Asheville Archives: Kress creates consternation, 1926-27

FIVE AND DIME: The Kress 5-10-25 Cent Store opened its new Asheville store on June 24, 1927. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

A 1926 debate over traffic jams nearly caused a roadblock in the construction of the Kress building at 19 Patton Ave. According to the Sept. 29 issue of The Asheville Citizen, the Kress organization had plans to raze the former Bon Marché building, which occupied the site, in order to erect “one of the finest, if not the finest, building in their chain of stores.”

A major obstacle, however, presented itself in the form of cramped thoroughfares. That day’s paper continued:

“Lexington avenue between College street and Patton avenue is rather narrow, and it has been suggested that the city build an underpass at this point running under Patton avenue. If the city should decide, however, to condemn some of the old Bon Marche building so as to widen Lexington that might not leave room enough for the spacious store the Kress establishment contemplates building.”

That October a heated debate broke out between The Citizens Committee (a group of downtown business owners) who favored wider roads and Mayor John H. Cathey who opposed the notion. The Oct. 13, paper claimed “blows were almost struck” during the meeting. The mayor — described as “belligerent and sometimes incoherent,” throughout the session — took umbrage when one opposing member accused him of being “bull-headed.”

Things escalated when another unidentified member in the group insisted that Cathey shut up. According to the paper, the mayor demanded the individual show himself. “If he is a man, he will stand up,” the mayor is reported to have stated. No one stood. When the mayor offered to adjourn the meeting in order to “step down to the street and settle this matter,” all parties remained seated.

AU REVOIR: In the Sept. 29, 1926 issue of The Asheville Citizen, it was reported that the Kress organization had plans to raze the former Bon Marché building in order to erect “one of the finest, if not the finest, building in their chain of stores.” Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

Despite ongoing petitions and debate, the former Bon Marché property was razed in November. As its roof and walls came down in preparation for the new Kress building, The Asheville Citizen reminisced on the many former businesses and activities that previously occupied the site. According to the paper’s Nov. 14 publication, the location was once used for growing Irish potatoes “at the rate of 1,100 bushels an acre.” The Chedester Store would eventually build on the site, followed by the Grand Central Hotel, then the Berkley Hotel, before Bon Marché renovated the building in 1911 (see, “Asheville Archives: The many locations of Bon Marché, 1889-1890,” July 3, Xpress).

By mid-November demolition was nearly complete. Petitions, however, still circulated, both on the streets and in print. An ad placed by The Citizens Committee in the Nov. 21 edition of The Sunday Citizen poked holes in the mayor’s claim that widening Lexington Avenue between College Street and Patton Avenue would cost half a million dollars. The committee noted that recent work to widen four other blocks on Lexington Avenue cost the city a mere $35,000.

Of course, not everyone supported the commission’s efforts. In that same day’s paper, The Sunday Citizen wrote:

“The city is familiar with the frenzied furore raised because of the construction of an edifice which will not permit the widening of Lexington, between Patton and College. Perhaps it’s time to deal with the kind of pile that is going up and why it’s being reared.

If Kress representatives, officials of the Patton Avenue Corp. and others familiar with the plans of the nickel-dime gatherers are to be believed, a vacant eyesore, a civic liability, a business barnacle exercising a depressing effect on Asheville people and constituting a doleful spectacle for visitors, is now being superseded by a granite, steel and terra cotta commercial palace, humming with activity, a community asset, a symbol of trade indicative of prosperity, impressive alike to natives and tourists as a concrete example of a great corporation’s faith in Asheville as an all-year mercantile center.”

By January 1927, the committee’s petition to widen Lexington Avenue was formally rejected by the city. That March, the cornerstone of the Kress building was laid. By April, extra crews were brought in to complete the job, with masonry work being carried out around the clock.

On June 24, Kress 5-10-25 Cent Store officially opened its new downtown Asheville location. The following day’s paper reported that thousands had celebrated its grand opening, including the city’s recently elected mayor, Gallatin Roberts, who congratulated “the Kress management on the completion of one of the finest stores in its chain of 183.”

Kress would close its downtown operation on May 2, 1974.

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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3 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: Kress creates consternation, 1926-27

  1. Phillip Williams

    I am glad they repurposed the Kress building – I can remember it standing empty when I worked in the NW Plaza. It was sad to look down on the roof and see the big, red “KRESS” signs unbolted and lying flat. I wonder if they are still up there?

    • Thomas Calder

      Now you’ve got me curious if it’s still up there. I’ll dig around and see what I can find out.

      • Phillip Williams

        From the higher floors of the NW building (BB&T) you could see many other rooftops around – quite a few of them still had the big marquee type signs either advertising the store or products (there was a big Coca Cola sign on top of the old Pack Square Cigar store) – they had been dismantled and laid down – apparently it wasn’t worth the expense to get them down off the rooftop. Of course this was over 30 years ago!

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