S. H. Kress in Nashville: An Art Deco Parthenon

by Kevin Chastine.

The vision of Samuel Henry Kress (1863-1955), a Pennsylvania multi-millionaire and philanthropist, has enhanced many urban areas in Tennessee. In 1887, after seven years as a teacher, Samuel Kress had established a stationery and novelty shop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When this venture prospered, Kress brought the concept of a 5&10-cent store to Tennessee, opening his first 5&10 in Memphis in 1896. One year later he opened his second 5&10 at 420 Union Street in Nashville. In 1900 Kress moved the store to 219 North Summer Street (which would become Fifth Avenue North five years later). In 1913 he opened a second store at 317 Third Avenue North. The Kress Company operated these two stores, two streets apart, until 1968.

Kress Building, 5th Avenue, Nashville. (photo courtesy of the author)

In its first few years in Nashville the Kress Company leased space in older buildings, unlike their previous policy in Memphis, Knoxville, and other Tennessee cities that had received architect-designed, one-of-a-kind Kress buildings. However, in 1936 the S.H. Kress Company constructed a new store in Nashville to replace the former building at 237-239 Fifth Avenue North. The new Kress Fifth Avenue building was hailed as “the finest type of mercantile building known to modern engineering.” According to a company advertisement, the store was Kress’s way of showing his gratitude to the citizens of the Tennessee Valley “for their enthusiastic acceptance of his merchandising principles.”

During the 1930s Kress stores were designed in the popular Art Deco style. Many of these modern stores also featured locally or regionally influenced ornamental details, the concept of Edward F. Sibbert, Kress’s supervising architect from 1929 until 1952. In the 1970s Sibbert stated that his architectural influences were “anything but classical,” a comment that increases the significance of the Fifth Avenue Kress building, because it is possible that architectural details of the Kress building were borrowed from the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Architectural historian Bernice Thomas first proposed this theory in her book, America’s 5 & 10 Cent Stores: The Kress Legacy. Although there are no design records or corporate documents to confirm Thomas’s theory, details of the Kress building illustrate several similarities between the two structures.

The likenesses begin with the four large fluted pilasters that extend upward from the marquee through the roofline. These pilasters may relate to the large fluted Doric columns that encircle the Parthenon. A second similarity is the stylized Greek key motif that extends in a continuous row across the building façade, just below the roofline. These Greek key motifs may relate to the anthemion pattern that lines the roof of the Parthenon. The final and most interesting details of the Kress store are the Greek-inspired panels located to either side of the Kress logo. The left panel illustrates a female figure; the right, a male figure. These decorative panels seem to mirror the painted metopes within the entablature of the Parthenon.

Anthemion, a stylized flower pattern found in Greek art and architecture

The female panel shows a woman holding a pole topped by a winged hat or helmet. The hat can be interpreted two ways: as the helmet of Hermes, the Greek god of commerce, an appropriate symbol for a 5&10-cent store; or as a woman’s hat that one might purchase in Kress’s millinery department. The background of the female panel is filled with modern skyscrapers, perhaps an image of the growth Samuel Kress foresaw in Nashville’s future. The male panel portrays an aproned man holding a stylized hammer. Its handle is in the traditional shape at the base but transmutes along its length into layered, gear-like disks. The background of the male panel is a scene of smokestacks which, along with the hammer and gears, serves to illustrate Nashville’s industrial past. The 1936 S.H. Kress building exemplifies the pride that Samuel Kress had in his company, as well as his respect for the cities where he located his stores. Unfortunately, the concept of civic responsibility is rarely a consideration of national chain stores today, thereby increasing our own obligation to preserve the distinctive buildings that are such an important part of Nashville’s heritage

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