When we first landed in Charleston, SC one of our favorite buildings we discovered downtown was the S.H. Kress Building on King Street. At the time, (mid-1990s) it was vacant and unloved - like much of King Street, which is hard to imagine now - yet its quality, proudness and Art Deco details shown through. The massing of the building struck us with the depth of what often is a flat facade, materials including yellow brick, terra cotta, and gold accents work together to form a structured ornamentation. As fate would have it, the architectural firm we worked for was hired to do a feasibility study for its adaptive re-use as a Barnes + Noble. (Spoiler alert: it apparently wasn’t feasible.) Being eager, young intern architects, we set out with measuring tapes, graph paper and flashlights, tasked with field measuring and documenting this architectural and cultural gem. There is something equal parts exciting (like when your flashlight illuminates the original ornate plaster work on the ceiling through a gap in the 1980-ish faux ceiling) and creepy (evidence of critters) about walking through a vacant building that reeks of days gone by, especially one so grand.
It was only a short time after that, when in New Orleans, ANOTHER Kress building was discovered. “You mean there is more than one?” How we got this far in life without knowing about this retailer and its commitment to a quality built environment, we will never know. Research mode found what is now one of our beloved books, the National Building Museum’s “America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores - The Kress Legacy” by Bernice L. Thomas. Now, every time we explore a new city, we look for the Kress Building.
The period between the turn of the century through the 1930s was a prolific time for this new type of American architecture, aligning with a new type of retail - the five-and-ten-cent store - along with the advent of the chain store. There are most certainly systemic negatives to chain stores in general, their encroachment on small/local businesses, the standardizing of America’s towns and as of the last 50 years the uninspired and cookie-cutter designs; this architectural blog focuses on how S.H. Kress invested in and ultimately elevated retail and commercial architecture. Click here for a list of Kress buildings in the US.
“Kress stores are more than pretty designs. They are commitments to a better everyday world, to civic pride, to the bounties of democratic society. The modernist canon has helped make us more cynical. There is much to be gained from taking a few steps back in time and understanding the sophistication as well as the civility of our forebears.” Dr. Richard Longstreth, GWU