Home & Garden Columns

East Bay Then and Now: The Evolution of a Downtown Corner

By Daniella Thompson
Friday March 30, 2007

On February 23, 1924, the weekly newspaper The Courier announced that the rapidly expanding American Bank, headquartered at 16th Street and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, had purchased the College National Bank of Berkeley. American Bank was headed by Phillip E. Bowles, a University of California alumnus and regent from 1911 to 1922. Bowles Hall, UC’s first student residence hall, would be endowed by his widow in his name. 

Bowles’ equivalent at College National Bank was Frank Ernest Heath (1866–1951), the leading dairyman in these parts. Having begun as a cable-car gripman and streetcar conductor in San Francisco, Heath bought a small Alameda dairy in 1900. After acquiring several Oakland dairies, in 1906 Heath purchased Berkeley Farm Creamery on Allston Way, current site of the Gaia Building. 

Initially a small plant, Berkeley Farm Creamery was transformed by Heath into one of the largest in the west, with seven hundred milk cows producing 8,000 gallons a day and gross sales of $2,750,000 in 1927. 

The College National Bank was organized in 1919 under charter No. 11495. Like hundreds of other small California banks, it printed its own national currency banknotes. By 1923, the bank had expanded to such an extent that it was able to construct its own building on the northwest corner of Shattuck Avenue and Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. 

The site where the new bank building was to be erected was not empty. For several decades, it had been occupied by a three-story building with window bays along its two facades. Topped by a conical witch’s hat, its round corner turret served as companion to the corresponding domed turret on the Francis K. Shattuck Building across Addison Street. On the ground floor, this building contained three storefronts that varied over the years from picture-framing and paint stores to a candy factory. Upstairs there were offices and rooms.  

In January 1923, the Courier announced the completion of the wrecking of the site for the College National Bank, and excavation for the new building began the following month. 

The new edifice, opened in December 1923, was a temple of commerce in appearance as well as in function. It was designed by Oakland architect Charles W. McCall, who had built the Mission Revival Webb Block on the corner of Ashby and Adeline in 1905. This time, McCall used a hybrid modernist-Greek Revival style, executed in concrete. The traditional Greek triangular pediment was replaced by a flat parapet, and the Addison Street facade featured seven two-story-high windows separated by plain concrete columns. Along the Shattuck Ave. facade, four Doric columns stood guard over the recessed entrance. 

The building may have been designed to last forever, but its life was remarkably short. Possibly as a result of the Great Depression, College National Bank vacated its home. In December 1931, the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported that the Berkeley Municipal Christmas Tree Committee had opened temporary quarters in the vacant building in order to collect shoes, stockings, and warm underwear gifts for underprivileged children and needy elderly folk. 

Enter Samuel Henry Kress (1863–1955) and his five-and-dime empire. Established in 1896, S.H. Kress & Company is described in the Kress Foundation’s history as having “operated a chain of distinctive, elegant buildings purveying cheerful, low-priced notions and durable household wares. Designed to exacting company standards, the handsome Kress stores were cherished no less as prominent local landmarks than for their quality merchandise. In an age of civic boosterism, the downtown ‘Kress’s’ were celebrated beacons of prosperity and progress, exemplars of urban art, and magnets of municipal pride.” 

Alone among the five-and-dime chains that clustered on America’s Main Streets, Kress began building its own stores in 1909, relying on an in-house architectural division that employed at its peak nearly 100 architects and designers. 

In 1931, Kress announced that it was going to build in the new style and modernize Main Street. Two years earlier, the company had hired Brooklyn-born Edward Frederick Sibbert, Jr. (1899–1982), who would become Kress’s chief architect and design more than 50 stores in 25 years. 

Fortunately for Berkeley, Kress decided to build here when Sibbert was already on board. His Art Deco buildings are the most distinctive and the best remembered of the Kress stores. 

Kress apparently acquired the College National Bank site in 1932. In July of that year, The Architect & Engineer announced plans for a new three-story, $100,000 building, but two months later the Berkeley Progress reported that the company was planning to remodel the existing bank building. The decision was finally made to build from scratch. In May 1933, the Berkeley Progress reported that the new two-story-plus-basement building would be erected by Dinwiddie Construction Co. at a cost of approximately $100,000, that it would have a steel frame, with a frontage of 55 feet on Shattuck Avenue and 150 feet on Addison Street, and that the walls would be of concrete faced with pressed brick and a brick veneer. The building was being constructed with foundations that could carry additional stories when needed. 

The building permit issued in June 1933 was for a two-story, four-room, $55,000 store measuring 55 feet by 100 feet, with a height of 52 feet. Like many other Sibbert-designed Kress stores, it is sleekly fashioned in the Zigzag Moderne style, with strong verticals and vaguely Mayan terracotta ornaments. Even the fire escape on the Addison Street side is patterned in Art Deco style. 

Curved glass display windows led the shopper through heavy bronze doors into a long, elegant sales floor offering thousands of inexpensive items. The salesladies’ tan and ivory uniforms blended with the pale walls. 

In 1964, S. H. Kress & Co. was bought by Genesco, Inc., which began closing down the stores in 1980. About one hundred of the Kress buildings survive and are treasured for their beauty. Many have been designated landmarks and adapted to other uses. The Berkeley store, designated a city landmark in 1981, is currently home to Half Price Books, the Jazz School, and the Aurora Theatre Company. 

In 1997, the National Building Museum mounted the exhibition “Main Street Five-and-Dime: The Architectural Heritage of S. H. Kress & Co.” The announcement card and the exhibition brochure featured a 1933 photograph of the Berkeley store. 


Daniella Thompson publishes berkeleyheritage.com for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA). 


Photograph by Daniella Thompson 

The Kress Building is the third major commercial structure built at the northeast corner of Shattuck Avenue and Addison Street.