August 29, 2018

How One Building Creates A Community in Downtown Montgomery, Alabama

  • By: Lauren Walser

When it opened in 1898, the three-story S.H. Kress & Co. department store building in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, sold the usual department store fare. There were clothes, stationery items, gifts, a lunch counter, and a candy counter.

These days, there’s a slightly different retail experience inside the historic building, now called the Kress on Dexter. There’s a barber shop called Chop Shop, and there’s Prevail Union Montgomery, a popular local coffee house. Then there’s the headquarters of a tour company called More Than Tours (which you may have read about in the Summer 2018 issue of Preservation magazine). There are also private office spaces and co-working spaces, as well as apartments with open layouts, high ceilings, and private balconies.

But one thing has stayed the same: The building at 39 Dexter Avenue is a community gathering place.

“[The Kress building] was the meeting ground for downtown. It’s where everything happened,” says Sarah Beatty Buller of Montgomery Builds, the real estate development company behind the Kress on Dexter that she co-founded with her husband, Mark Buller. “It was clear from everyone we talked to that there was an emotional connection with the building. There was a lot of love and affection for it. And we wanted [to create] a place that builds community.”

Kress Building facade

photo by: Mason Fischer

The 1929 S.H. Kress & Co. department store building in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, is now the Kress on Dexter.

The original S.H. Kress & Co. department store building in downtown Montgomery—the third location of Samuel Kress’ department store chain, founded in 1896—was destroyed by a fire in 1927. It was rebuilt by local architect George E. Mackay in 1929 and remained at the center of Montgomery life for decades. But the department store chain was liquidated in 1981, leaving many of Kress’ elegant department store buildings to be demolished. Montgomery’s Kress store operated for another decade, eventually closing in the mid-1990s. The building, with its elegant Art Deco features, sat vacant for many years, until the Bullers purchased it and several other buildings from the city of Montgomery and set to work revitalizing it.

Work began in July 2015. The Bullers teamed with local architecture firm Seay, Seay & Litchfield and Birmingham-based contractors Brasfield & Gorrie to complete the project.

The team kept as much of the building’s original materials as possible, including its brass inlaid marble floor and terra cotta facade. They had the building’s original ornamental plasterwork replicated, after much of it was destroyed by water damage during its years of vacancy.

In other parts of the building, they used salvaged building material. The second story’s new tongue and groove flooring, for instance, was milled from beams salvaged from the city’s 1860 Montgomery Theatre (later renamed the Webber Building), which was demolished in 2017.

As for new additions to the space, 164 tons of steel beams were added to support two new floors added to the top of the building—a process that involved laser-scanning the existing roof to figure out the best design and location for the installation of new structural columns and beams.

Kress Building exposed bricks

photo by: Mason Fischer

The restoration team kept many of the walls exposed to show the building's original materials.

Early in the restoration process, the Bullers made one surprising discovery. While tiptoeing through the building with their young son, using their cell phone flashlights for illumination, they came across two cracked, marble slabs leaning against the wall. Engraved in the marble were two words: “white” and “colored.” The Bullers had discovered part of the building’s old segregated water fountains.

“It was this really profound moment, there in the dark,” Buller says. “It gave me chills.”

After much consideration and consultation with the community, the Bullers decided to preserve the slabs and display them at the building’s entrance off Monroe Street, with a placard explaining their history.

“We agreed this was an artifact of history. It was not our place to remove it,” she says.

Kress Building apartment

photo by: Mason Fischer

There are 26 apartment units in the newly-built fourth and fifth stories of the Kress building.

Kress Building office space

photo by: Mason Fischer

Office space is available to rent on the third story of the building.

The Kress on Dexter was completed in July 2017, with retail on the first and second floors, office space on the third floor, and 26 residential units on the newly-added fourth and fifth floors.

In March 2018, the project received the ABC Excellence in Construction Award for Best Historical Restoration Under $25 Million from Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc.

Today, more stores and businesses continue to move into the building’s retail and office spaces. Buller says she and her husband have tried to be thoughtful about what businesses the building should house, placing an emphasis on local enterprises.

“We wanted this building to be a new expression of Montgomery today, creatively, through art and through business,” she says.

As for the apartment units, Buller says that she and her husband were concerned that no one would want to live in the new downtown space, but it turned out their concerns were unfounded. “We actually have a waiting list,” she says.

The effect is a downtown space where Buller says people can “live, work, celebrate, play”—an active hub much as the Kress building was when it opened in 1929.

“We wanted to bring something back to the community that meant so much to so many people,” Buller says. “This project was as much about building community as anything.”

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

This May, our Preservation Month theme is “People Saving Places” to shine the spotlight on everyone doing the work of saving places—in big ways and small—and inspiring others to do the same!