Charleston loves its old buildings, but unless you look up above the storefronts on the southern end of King Street, you might miss some of the Holy City's architectural triumphs and oddities. Moore & Van Allen, a law office currently based at the corner of East Bay and Calhoun streets, is planning a move to one such relic, the historic Kress building at 281 King Street.
Built in 1931, the former home of the sprawling Kress department store is now subdivided into retail shops including Williams-Sonoma and Biton, but the classic art deco exterior remains intact. The architectural style, which flourished in the 1930s, puts an emphasis on symmetry and bold geometric patterns. Some of its best-known examples include New York City's Chrysler Building and 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
In the early 20th century, Samuel H. Kress saw the construction of his 5-10-25-cent stores as an opportunity to create grand public artworks on main streets across America. The company closed down in 1981, and many of its buildings have since been repurposed and designated as historic places. The Kress building in Columbia, for instance, is now divided into shops and apartments. In the case of Charleston's Kress building, distinguishing features include a column-inspired facade, gold and green accents, and a spire jutting up from the roof.
The second and third floors of Charleston's Kress building have been unoccupied for some time, and Sam Applegate, a partner at Moore & Van Allen, says extensive renovations will need to be done before the firm's planned move in early 2013.
"We're going to try to honor the integrity of the structure as much as we can," Applegate says. That means leaving intact the original crownwork, the terrazzo tile floors, and even the elevators. Ample light will come through tall windows on the King Street side of the building. Chicago-based design firm Perkins+Will has been tasked with renovating the interior to accommodate 75 to 100 employees as well as improving the energy efficiency of the 80-year-old building.
The Kress building is one of two prominent art deco buildings in Charleston, the other being the Riviera Theatre at the corner of King and Market streets.
In addition to its architectural significance, the Kress building holds a place in civil rights history: Its lunch counter was the site of a 1963 sit-in by Burke High School students.