Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 26, 2018

San Pedro Kress Building; No Nickel-and-Dime Five and Ten

What do I hope for when I walk out the door? Find a winning Mega Millions lottery ticket lying on the sidewalk? Bump into Penelope Cruz in the grocery? Nah. To quote Clint: A man’s got to know his limitations.

I do keep my eyes open, but I’m not picking up cast-off lottery tickets. I might be headed for the grocery, but I assume Ms. Cruz shops in another part of town when she’s in L.A. I never see her. I might have my camera along, but pictures aren’t all I’m after.

I hope for a story.

I don’t expect a story to walk up and introduce itself, although that happens occasionally. I have to look for one. Sometimes, though, the signs are all there, and one simply has to pay some gosh-darned attention. Here’s an example.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2914 680

I’ve driven by that building on the corner of 7th and Pacific in San Pedro, California dozens of times. I’ve wondered about it, but never investigated. Some things about it are immediately apparent: cast concrete, curvilinear Art Deco trending toward Streamline Moderne, abstract-geometric details molded into the facade, probably from the 1930s.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2913 680

In that era, Pacific Avenue was a thriving downtown district, as were downtowns across America in a day before shopping malls and big box retailers. It’s a storage facility now, but no one would’ve built a warehouse along a shopping street, even with the Port of Los Angeles a few blocks away. There were then — as now — vast acres of warehouses along the waterfront, any one of which could hold entire ships’ cargos. “Self storage” facilities didn’t exist in the ’30s; people stored their own stuff at home, because they didn’t have so much stuff.

What was it? Who built it?

Story Time

In 1887, 24 year-old Samuel H. Kress started a stationery and notions store in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. He opened several other stores, and in 1896 established the S. H. Kress & Co. chain of five-and-ten-cent stores — also known as “five-and-dimes” or, as we called the one in my childhood hometown, “dime stores” — competing with Woolworth’s, W. T. Grant, S. S. Kresge, J. J. Newberry and numerous others.

The Five-and-Ten

The Woolworth Brothers pioneered the five-cent-and-ten-cent store in about 1879. They stocked inexpensive household goods, personal care items, basic clothing like socks and underwear. By the 1930s, inflation required prices above ten cents per item, but five-and-dimes persist, often called variety store, pound shop, dollar store, etc.

The Competitor

Kress differentiated his enterprise by opening stores in small- or medium-sized cities, not just major urban areas. He sought out downtown locations in areas poised for growth. At its peak, the Kress chain had more than 250 stores operating in 29 U.S. states.

Another distinguishing aspect of the Kress chain were the store buildings. They were often the most impressive structures in their retail districts — stylish, refined — retail palaces with goods for the ordinary shopper. Enter Edward F. Sibbert.

Kress hired the 40 year-old architect in 1929, and Sibbert spent the next 25 years as Kress’ chief architect, designing more than 50 store buildings, often in distinctive Art Deco styling. Many still stand, quite a few listed as historically significant structures.

Sibbert designed the building at the corner of Pacific and 7th in 1938. It remained a Kress store until it closed in 1980 as the chain was being acquired and mostly liquidated.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2912 680

The interiors of Kress stores were noted for their appealing style, and in the mid-thirties stocked more than 4,000 items.

I spoke to a member of the staff at the storage company who recalled being in the Kress store when she was a young girl. She described it as a lively, pleasant place, and especially remembered the soda fountain and lunch counter in the basement. Today, all the furnishings have been removed, and only details molded into the concrete, along with the original wooden floor remain. It’s a large, concrete box.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2729 680

Most of the Kress buildings’ exteriors were clearly identified with the Kress name. In the case of San Pedro’s, gold letters at the tops of those pylons spelled out K-R-E-S-S, now replaced with the name of the storage facility.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2908 680

Epilogue

Samuel Kress became a wealthy man. He devoted much of his personal fortune to acquiring one of the 20th century’s most significant collections of Italian Renaissance art. Many of his acquisitions are, today, considered priceless treasures. He established the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars’ worth of artworks to 18 U.S. museums, including — to the National Gallery of Art alone — 376 paintings; 94 sculptures; 1,307 bronzes and 38 drawings. Kress died in 1955.

Edward Sibbert had an interesting career prior to his years with Kress. A native New Yorker, he worked in Florida during the boom years of land development early in the century. He died in 1982, age 92. Ironically, Sibbert’s life — 1889 – 1982 — coincided almost exactly with the duration of the Kress store name, 1887-1981.

That Sibbert-designed Kress building at 644 S. Pacific Avenue is now 80 years old. It’s only one of many historically significant or notable structures in the old port town. It may be suitable for redevelopment as apartments, lofts, retail space, but the fortunes of the town may not warrant it. There are efforts to revitalize the historic core as an arts center, and the Kress building is well located should that endeavor prosper. Significant redevelopment investments are being made along the Port of L.A. waterfront, four blocks to the east. It’s extraordinarily difficult to bring faded American downtowns back to life. The structures were built for another era, a different pattern of life. Only time will tell, and time destroys as well as renews.

How’s that for a story? More await. There’s a surviving Kress building over in Long Beach and several others in the L.A. area. A 1930 Montgomery Ward store is a block away from the subject of today’s post, and a few steps beyond that, what was once a Newberry’s five-and-dime. It was a happening scene on Pacific Avenue in the 1930s.

Licensable, high resolution versions of many photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Shutterstock.com. Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. I found helpful references at Roadside Architecture.com and Wikipedia.org entries for the company, Mr. Kress and Mr. Sibbert, including a partial list of other Kress buildings at this link. Special thanks for the friendly welcome I received at Plaza Storage. Always ask a local.


Responses

  1. My home town in Iowa had both Woolworth and Newberry stores on the square, but neither was stand-alone, or as impressive as this building. Each was part of a series of stores located in traditional red brick commercial buildings. I don’t remember Kress at all. In fact, I think in the past I might have confused it with Kresge’s, which I just learned was the forerunner of K-Mart. Clearly, I’m not as up on my merchandising history as I could be.

    I took a look at some other Kress stores, and many of them are equally attractive.

    As for asking a local — indeed. Their information’s often more up-to-date, and the stories can be great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had the same association in the back of my mind: Kress=Kresge. Only in researching this post have I sorted it out, and didn’t know much about the five and dime business other than frequenting the G. C. Murphy’s in my Ohio hometown — where, as it happens, I bought some of my Peter, Paul and Mary albums.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great memories of stores like Woolworth’s. As a child, I loved the soda fountain and lunch counter. I also remember dime stores. There was a popular one near my childhood home called Ben Franklin. Fun topic today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of my brothers, who lives west of Cleveland, says Ben Franklin is prevalent up there in NW Ohio, and presumedly over into Hoosier country, too. I don’t think the dime store in my town had a lunch counter/soda fountain — or maybe Mom never let me go there. There WAS a classic drug store with soda fountain in my earliest childhood, and that will do. Interestingly, the Woolworth’s company still exists: They’re now Footlocker.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wow. I never knew that Ben Franklin was still in existence! Nor did I know that Woolworth’s is now Footlocker.

        I used to live in Peru, IN (something else you should investigate when you are in this area. “The Circus City Capital of the World.”). The Ben Franklin store was there and Woolworth’s was in Logansport, IN. Both cities are 30 minutes from Rochester. Just sayin.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Okay, I know a tiny slice about Peru, but now you’ve stuck me with having to look it up. Might mean a trip to … the library! Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

      • 😀

        Like

      • Also, the circus animals used to winter in Rochester.

        Like

  3. You introduce a fascinating intersection of celebrity and art that struck me immediately.

    I’ve never had any interest in celebrities. At least, not in live ones. My favs have all been gone for many decades. Their masterpieces occupy museum galleries around the world. So, my primary interest is in the creative endeavors of old masters, rather than their personal celebrity. For me, what they have created and left for the world to enjoy is the story.

    Like

  4. Interesting store building. When I was a student in Kingston, Ontario. There was a very interesting old time department store on Princess Street. In the downtown/ historic district. It was 4 stories high and had a man operating the elevator. I think it was called “S&R Department store” or something. It was a cheap discount store with real good deals. It closed while I was there I think it was 2009. Recently another very famous department store in Toronto closed that was called “Honest Eds” It too had a very interesting facade, with Neon Lights and a guy or guitar on the front, I can’t quite remember. It is a shame all these old department stores are closing now, or have long since closed.

    Like

    • Not everyone in the western world has ever ridden an elevator controlled by an operator. Count yourself lucky.

      Like


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