The Architectural World of Kress
Written by Chandler Lawing, BVL HPR intern & senior in the Historic Preservation program at the College of Charleston
Recently, I took a short road trip to Asheville, NC with a friend to view the changing leaves as Fall approaches on the East Coast. While wandering through downtown, I was greeted by a familiar but unexpected sight in the city’s skyline. I didn’t remember this facade from previous visits, but this is because I had not been looking for it then - that is, until I learned about the architecture of S. H. Kress stores in my Historic Preservation classes at College of Charleston. Since discovering Kress, I have seen Kress buildings everywhere: Charleston’s King Street (pictured below, No. 281-283 King Street), Durham, NC, Savannah, GA, Asheville, NC, Manhattan and even in Hilo, HI (pictured to the right, 174 Kamehameha Avenue).
Samuel Henry Kress opened the first of a chain of five-and-dime stores in 1887 under the name Kress and Company. Eventually, the company expanded to include 264 locations across the United States, operating until 1981. The first location was opened in Nanticoke, PA, selling “stationary and notions." From 1927 up to 1950, Kress and Co. outperformed any other five-and-dime establishment, holding the record for highest sales per store. This success is due to the fact that Samuel Kress recognized his products alone would not set his store apart from his competitors. To distinguish Kress and Co. from similar retailers, he created an architectural department that oversaw the unique design of each building. During the company’s “golden age” of the 1930s-50s, this department was headed by Edward F. Sibbert, Jr. An architect in his own right, Sibbert designed over 50 stores for Kress across the nation, many of them in the Art Deco style that Kress has long been remembered for. The company’s success during this period was bolstered by the genius of this branding strategy, which combined distinctive architecture with bold, recognizable signage.
According to the National Building Museum, Kress envisioned his stores as “works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape.” This dream was brought to life thanks to the work of Sibbert and the rest of the Kress and Co. architectural team, who designed stores in an array of architectural styles. These ornate buildings soon became anchors on the main streets of hundreds of towns across America. They were retail stores that offered an elevated shopping experience, with customers often walking through the shadows of grand columns with ornate, classically-inspired plaster capitals, entering beneath neon-clad awnings or greeted by bronze sculptures of ancient deities.
Samuel Kress was a lifelong appreciator of art and culture. Throughout his life, he collected over 3,000 works of European art, many of which he donated to independent museums around the United States. His expertise in the field led him to become the National Gallery’s president in 1945, and today, the Kress Foundation continues his legacy of sharing art and architectural history. Kress and Co. buildings may still be seen in almost every state, although the company is no longer in existence. They have been given new lives as hotels, art galleries, restaurants, retail spaces, apartments, and movie theaters, but on almost every one, the Kress name can still be seen prominently displayed in its iconic typeface across the front. Many of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their cultural and architectural significance. They stand as testimony to the twentieth century's age of innovation in America's retail industry and architectural design, and are a great bucket list item for any Main Street, USA road trip. Be sure to look for them on your next American adventure!