold in 1964, with liquidations and closures taking place in 1980. The following year, the remaining stores were purchased by McCrory Stores and operated under the Kress name until McCrory went out of business in 2001. Although some of the stores were unfortunately demolished — including the spectacular flagship store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in New York City — many more have been adapted for reuse. Here are just a few of the Kress buildings around the South that have found new life as apartments, hotels, office space, event venues and more.
We begin our trip through time in Memphis, where Kress opened in 1896 before moving downtown in 1927. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building is now part of Marriott’s SpringHill Suites and serves as a meeting space. The original terra cotta façade with vibrant shades of purple, green and gold, featuring eagle and lion heads, cornucopias, and fruit designs, remains an attractive part of the cityscape, just as Samuel Kress intended.
The Kress building in Nashville shares the colorful terra cotta embellishments but depicts figures from Greek mythology. The Art Deco-style architecture replaced a previous Kress store on the same site in 1935 and is currently home to the Kress Lofts, an upscale high rise in the heart of downtown offering luxury condos and penthouses.
In 1960, the Nashville Kress store played a role in the civil rights movement. The lunch counter was segregated — as were all the Kress lunch counters — and the citizens of Nashville led a successful boycott to integrate this location well before other stores followed suit.
Other Tennessee cities with repurposed Kress buildings include Knoxville, Bristol, Johnson City, and Elizabethton.
Built in 1937, the historic Kress building in downtown Birmingham now serves two purposes — as headquarters for a prominent law firm and as a premier event venue for the city. Restored in 2003 by the founding shareholders of Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher & Goldfarb, the former store also offers a stunning rooftop, beautifully decorated lobby and unique theater to rent for special events. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982, this Kress building also saw civil rights movement lunch counter sit-ins in the spring of 1963.
Also located in Alabama, Kress on Dexter is a downtown restoration project in Montgomery, combining office, residential and retail space under one roof. This particular site saw a run of bad luck: Originally built in 1898, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1927, and then the replacement collapsed in 1929. Fortunately, the current building survived, and the Greek-inspired architecture is lovely to behold.
Additional Kress buildings remain in Huntsville (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), Anniston, Dothan, Gadsden, Tuscaloosa, Selma, and Mobile.
The three-story, Art Deco-style Kress establishment in Meridian, Mississippi, is classically simple, with exotic, Egyptian-themed details. Built in 1934, it was given new life in 2015 as a part of Mississippi State University’s Meridian campus. Extensively renovated, it is now the I.A. Rosenbaum Building and houses MSU’s state-of-the-art kinesiology program, a library, and a Bulldog Shop (selling MSU clothing as well as the college’s signature cheese and ice cream).
You can also find Kress buildings in Hattiesburg, Laurel, Biloxi, and Natchez.
Kress Condominiums are located in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge. Built in 1887, the store was saved from demolition and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Unusually, this particular Kress building was rather plain, but renovations have turned it into a perfect place for luxury condos.
Also in Louisiana, and located on Canal Street, the New Orleans Kress building originally had glazed white terra cotta with French-inspired embellishments, which were later covered with porcelain enamel panels when remodeled in 1960. Fortunately, the façade has been restored as a part of the Ritz-Carlton. Visitors should note that while the outside retains its former glory, the main entrance now leads to the parking garage.
Alexandria is also home to a repurposed Kress building, which is now home to The Rapides Foundation.
Described as an architectural gem, the Greensboro Kress building was the first one designed by Edward Sibbert for the chain. The three-story Art Deco building is a perfect example of the colorful terra cotta details that set off a sleek, cool style. The building also serves as another landmark in the fight for civil rights, as it was the stage for some of the earliest demonstrations in the South.
Asheville also has a Kress building. Built in 1928, the building is now fittingly an emporium that features the fresh work of more than 80 regional artists. We think Mr. Kress himself would approve.
Other North Carolina cities that have Kress buildings include Salisbury, Gastonia, New Bern, Goldsboro, and Durham.
If we’ve piqued your interest in Southern Kress stores, you’ll also find them in Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Florida. The SEC includes Missouri now, so we will too: a handsome departure from the Art Deco style in downtown Columbia features beautiful brickwork and an open storefront topped with horizontal metal banding. Those venturing further afield will also find gems all the way from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Hilo, Hawaii.
Besides these monuments to taste and style, what remains of the Kress empire and legacy in 2021? The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., holds the company’s building records, consisting of some 6,000 architectural plans and 7,000 photographs. The collection details the design, construction and operation of 221 Kress stores in 28 states. A subsidiary chain in Puerto Rico called Tiendas Kress survived the liquidations of the 1980s and remains open to this day.
A generous philanthropist and art collector, Samuel H. Kress established the Kress Foundation in 1929 to assemble and distribute an amazing collection of Old Master paintings and other European works of art. The Foundation continues to devote its resources to advancing the preservation and study of European art and architecture and offers a range of grants and fellowships to art historians, conservators, curators and librarians. You can read more about the fascinating history behind the Kress Collection HERE.
*Quote from the Kress Foundation website.
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