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Kress Buildings Across Texas & America

by Johnny Stucco
Samuel Henry Kress was born in Cherryville, Pennsylvania in July of 1863. His father worked as a supervisor at a coal mine and Sam was one of seven children.

Young Mr. Kress tried his hand at teaching before opening a stationery business in Nanticoke, Pa. in 1887. As his store prospered, he reinvested his profits and opened more stores, incorporating as S. H. Kress & Co. He never married or had children. His first large-scale store was said to be in Memphis, Tennessee.
Detail of the former Kress Building in Memphis, Tennessee
Detail of the former Kress Building in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, July 2007

In 1878 Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first 5 and 10 cent store and his rapid success was no doubt noticed by Sam Kress. While Kress may have “borrowed” the concept of a “five-and-dime” from Frank Woolworth, when Woolworth died, Kress acknowledged his mentor by closing his stores for the funeral and giving his employees the day off. A most un-businesslike decision for those times.

A lifelong bachelor, Kress spent his leisure collecting European art. Instead of amassing a large single collection, and donating it as such, he donated over 3,000 paintings, statues, sculptures, furniture and tapestries to museums across America. In 1945 he became president of the National Gallery of Art.

1929 was a bad year for many. But it was a milestone for Kress. The Kress Foundation (for the appreciation of European art) was organized and that same year Sam Kress hired Brooklyn-born Architect Edward F. Sibbert, Jr. Sibbert soon became Kress’ chief architect and for the next 25 years, designed over 50 Kress stores – most of them prestigious locations in major cities. Art Deco or Zig-Zag designs were favored and Sibbert-designed stores are considered prizes in the world of Kress buildings. Edward Sibbert died in 1982, surviving his boss by some twenty-seven years.

Samuel H. Kress died in New York City, in a penthouse atop one of his properties in September of 1955, aged 92.

With no wife and no heirs, Sam Kress’ company was sold in 1964 – just about the time malls started appearing and populations started leaving cities for Suburban Utopia. The company that acquired the Kress holdings liquidated its assets in 1980.

In Texas, Kress operated stores in at least ten cities, including Amarillo, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Del Rio, El Paso, Fort Worth, Greenville, Houston, Laredo, Lubbock, Port Arthur, San Antonio and Texarkana.

San Antonio Kress Building detail
Detail of San Antonio's former Kress Building
TE Photo, April 2001
San Antonio Kress Store, Texas
The San Antonio Kress Store
TE Photo April, 2001
Brownsville  Kress Building , Texas
Some buildings aren't as grand as others.
A 70s look in downtown Brownsville
Photo Courtesy Ken Rudine, 2007
Florida had nine stores including Jacksonville, Key West, Miami, Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tampa. California had stores in Bakersfield, Berkeley, Hollywood, Inglewood, Long Beach, Modesto, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Pedro, Santa Rosa, and Stockton, and the other Kress stores were spread across the U. S. extending even to the (then) territories of Hawaii (Hilo and Honolulu) and Puerto Rico.

During the Great Depression, low labor costs and cheap construction material gave Kress an opportunity to expand. Most Kress stores were simple two to four story buildings but were much larger in larger cities such as New Orleans, Los Angeles and Miami.

Costs were usually between $50K to $100K for steel frame, concrete and brick veneer (with terra cotta detail) buildings. Buildings often included extras like basements and mezzanines – but were always constructed with the best materials available. Floor joists were 16 inches square and staircases were marble. Fire escapes were custom-ordered wrought iron and, of course, the Kress name was almost always gilded.

The company didn’t hesitate to expand, rebuild, remodel or demolish and start from scratch. The magnificent Memphis store, which is currently in use as a Marriott Springhill Suites, is in its fourth incarnation.
Memphis, Tennessee former Kress Building

The Memphis former Kress Store in late Afternoon
Now owned by Marriott Hotels
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, July 2007

One source lists about 100 surviving Kress buildings in America. Locating stores next to post offices, city halls and other public buildings was not coincidental but carefully planned. Their location made them integral parts of many downtowns and the quality of construction (as well as their beauty) insured their longevity. The ratio of survival for Kress buildings is somewhat higher than railroad depots and on a par with Carnegie libraries.

The number of stores Kress had at its zenith is in dispute. Some sources give 300 stores in 30 states while others cite a total of 400 stores. Many stores have been added to the National Register of Historic Places and many of those who are not on the Register have at least been declared local landmarks or are otherwise protected.
Kress Building in Selma, Alabama
A stately and elegant Kress Building in Selma, Alabama
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, February 2008
Kress Building detail in Selma, Alabama
Detail of the Selma Kress Store
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, February 2008
Kress Building in Selma, Alabama
Selma Detail
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, February 2008
Kress Building in Savannah, Georgia
The beautiful Kress Building in Savannah, Georgia
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, February 2008
Kress Building detail in Savannah, Georgia
Savannah Detail
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, February 2008

The former Kress store in Long Beach, California is being converted into lofts and across the country, reuse of the stores seems to be going in the direction of condos, lofts or hotels. In smaller towns like Iola, Kansas, stores have short-term tenants. At least one former building is a biker bar (Port Arthur, Texas). Many stores remain vacant and some are for sale. Considering the materials of even the most modest of stores, they are a bargain.

Kress building in Iola, Kansas
A forlorn Kress in Iola, Kansas
TE Photo March, 2005
Texarkana - Kress Building
Kress Building in Texarkana
Photo courtesy Gerald Massey, 2010
Kress building in Port Arthur, Texas

Number One in Owner Appreciation
Port Arthur, Texas, TE Photo April 2004

Port Arthur Kress building  detail

Port Arthur Detail
TE Photo April 2004

Hillsboro Texas Kress building sign
Kress Building in Hillsboro, Texas
Photo courtesy Stephen Michaels, April 2008
Kress building in Ardmore, Oklahoma

Kress Detail in Ardmore, Oklahoma
TE Photo, June 2004

Kress Detail in Ponca City, Oklahoma
Ponca City, Oklahoma Detail
TE Photo February 2005
Kress building in Chanute, Kansas
A Main Street Anchor in Chanute, Kansas
TE Photo May 2005
San Antonio Kress Building detail

The San Antonio Kress Building in 2001
(Undergoing restoration in 2008)

El Paso Texas Kress Building old post card
Kress Building in El Paso, Texas
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
The Building Museum in Washington D.C. showcased the Kress Buildings in a 1997 exhibit called Main Street Five-and-Dimes: The Architectural Heritage of S.H. Kress & Co. The museum is a repository for 13,000 drawings, blueprints and photographs from the former Kress archives.

By employing exotic motifs, distinctive details and quality materials, Kress architects put their stores on the same level of banks, post offices and libraries. Designs were tasteful and patrons felt up-lifted from their hum-drum existence. Kind of like the present-day Wal-Mart experience.

© John Troesser
First published March 2008
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