‘Make it inviting for people’: Kress building in downtown Sarasota faces its future.

On the west end of Sarasota’s central business district, before Main Street turns towards the Bayfront, a grand historic structure sits in between a rowdy bar and a vacated medical cannabis dispensary.

Sarasota’s S.H. Kress building, designed in the Art Deco architectural style of the early 20th century, stands three floors above the sidewalk, with its ornamental terra cotta entrance intact despite the passing of nearly 100 years. 

In the decades that followed the five-and-dime store’s closing, the historic building has housed offices and ground floor retail, continuing to function, but without a great second purpose. But today the current owner has a plan to make it more of a public destination, while maintaining its historical integrity. 

The Kress structure’s owner is Eric Baird, the Sarasota investor behind the Hotel Ranola, Bradenton’s Tarpon Pointe Marina and the 1991 Main St. site, which he sold with two business partners to Connecticut-based Belpointe Capital in 2019. 

Baird purchased the Kress building at 1442 Main St. for $5.8 million, originally wanting to bring in retail space on the second floor. Unfortunately, those plans were quickly put on hold, as the transaction closed in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic.

A technology company filled the top two floors as a placeholder for the past two years, but now, Baird is planning to open up the building and make it much more inviting for the general public, Kevin Robbins, the Sarasota real estate broker responsible for leasing the property, said. Leasing possibilities include more retail on the second floor, a coffee shop on the street level or even a rooftop bar and restaurant. 

“We looked at this building when he bought it in 2020 thinking it has the bones to be like an Oxford Exchange in Tampa,” Robbins said, referring to the Tampa restaurant and event space designed with a nod to London charm and history. “It’s an older unique building that wants to be something different. It’s great for office, but we think the retail space deserves to be activated.” 

Building history 

S.H. Kress & Company was a retail concept established in Tennessee in 1896.

Throughout the 20th century, the company was known for its structures on Main Streets across the nation, which often became local landmarks, according to the website of the Kress Foundation, a European art history and conservation organization established by the retailer’s founder, Samuel Henry Kress. 

In Sarasota, the 1920s were a time of great economic prosperity. New construction flourished, including hotels, skyscrapers and upscale residential communities, according to an article by Ruthmary Bauer in the 1997 edition of The Florida Historical Quarterly published by the Florida Historical Society.

Real estate values skyrocketed during the decade. John Ringling moved his circus’ winter operations to Sarasota in 1927. And the city’s first theater, the A.B. Edwards Theater, opened in 1926 (today it is known as the Sarasota Opera House). 

It was the bust of this booming real estate market that ushered in the economic hardship Sarasota would experience in the 1930s, magnified by the the Great Depression. Not even the whimsy of the circus could shield the community from the macroeconomic issues of the day. 

Over the next few years, new construction slowed. Permits for the city in the first six months of 1931 totaled $26,006, according to Sarasota Herald newspaper archives kept by Sarasota County Historical Resources.

But when Kress set its sights on Sarasota and began construction, that total more than doubled — the Kress building permit alone was $40,000, archives indicate. It was ultimately built for about $50,000, historical records show.

In the months leading up to its December 1932 opening, the construction of the building and the business that would fill it were both covered extensively by the Sarasota Herald. By November it was estimated that 65 local men were working on the building. 

Kress was by no means responsible for ending the economic hardship of the 1930s in Sarasota, but it was a symbol of better days to come. It did generate the largest building revenue in the city the year it opened, Bauer’s article said. 

On Nov. 29, the Sarasota Herald reported that the public was invited to “inspect” the new structure the following day, giving them an opportunity to check it out a day before business was set to begin. 

Company officials estimated that 8,000 people passed through its doors that day. 

“Men, women and children from every section of this and Manatee County crowded the store during the opening hours, marveling at the magnificent displays of merchandise, greatly enhanced by the modern lighting which the store features,” the Herald wrote.

The store officially opened Dec. 1. 

“The new building clearly defines the modern trend in architecture, and stands out on Main Street like a magnificent temple, extending a warm welcome to all,” a Herald story from Nov. 29 reads.

Art Deco

But just what does that mean — a modern trend in architecture — and how did the Kress building exemplify it? 

Sarasota’s Kress building was designed in the style of the Art Deco movement, which was a departure from more traditional architectural stylings of the early 20th century, Lorrie Muldowney, vice president for the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation, said. Art Deco structures, like the Kress building, tend to have applied decoration and ornamentation, versus post-World War II modernist buildings where form follows function. 

In the case of the Kress building, this can be seen in the embellishments around the third-floor exterior windows like applied terra cotta and the semi-circular decorations. The Art Deco style morphed into what is called Art Moderne, which emphasizes curving forms and long, horizontal lines with no decorations. A local example is the Chidsey Library at 701 N. Tamiami Trail, Muldowney said. 

Art Deco buildings are a significant part of Kress’ architectural legacy, according to the Kress Foundation. More than 50 Art Deco buildings, dating from 1929 to 1944, were designed by chief company architect Edward F. Sibbert.

They were defined by their curved glass display windows, simple yet distinctive ornamentation, heavy bronze doors, rich marble interiors, fine woods and large customized counters. Sibbert’s “masterpiece,” according to the foundation, was the company’s flagship store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in New York City, which was eventually demolished in 1980. The buildings were embellished works of art, meant to be taken in. 

“Everything – from the constantly restocked merchandise to the gracious retiring rooms and popular soda fountains in the basement – encouraged customers to linger.” the foundation’s website notes. “Like the great movie houses of the day, the ‘dime store’ – and ‘Kress’s’ in particular – was a popular destination during hard economic times.” 

Modern uses

In 1984, Sarasota’s S.H. Kress building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Sarasota County Historical Resources records. Then-property owner Allan M. Lichtenstein applied for the designation earlier that year. 

It was also historically designated by the city of Sarasota in 1999, Muldowney said. 

Today, the building has two street front tenants — gallery Art Avenue and Surge Style boutique. One of those tenants will be moving out at the end of the year, although Robbins wouldn’t say which. The top floors, which had a technology company tenant over the past two years, are currently vacant, he said.

Various businesses have used the Kress building over the years. For about two decades, it was an insurance company, Robbins said. Baird is open to featuring office tenants on the upper floors, Robbins said, but a better fit, he said, would be a restaurant on the ground floor, or the rooftop bar idea. 

“We’ve been out looking for coffee shops that convert to a wine bar at night or ground floor restaurants,” Robbins said. “We think this could be a really cool project. We would love to open space up and make it inviting for people.” 

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