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5 & 10-cent stores once essential features of American main streets

By Susan Cerny
Sunday September 09, 2001

The Kress building represents the almost vanished variety store which once dominated American main streets. Until the 1960s Shattuck Avenue had three five-and-dime stores: Kress, Woolworth’s, and National Dollar Stores, all within four blocks of one another.  

The S.H. Kress & Co. chain of five-and-dimes was one of the most successful retail businesses of the 20th century. The company opened its first store in 1896 and the Berkeley store was built in 1932. It was designed by Kress’ architectural staff headed by Edward F. Sibbert. The exterior walls are light brown brick decorated with polychrome terra-cotta ornament in what is commonly referred to as “zig-zag modern.”  

Unlike other variety stores, Kress built, rather than leased his stores. Kress even established an architectural division in 1900, and created a basic style that set his stores apart from his competitors. There were once 264 stores across the country.  

In 1997-1998 The Building Museum in Washington D.C. had an exhibit entitled “Main Street Five-and Dimes: The Architectural Heritage of S.H. Kress & Co. On the cover of the museum brochure was the photograph reproduced here of the Berkeley store. The January/February 1993 issue of Historic Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, devoted eight pages to the story of Samuel H. Kress and the design of his five-and-dime stores. The article notes that “Kress dime stores constitute a remarkable architectural heritage…they are reminders of the role that retailing played in shaping the American experience.” 

Samuel Kress also became a major Renaissance art collector, established the Kress Foundation in 1929, and donated approximately 400 works to the National Gallery in 1939. After World War II the Kress Foundation gave paintings and sculptures to many museums around the country. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are among the museums that benefited from the Kress Foundation generosity. 

Susan Cerney writes “Berkeley Observed” in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.