Remembering the House of Kress
Kress Stores Are Still Landmarks in Several South Carolina Cities
KRESS PHOTO GALLERY
Evening monument: the Charleston Kress building
The Kress lunch counter in Spartanburg
The Kress building in Columbia
by Jim Sweeney
A Kress dime store, with its elaborate, buff-colored facade, was once a common sight in the downtowns of many American cities, large and small. The chain was in South Carolina by 1905. It had at least 11 stores in the state at various times (Anderson, Bennettsville, Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Greenville, Greenwood, Lancaster, Spartanburg and two in Sumter).
Although S.H. Kress & Co. no longer exists, many of the stores stand. Some are still retail outlets; others are now office buildings or banks.
Kress stores have become icons of Main Street. They often are praised for their architectural excellence and attention to detail. However, until now, nobody has delved into their history to tell the story of why and how they stood head and shoulders above the competition. Architectural historian Bernice Thomas recently published a book on the Kress stores culminating more than a decade of research.
The era of the dime store is almost over, with Woolworth’s announcement last summer that it is closing its remaining 400 stores. Just in time comes Thomas’ book, America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy. It is thought to be the only in-depth look at the history and design of a dime store chain.
Architectural historians often praise the Kress stores. In The National Trust Guide to Art Deco in America, David Gebhard mentions them several times. Of the company’s 1930s stores, he says, "All of these are sophisticated designs, and some . . . are outstanding examples of the popular Moderne." He also cites the "consistent quality" of the designs.
In Rediscovering Art Deco USA by Barbara Capitman, Michael Kinerk and Dennis Wilhelm, the authors state, "This chain store, more than any other, was responsible for bringing Art Deco to Main Street USA."
Many of the South Carolina Kress stores were architectural masterpieces. Thomas notes in her book that when Columbia’s 1935 store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it required a waiver of the rule that buildings on that list be at least 50 years old. The waiver was granted on the grounds that the store was "the best example of the Art Deco style in Columbia and . . . therefore of exceptional importance as a city landmark." The Columbia building is slated to be part of a major downtown revitalization project.
Charleston’s King Street store (1930) is another gem—a stand-out even amid Charleston’s plenteous architectural treasures. The Spartanburg store also played a part in recent history; the lunch counter of that store was the site of a landmark civil rights sit-in, Thomas found.
S .H. Kress & Co., although based in Memphis, had a special connection to South Carolina. Claude Kress, brother of company founder Samuel H. Kress and president of the company, owned Buckfield Plantation in Yemassee. There he conducted research on narcissus and other bulbs. He demonstrated that narcissus bulbs, which had been imported from France, could be grown in America. For this contribution to the state’s agriculture, he received an honorary degree from Clemson.
Claude Kress’ narcissus bulbs were sold in the Greensboro, NC, store. Thomas believes the stylized narcissus in the ornaments on that store’s facade signify Claude’s interests.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of many variety store chains, according to Alan Aiches, the National Building Museum’s curator of collections and organizer of a recent exhibit on Kress stores. The largest chains, in terms of the number of stores, were Woolworth’s and Kresge. Kress was probably fifth or sixth in the nation.
What made the Kress chain unusual, Aiches says, is that the stores were designed by an in-house team of architects. That gave its stores a consistent interior and exterior design the other chains couldn’t match.
Samuel Kress hired excellent people for his architectural office. At one point, some 100 architects and draftsmen were employed by the chain, Thomas points out.
Edward Sibbert, who ran the architectural division for many years and designed many of the new stores and renovations, had an engineering degree from Pratt Institute and an architectural degree from Cornell. Under his stewardship, Kress stores moved from Beaux Arts-influenced designs to a thoroughly modern architectural vocabulary. Sibbert designed the Charleston and Columbia stores and renovated the Anderson store in 1935.
Many of the Kress buildings survive, although demolition has claimed some of the approximately 400 Kress stores. A replica of the Hollywood store is part of the "Hollywood Boulevard" set at Universal Studios in Florida—symbolizing the Kress store as a Main Street icon.
During the Depression, even dime stores tried to look nice. However, Kress stores are unusually decorative and well-designed even for their era. To comprehend why, Thomas says, you have to consider an important influence on the design of Kress stores: Samuel H. Kress. He was a major art collector whose tastes influenced his stores. He’s the reason for the fine materials and the many architectural styles, Thomas says. The Kress coat of arms is even worked into the decoration of several buildings.
The finest of the Kress stores (which were called Superstores—like the Charleston store) were luxurious for their time. It may have seemed counterintuitive to build in this fashion during a depression, but this was a deliberate—and canny—decision. The company realized the Great Depression wouldn’t last forever, and used the Depression years to prepare for coming prosperity. The company took advantage of the cheap labor and materials available in the 1930s to build many new stores that would have been much more costly to erect in a thriving economy.
These new stores often helped the company’s bottom line, even before the Depression ended. Building stores during the Great Depression was also good for community relations. The labor and materials for a new store were usually acquired locally—a boost for suffering economies. The new stores also generated lots of publicity: Few new privately owned buildings were going up in downtown districts in the 1930s.
Kress stores set a standard for other retailers. The stores were located in 28 states coast to coast, plus Hawaii. (The greatest concentrations were in the Carolinas, Alabama, California, Georgia, Hawaii and Texas.)
Thomas, an Albany, GA, native with a Ph.D. in Romanesque architecture from Boston University, convinced the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to fund her research on Kress stores. One of her key discoveries was that many records of the Kress architectural division, thought to have been discarded, still existed. She found them in the Nashville basement of Genesco Inc., which had bought Kress in 1964 to use the stores as outlets for its clothing. The records are noteworthy because documentation for commercial architecture rarely survives. These files—7,000 photographs, 6,000 architectural prints and drawings, plus documents—are important to researchers and those interested in the architecture of the period. Genesco donated the records to the National Building Museum in Washington.
Thomas found great affection for Kress stores among former customers and employees. The stores were clearly a be-loved part of the community. That may be why the Kress name often remains associated with the building long after the store closes. When Hillcrest Printing moved into the old Kress store in Spartanburg, it changed its name to Kress Printing and Office Supplies.
Jim Sweeney is a freelance writer in Alexandria, VA.
America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy is published by the National Building Museum and Preservation Press/John Wiley & Sons Inc. ($21.95). The museum also published A Guide to the Building Records of S.H. Kress & Co. 5-10-25 Cent Stores at the National Building Museum ($6.95). For details, call (202) 272-2448.
"Meet your friends at Kress!"
by Belinda Long
Beside the construction billboards and scaffolding, signs welcomed passersby to the newest downtown addition: Kress. Kress stores served as city anchors, drawing urban, country and small-town people to their lunch counters and cash registers. With their fanciful, unusual exteriors and stocks of luxuries and necessities, Kress stores were more than just stores. They were meeting places, centers of activity, friends you could count on for last-minute toiletries and a grilled cheese.
"I remember going to Kress and buying the best ingredients for fruitcakes," recalled Lexington resident Maro Rogers. "I bought fabric and patterns there. I made a white dress with a red-and-white polka dot sash that I wore for years and years. That was the first dress I had ever made by myself. It cost me $2."
Reminiscing about blocks of chocolate, school supplies and banana splits, Rogers smiled. "The stores had everything."
With their curving glass display windows and special lighting—built to draw consumers inside and keep them there—Kress stores are tributes to American marketing and design. Though the stores had the basic features that earmarked them as the company’s own, Kress store facades ranged from Italian Renaissance to Greek Revival to Art Deco.
Ornamental architecture gave each store a distinct personality. The Columbia store, built in 1935, features a deep marquee with flowing lines sheltering large, plate-glass windows on polished granite bases. "When the great room is lighted with the 300-watt bulbs used in these chandeliers, it seems more like an elegant ballroom than a five-and-ten," said Bernice Thomas in America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy.
In 1930, Kress replaced Charleston’s original store with a superstore designed after Mayan Revival architecture. Butterscotch terra cotta with ornamental festoons and geometric motifs highlight the King Street facade. The main sales floor boasts elaborate plasterwork, bronze grills, travertine wainscoting, fine wood trim and paneling.
The decline of S.H. Kress & Co. reflected the fall of Main Street. Thomas noted the company had put faith in downtown growth. Now, as many Kress stores stand empty, their historic architecture serves as both motivation and inspiration to those looking to revitalize Main Street.
ARTICLES AND PHOTOS ARE SPONSORED IN PART BY THE SOUTH CAROLINA ARTS COMMISSION, WHICH RECEIVES SUPPORT FROM THE NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS.
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