Kress, Born Again: 1929 Meets 2018
In 1896, S. H. Kress built a chain of five and dime stores that grew to 264 locations and dominated our country for years. Most were located downtown at five or six stories high and, because he was an avid art lover, each building incorporated distinctive architecture with detailed artistic flourishes on the exterior. His Montgomery store was his third to be built but was destroyed by fire in 1927. In December of 1929, architect George E. Mackay rebuilt it with a Greek temple design that remains today. It closed in 1981, and over the years began to deteriorate, along with several other buildings on Dexter Avenue. So much history happened on Dexter: Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands on the Selma to Montgomery March from this street. Nonviolent activists organized sit-ins at the eating counters in the Kress Department Store. The Webber Theatre, the oldest theatre in Alabama, is where actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth performed regularly. Dexter Avenue created a platform for Civil Rights activists. It tells a story…several stories. How could Montgomery afford not to restore it?
When the City of Montgomery took over several dilapidated buildings downtown, Kress included, they did it with a plan to bring them back to life. Finding the right person to make that happen wasn’t an easy feat…that is until New York residents Mark and Sarah Buller came along. Mark is the owner of MARJAM Building Material Supply, with businesses all over the country. Although he has always been attracted to beautiful, historic buildings, he never had intentions of buying any property. After being driven around downtown Montgomery with Zac Gibbs and seeing all of the undeveloped buildings, he knew he wanted to play a part in the restoration. He created Montgomery Builds and hired Zac as director. Sarah says, “Zac Gibbs has really been the heart and soul of everything that has happened here at Kress.” It isn’t just the Bullers that sing his praise. If you ask anyone, they will tell you that Zac is known for his character and integrity. He has worked tirelessly on this project and shares the Buller’s passion for history. Steven Lambert of Handshake Union has been another major contributor with beautiful logos and marketing materials.
There were plenty of skeptics wondering why a couple from New York City would want to invest so much in Montgomery, Ala. Even Mac McLeod, Chief of Staff and Office of the Mayor, called Mark one afternoon to tell him he was coming to town. Sarah told Mark, “He’s coming to check you out. He’s decided he likes your plan but wants to make sure that you are who you say you are, because he is protective of his city.” The thing is, it only takes one encounter with the Bullers to see their compassion for people, their desire to help entrepreneurs and their deep love of history. The skeptics have turned into supporters and partners with joint vision to ignite creativity and community.
The Buller’s decision to purchase Kress wasn’t just about restoring the building. Originally from Boston, a city steeped in rich history, Sarah fell in love with the idea of purchasing Kress because she knows how important history is to a city. This is one of the reasons they kept the segregated water fountain marble slabs that bear the designations of “White” and “Colored” that have remained in the building after all of these years. But today, they are side by side to show unity and healing. At the launch of the opening of Kress, Mark told the crowd, “Proof is important for understanding and remembering history.” There is just something about a tangible reminder that we as humans crave. “Long ago, people kept a locket of someone’s hair, you passed down the quilt, you need something borrowed and something blue. There has always been something about being able to touch it, and there is a part of that energy that is still with me,” Sarah shares.
Seay, Seay & Litchfield Architects did an incredible job with the design. Heart pine floors, 18 ft. ceilings, expansive views with plenty of natural light and balconies overlooking green space and the new Pocket Park make office and home life much more desirable. Kress was awarded the national 2018 ABC Excellence in Construction award for the Best Historical Restoration under $25MM. After two years of intense renovations, Kress is now open with four local businesses, 28 residential units, commercial space, a special events venue, a beautiful art exhibit and a story booth/podcast studio.
Stop by 39 Dexter Avenue and see this beautiful space yourself. You never know where it might lead.
The Remembering Monroe Project
Even though everyone could enter Kress Department Store on Dexter, not everyone received the same treatment. There were separate dressing rooms, restrooms, water fountains and eating counters. The unfair treatment of African Americans during the years of segregation was real, and it was painful, but there was another aspect that is worth talking about. Monroe Street was the epicenter of black culture, and entrepreneurship there was alive.
Auburn University professor Shakita Jones organized the Remembering Monroe Project with the goal of building relationships and improving race relations. As a social worker, Shakita has made a living getting people to tell their stories. She set out to see if she could find people who experienced life on Monroe Street and Dexter Avenue during the 60s and 70s to tell theirs. Although she met some resistance in the beginning, she remained persistent and eventually succeeded. The project involved five days of storytelling, and the stories came alive when managers, employees, entrepreneurs and entertainers shared their experiences. Dr. Richard Harris owned Dean Drug Store on Monroe Street, which served as “command center” for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. His daughter, Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery, conveyed and celebrated her father’s story. Joseph Caver shared stories about entertainment, theatre and nightlife at its peak, as well as the cause of the decline and closing of several establishments. Foreword South provided stories of the first African American hired at an all-white establishment on Monroe Street.
My favorite event of the project was when managers and employees shared their stories, full of so much detail and comedy. It was almost like we traveled back in time and observed it ourselves. Miss Elizabeth was the first employee at Weil’s, hired by Alan Weil who was Jewish and was often referred to as color blind, because he had so many black friends. Miss Elizabeth was very instrumental in helping Weil’s build their African American customer base. She worked through Alan’s retirement and continued under the management of Alan’s son. Everyone knew Miss Elizabeth! Sylvia Davis was an employee at Kress for over 30 years. She told of having to enter the building through the rear entrance to report to the kitchen where she worked. She could serve the white counter, but wasn’t allowed to sit there. She joked about how whites would only eat the white meat on a chicken. She said, “The Lord was thinking of us when he made chicken, because we don’t send the dark pieces back. We eat the whole chicken!” Despite mistreatment by many during these years, she also had some great relationships. Sitting next to her providing comical banter was Mr. Ken Foreman, her white manager who had been with Kress since he was 13 years old. She said he always treated her with respect and even helped her become manager. The best part, however, was that he gave great gifts at Christmas.
Another woman shared that she created shelf work for other employees when she would go in and mix the white and black dolls together. The next day, they would be segregated again, but she kept doing it. The way she laughed when she told the story made me feel like I was cheering her on from behind a dress rack.
This project is what Kress is all about. Remembering and acknowledging the past; healing and coming together as a community.
Art Exhibits at Kress: This is where you’ll find me.
There were several objectives in mind when it came to plan to revive Kress on Dexter. History had to be remembered. Relationships had to be cultivated. Stories needed to be told. One of the avenues for facilitating this is through art. There will be many art exhibits held at Kress, but the first major exhibition is taking place now through June 16. This is where you’ll find me showcases the work of several Alabama artists, including Butch Anthony, Willie Mae Brown, Vince Buwalda, Thornton Dial, Sydney A. Foster, the quilters of Gee’s Bend, RC Hagens, Lonnie Holley, Chintia Kirana, Joe Minter, Ronald Locket, Michi Meko and Bill Traylor. Some of the work focuses on social injustice while some preserve relics from the past. They all tell a story that when seen, can unlock endless possibilities.
When you visit the art exhibit, be sure to stop by the Storybooth located on the first floor. Designed to capture the stories of people from all walks of life, people are invited to pick up the phone and tell their story. The stories are filed away and available online or at the listening kiosks in the podcast studio.
Prevail Union Coffee
Things are really brewing on the first floor of Montgomery’s coolest mixed-use building. Prevail Union Coffee has relocated inside Kress and will now serve as the newest hot spot in town. The design is simply gorgeous with a modern addition that complements the historic charm of the original structure.
Prevail Coffee Roasters sold to restaurants and wholesalers for years, but with growing popularity and demand, they opened their first café, Prevail Union, in Auburn in 2013. The cafés take small batch roasts from their sister roasting company and prepare them to order. Prevail made its first appearance in Montgomery at Matter’s Holiday Pop Up Shop in Cloverdale, where owners Wade and Megan Preston met Zac Gibbs, director of Montgomery Builds. Zac had a vision of a Prevail Union Café opening in Montgomery, and more specifically, as a hub for Kress. Knowing they couldn’t take on both locations alone, the Prestons partnered with co-owners Phillip and Brooke Johns, also coffee connoisseurs, and then it began…combined efforts to bring a vision to fruition.
Kress developers built Prevail a temporary home at One Court Square so that they could build their brand in Montgomery. And boy did they build it. Their temporary location created a following of staunch supporters and gave life to coffee lovers. Phillip, Megan and Wade plugged into multiple events, food tastings, art shows and even opened a small hub in Cloverdale for the winter months. Their hard work and dedication paid off as they qualified for the U.S. Brewers Cup in New Orleans and traveled to Seattle for the competition. Most recently, Food & Wine Magazine recently affirmed that they are the “Best Coffee in Alabama.”
Phillip shared, “Kress offers up a ton of new exciting options for us. We will be a full-service coffee bar focusing on bringing fresh, locally roasted coffee to customers with several new options, including beer, wine, and expanding our food options." The good news doesn’t stop there. Adjacent to Prevail is a city pocket park with ample outdoor space, perfect for mingling, working, meetings, or just taking a break from the office—with a cup of coffee or a beer, of course. Look for that to open soon.
The owners are quick to credit Phillip’s wife, Brooke, for her brilliant design of the new space; Steven Lambert of Handshake Union, who helped with branding; Zac Gibbs for his vision; and most importantly, Kress investors Mark and Sarah Buller. “The saying ‘together we prevail’ isn’t just a marketing gimmick. We truly couldn’t have done it without them,” Wade humbly stated.
It’s safe to say that we are all pretty stoked that Prevail Union has laid their grounds at Kress.
Michelle Browder & More Than Tours
When you have a city with history as rich as ours, it’s pretty important to make sure people not only see the important places, but leave feeling inspired with a better understanding of those places. If you’ve ever been downtown and spotted people being shuttled around by a woman in a pair of red cat-eyed glasses, you’ve seen Michelle Browder and “More Than” Tours in action.
Social advocate Michelle Browder is the founder and brainchild behind these tours, and there is no one like her. Vivacious, infectious and passionate, Michelle has been pouring her heart into the lives of youth for 23 years. “More Than” Tours is a sequel to something Michelle started in 2011. Encouraged by her father, Chaplain Browder, who is the founder and director of the Montgomery Rescue Mission, she created the “I am More Than” youth initiative. This was a movement to empower, motivate, educate and stimulate Montgomery’s youth to be ‘more than’ they ever thought they could be. More than their last mistake, more than their disabilities, more than their stereotype. Whether she was creating campaigns to discourage self deprecation, connecting kids struggling in school with tutors, or getting people to communicate their emotions and feelings through art, she has been working tirelessly to enrich the lives of Montgomery’s youth. Michelle attended the Art Institute of Atlanta and has worked in galleries across the country. She has also been a facilitator of several art shows in Montgomery. In 2015, she created the “Put Yourself in Their Shoes” campaign to encourage people to imagine what it is like to live another person’s life, especially those of color. Every year they debut a new shoe. The second year, co-founder of MAC cosmetics, Donald “Drawbertson” Robertson, designed the art for the shoe and, just by selling them through his Instagram, raised over $14,000.
Michelle founded “More Than” Tours to help students and out-of-town visitors not just tour but experience the music, art and history in our city. Her team of tour guides are passionate, resident experts with comprehensive knowledge of the destinations. She is committed to making sure visitors leave Montgomery empowered, inspired and transformed.
Michelle’s gallery is located at Kress on Dexter. Inside you will see a figure of a black man sitting at a “colored” food counter that looks so real you will want to sit down next to him and have a conversation. Artist Bob Adams, who is known for his work around town, made the figure out of paper mache (papier-mâché). Her walls are covered in art from every culture, background and heritage you can imagine. She even has a pair of Martin Luther King’s chairs in her studio. Stop by and see Michelle and book your “More Than” Tour. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss.
SYDNEY A. FOSTER STUDIO
Photo by Jonathon Kohn
Sydney Foster is a bright light for Montgomery and to know her is to love her. Her passion is photography but she also serves our country with pride and dedication. Having just returned from a five-month deployment in Kuwait as a Senior Airman with the 187th Redtails, she is excited to be back home where she can be a part of the movement taking place in Montgomery. Her creative vision is evident with each shutter of her camera’s lens and her artistic talents are limitless. Calling herself an “imagemaker”, her work tells a story. Although she’s often told she should move to a bigger city to pursue her dreams, she is hopeful for our city’s future and plans to contribute her talent here. Sydney’s work also caught the attention of Alabama Governor Kay Ivey who invited her to serve as her staff photographer. Yes, this young, wise, beautiful woman is multi-talented but the thing you will notice when you meet her is her kindness and humility. She doesn’t see gender, race or a stereotype, she sees the potential in each individual and she is an inspiration to us all.
Photo by Jon Cook, High 5 Productions
Chop Shop owner James Barnum has been cutting hair for 20 years. Since leaving Texas and setting in Montgomery, he knew his end goal was to be downtown, but finding the right spot took some time. After setting up at a pop up shop for a month, Steven Lambert and Zac Gibbs saw the example James was setting and set out to help pave the way for Chop Shop to make a home at Kress. James has set out to create a shop that draws in people of all races and walks of life. The fun atmosphere inside the Chop Shop creates opportunities for people who might not normally meet to engage and start conversations, because they are sitting in chairs next to each other. The shop is full of activity, laughter and good music.
The Chop Shop has three barbers, each dually licensed with 20 years experience. They are committed to raising the standard of excellence in their industry and community. When James isn’t inside the shop, he is spending time with his wife and two sons, and he also volunteers his services in homeless shelters to those in need.