Montgomery’s historic Kress building is full of light and life again, recently reopening as Kress on Dexter, a multi-use space that preserves the past with eyes on the future.
The resurgence of Dexter Avenue, one of the most pivotal streets in American history, continues to gain steam, thanks to the redevelopment of some major structures. Among them is the former site of an S. H. Kress Co. department store. The nearly 90-year-old building reopened in April as Kress on Dexter following a $20 million transformation that began in 2014. The mixed-use development now combines retail, office and residential space under one roof at 39 Dexter Avenue.
Protecting and salvaging as much of the original building as possible was a goal from the start. “S. H. Kress had a legacy of creating these architectural gems throughout the Southeast, and Montgomery’s was one of the finest,” said Zac Gibbs, Development Director for ELSAJA Holdings LLC, the company behind the building’s transformation.
That legacy lives on in the preservation of the original terra cotta façade, as well as the original columns and the terrazzo tile floors on the first floor of Kress. Some but not all of the intricate plaster work in the beams and ceilings was also kept. “About 40 percent of that had to be restored,” Gibbs said. Elements were also brought in from the historic Webber building following its collapse. “The heart pine floor for the second floor was all reclaimed wood from the Webber building,” Gibbs said.
The Kress department store chain opened a Montgomery location at this spot on Dexter Avenue in 1898. However, the first building was destroyed in a fire in 1927, and the current building was completed in 1929. The chain ceased operations in the early 1980s. The defunct five-and-dime department store had been vacant for more than 30 years when private investors began to see new opportunity in the beautiful structure. Its redevelopment is a project of Montgomery BUILDS, which was founded by Mark and Sarah Beatty Buller through their company ELSAJA.
Sarah Beatty Buller said that her New York-based family was introduced to Montgomery about seven years ago when husband Mark, owner of MarJam, expanded his business to the River Region. During their initial visits, they took in the history of the downtown area – which crosses pivotal moments of American history from the Civil War through to the Civil Rights Movement. “We were struck by Dexter Avenue, in particular,” Buller said. Many of the buildings were in dis-mal shape in a place that held extraordinary layers of history, she said. “It’s an incredibly important and amazing place.”
With her husband’s company as the impetus for their connection to the city, along with their interactions with other developers in the area, the Bullers upped their level of in-vestment in this historic setting by purchasing several properties, including the Kress building and One Court Square. “There are too many things tied to our history that are on this street,” she said. “Our family decided that we would invest in a project called Montgomery BUILDS.”
The purpose of Montgomery BUILDS is to preserve and protect resulting in beautiful environments that link to the city’s history while offering places, “where people can play, eat, learn and live.”
Planning and design for the Kress redevelopment began in 2014, with construction starting in 2015. In the meantime, One Court Square began to serve as an incubator for Kress on Dexter’s initial tenants. “The Kress building is unique in creating a new downtown community of like-minded local entrepreneurs,” Gibbs said. “It’s a hub for art, culture, community and economic development.”
Prevail Union Coffee, I Am More Than Tours and the Chop Shop – all locally owned businesses – all started at One Court Square with plans to become some of the first tenants at Kress on Dexter. They’re now located on the first floor. “It’s been fun to watch (the entrepreneurs) bond around the mission,” Gibbs said.
The total project covers about 115,000 square feet of space. Levels one and two at Kress on Dexter are geared to food, entertainment and retail. Level three is an event space and traditional office space. The fourth and fifth floors – which were added to the building during construction – hold 28 residential units.
The apartments actually opened in August 2017 and quickly found tenants. “We consider them 100-percent occupied,” Buller said, noting that the two-bedroom and one-bedroom units are just right for empty nesters, downtown workers, young couples and students.
The construction project has already gotten attention far outside the River Region. Montgomery BUILDS’ Kress on Dexter project received the 2018 Excellence in Construction Award from the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. (ABC) in March. “We won first place for the Kress building,” Gibbs said. “We won the state of Alabama award in winter, then we were nominated for the national award.”
A Big Deal
It took $20 million and four years to transform an abandoned vacant shell into a beautiful building ready to re-tell its story and add new chapters to it.