Page One

Downtown’s Kress Building Was Built to Last By CASSIE NORTON

Tuesday August 09, 2005

The S.H. Kress building at 2036 Shattuck Ave. was built in a different time, but due in no small part to the foresight of founder Samuel Kress, the 73-year-old building is still standing today. 

Described as “one of the most unusual office spaces in downtown Berkeley” by its owner, real estate agent John Gordon, the multi-story building is home to the Jazzschool in the basement and the office of UC Berkeley’s Industry Research Cooperative Program on the top floor. Half Price Books is in the process of moving into the ground floor. 

Built in 1932 by S.H. Kress and Co., the building was one of three five-and-dimes on Shattuck Avenue. While researching her book America’s 5 and10-Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy, author Bernice Thomas recovered thousands of architectural drawings and prints from the basement of the original store in Nashville, Tenn. Believed to have been lost, these documents were donated to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum created an exhibit dedicated to Kress and featured the Berkeley Kress building on promotional postcards and on the cover of the brochure. 

Because Kress and Co. did not lease existing buildings, as most five-and-dime stores did, Kress established an in-house architectural team to design the new buildings in 1905. Because of this unusual business tactic, no two Kress stores are exactly alike, but they do have an internal and external continuity. 

Berkeley’s Kress building was one of the first designed by Edward Sibbert, head of the Kress architectural division and designer of scores of Kress buildings, including the flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. In a 1931 press release, Kress announced that they would be building in “the new style” of Art Deco. Built just a year later, the local building features terracotta ornamentation on the outside and details like copper scrolling around the windows on the inside. It is also remarkably sound, according to Gordon. 

“[The building] was designed and built to withstand earthquakes. Most buildings like this, built around this time, have six-inch concrete walls. The Kress building has 12-inch concrete walls and additional rebar. It also has roof tie-ins. It was really ahead of its time,” Gordon said in a phone interview. 

After reaching its peak with approximately 400 stores in 28 states coast-to-coast, Kress was sold to Genesco, Inc. in 1964. Genesco used the building as a retail clothing outlet. In 1980 the building changed hands again, from Genesco to J.J. Newberry’s, though it was still used to display and sell clothing. 

1999 was a big year for the Kress building. Gordon bought the property in September and began renovations. A new entrance and lobby were created on Addison Street, allowing separate access to the basement and top floor. The elevator was updated to allow handicapped access. 

Architect Dan Winterich was hired to update the look of the second floor. After installing a new electrical system and high-speed communication capabilities, Winterich created private offices and gave it an “ultra modern design.” Invisible from the street, new windows were installed on the north wall to allow more natural light into the space. It is now leased by UC Berkeley. 

Jazzschool rents the basement from Gordon and has renovated the space to accommodate classrooms, performance spaces, a bookstore and a cafe. According to their website, Jazzschool is a “music school dedicated to the study and performance of America’s indigenous art form—jazz.” It is “the only school of its kind in the Bay Area and one of a very few in the U.S.” 

They celebrated their grand opening in the Kress building in January of 2001. 

The future holds more renovations for the Kress building. Gordon is currently looking for “just the right person” to waterproof the terracotta ornamentation on the building’s façade. But don’t look for seismic upgrades any time soon—the building was so solidly constructed in 1932 that it meets current seismic requirements.