Berkeley’s downtown had a big event in the midst of the Great Depression.
Business openings were few and far between in 1934, but one of Berkeley’s most magnificent chain stores arrived in January of that year. The new Kress store at the southeast corner of Shattuck and Addison provided not only a new business but also a structure that is a downtown landmark today, 75 years later.
“For years our stores have been known in the larger cities everywhere,” Kress said in a full-page ad in the Berkeley Daily Gazette, Jan. 23, 1934. “And now we are ready to introduce Kress to Berkeley because we have absolute confidence in the future of Berkeley as evidence by the up-to-the-minute store building we erected.”
The store opened with 125 tons of new goods in 15 departments, everything “tastefully and attractively arranged … in a scientific manner, in plain sight…”
In the first half of the 20th century, “five and dimes” like Kress were ubiquitous in the American retail landscape. Kress, Kresge, J.J. Newberry’s, Ben Franklin, McLellan’s, W.T.Grant and Woolworth’s all provided a merchandise mix of low-priced goods including cosmetics and hygiene supplies, some clothing, small kitchen items, toys, candy, packaged food products, various household goods and “notions.”
In sum they sold what Kress called, in its Berkeley opening day ad, “complete stocks of everyday necessities.” Berkeley had several five and dimes, including a National Dollar Store just north of Kress, and a Woolworth’s downtown.
“The policy of S.H. Kress & Company has been to strive continually to improve their service to the public by bigger values, lower prices, better store buildings in which to shop, consideration for the comfort of our patrons and our employees…” the 1934 advertisements noted. “Kress merchandizing methods are new to most of the people of Berkeley, but they have made Kress stores outstandingly popular everywhere…”
Five and dimes put the goods out where customers could pick them up themselves rather than following the older business model of customer requesting items from a clerk behind a counter.
The building, called “modernistic” in design by the Gazette, was and is a two-story above-basement concrete and steel structure, covered in buff brick and terra cotta ornamentation. Almost all of the original exterior has survived, down to the “5 - 10 - 25 Cent Store” incised in gold over the doors, the “Verde antique marble” bulkheads below the display windows, and elaborate fire escapes that are both functional and decorative.
It’s one of Berkeley’s best-preserved and most outstanding Art Deco era structures. Edward Sibbert, one of the in-house architects for the Kress chain, prepared the design.
The current building is actually the third commercial structure on the site. A three-story 19th century wooden building with a corner turret was demolished and replaced in 1923 with a neoclassical bank. In 1932 the Kress Company bought the bank structure and, ultimately, decided to demolish it and build the current structure.
A useful history of the site, the Kress Company, and the Berkeley building design, accompanied by historic pictures, was prepared by writer Daniella Thompson in 2007 and can be found at berkeleyheritage.com/berkeley_landmarks/kress.html
The Kress store had a main sales floor at street level, with the basement given over to storage, including “rat and vermin proof candy rooms.” The upstairs was used for store offices, “an additional stock room … as well as rest rooms and a cloak and lunch room for the sales girls.”
The district manager for Kress in 1934 referred to the sales staff as “an exceptionally high type of girl.” The claim that all 100 were also Berkeley residents presumably helped lubricate local welcome for the new business in the midst of a dire economic era.
However, in some ways that welcome also seemed curiously muted. It was typical practice for new Berkeley businesses in the early 1930s to buy a large display ad in the Berkeley Daily Gazette; that investment would be rewarded elsewhere in the same issue with a laudatory “news” story on the business opening.
Both appeared in the Jan. 23, 1934 Gazette. However, the paper did not add an editorial extolling Kress, and smaller congratulatory ads by other local businesses were few in number.
Possibly the Gazette—a big promoter of locally owned-businesses—leavened its traditional welcome with an unspoken fear that the big chain might steal customers from existing local merchants, just as many Berkeleyans today anguish at the arrival of any new chain store in town.
The Kress organization may have realized this at the opening, for their district manager carefully observed, “Establishment of a Kress store here will, I feel, react to the mutual good of the store and the community, in that it will, to a large extent, encourage buying at home.”
The Berkeley Kress branch did become a local fixture that endured nearly a half-century. In 1978 historian Betty Marvin would write in a summary description of Berkeley’s Kress Building, “across America a Kress store is part of what makes any middle-aged downtown look like a downtown.”
In 1964 the basement was converted to additional sales space. The wide staircase descending from near the front entrance to the lower level has now disappeared along with the lunch counter that used to run along the southern inside wall, and the extensive display fixtures and finishes of the original store. In 2000-01 the interior was substantially altered.
Those who remember the store in its last years in the late 1970s and early 1980s will recall that by then the basement had tightly packed aisles lined with discount goods. A small assortment of live tropical fish and goldfish was sold in the southwest corner, below a large cage containing the pet monkey of a store employee.
After the Kress commercial empire was liquidated in the early 1980s, Newberry’s, another venerable five and dime, took over the store. Gradually the business lost its luster. In its last days the front of the store had booths where small vendors sold cheap jewelry, watches, and the like, and staffing seemed so minimal and tired that I recall the odd but repeated experience of seeing few customers, but still waiting in long, slow, lines to check out.
While the Kress business itself no longer exists, the business model continues. Today’s Target Stores, for instance, are a lot like the old five-and-dimes, selling inexpensive household and seasonal goods, clothing, some packaged food, and even featuring a modern “lunch counter” in the form of a pizza stand.
And the Berkeley Kress building has also endured, sans the founding business. It was designated a City of Berkeley landmark in 1981, and later bought by local second-generation commercial real estate broker John Gordon, who converted the upstairs to separately rented office space. The basement, entered from Addison Street, became a custom designed headquarters for Berkeley’s Jazzschool.
Gordon kept the main sales floor vacant, patiently looking for the right tenant. His search took so long, I remember, that some people began to point to the renovated but empty storefront as an example of the decline of Downtown. And some also said, as they say today, that decline of that sort can only be cured with extensive demolitions and new construction; that is, clearing, not converting, Berkeley’s older commercial streetscape.
They could not have been more wrong then, or now. In 2005, Gordon lured Half Price Books from Solano to Downtown, where it joined three other bookstores on the block (one around the corner on University, three, including Half Price, facing Shattuck).
Half Price Books has appeared to be a solid tenant and a good draw. I don’t know anything about their profitability, but each time I’ve visited I’ve seen a fair number of customers in the store.
The business and its historic building anchor the upper corner of the Arts District on Addison Street. The Arts District proper is a visually bland place with a number of banal 1970s, 80s and 90s arts or office buildings along Addison, but its upper, Shattuck Avenue, end is bracketed by three handsome restored historic structures, the Kress Building, the Golden Sheaf Bakery Annex, and the Francis Shattuck Building.
And, if you stand in front of the Kress Building and look around nearby Downtown, you’ll see something interesting and instructive.
Every building nearby on Shattuck is an older structure from the architectural heyday of Berkeley’s Downtown, and most every commercial space is either occupied or expecting a tenant. On the three corners adjacent to Kress you’ll find the upscale Downtown restaurant in the refurbished and expanded Francis Shattuck Building (1901), Pollo restaurant in the old Greyhound station (1940), and preparations underway for a new restaurant in the ornate Shattuck Square Building (1926).
Just to the east, at Addison and Shattuck Square, the Studio Building (1905) and the Mason-McDuffie Building (1926, now housing Scandinavian Designs) provide further historic anchors for this six-cornered intersection.
Up and down Shattuck, and along most of the cross streets, the story is the same; refurbished old buildings in newer uses, giving Downtown a uniquely Berkeley sense of place.
As the Historic Survey of Downtown noted in 1987, “Downtown Berkeley is rich in history, commercial life and architectural tradition.” Berkeley is fortunate that’s still so.