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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Samuel Henry Kress

An S.H. Kress store, Berkley, California, 1933

The next time you walk into a K-Mart, here's something to think about. Where did the "K" come from? Many readers may remember visiting the "five and dime" when you were growing up? It might have been a Ben Franklin, or a Woolworth's, or perhaps an S.H. Kresge store. If you're old enough, (and lived in the right part of the country) you might remember, years before that, Kresge's were called Kress 5-and 10-cent stores. The first one opened in Memphis in 1896. Before long there were some fifty Kress stores all over the South, and eventually in the West. Their founder was a former school teacher named Samuel Henry Kress. He was born in 1863, the day after the Battle of Gettysburg, not far from there in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Right out of high school, he began taching school in a one-room building for the exorbitant salary of $25 per month. Unbelievably, he managed to save part of that salary and invested it in a stationery store in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. It was from this that the Kress chain developed, and it was Kress who put the "K" in K-Mart.

Samuel H. Kress, 1952,
Leopold Seyffert
In the 1920s the Kress Company moved its new headquarters to New York and there Kress ensconced himself in a two-story penthouse where he began amassing a collection of Italian painting, sculpture, and furniture. In these posh surroundings, he lived until his death in 1955.  By that time, his art collection amounted to 1,424 paintings, 171 sculptures, 31 drawings, 1,307 small bronzes, and hundreds of other miscellaneous art objects. The place must have more resembled a warehouse than penthouse. He'd originally intended to endow a national museum, but inasmuch as his friend, Andrew Mellon, beat him to it, he instead donated 386 paintings and 24 sculptures to the National Gallery in Washington. However, this hardly made a dent in the stash.

Laocoon, 1610-14, El Greco, 
one of many gifts from the Kress Foundation
to the National Gallery of Art In Washington, D.C.
The rest he doled out to 18 municipal museums in cities where there had long been Kress stores, in effect returning to the communities that had made him rich, an art token of his esteem. In addition, 23 colleges and universities also received art for their campus galleries. Having some more left over, dozens of very small museums around the country received similar gifts of from one to three paintings. His offerings were so generous that in some cases, cities had to construct new buildings just to house his donations. Even churches and schools benefited. Numerous European cities also benefited from the Kress largess in preserving many famous architectural landmarks. The Kress Foundation also supports libraries and educational institutions with books, slide collections, manuscripts, and archives. And today, many promising young scholars receive Kress Fellowships allowing them to study art abroad.  Something to think about the next time you pass a K-Mart--a thrifty school teacher who really made a difference.

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