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TO JANUARY 4
Until things started going to hell in the ’60s, S.H. Kress & Co. kept excellent records of its properties, which is why this exhibit offers such a thorough retrospective: Blueprints, photographs, postcards, even pieces of the facade from its 5th Avenue store in Manhattan. (There are also some interesting shots of former Kress stores that been architecturally recycled.) Inevitably, though, the exhibit touches on more than masonry and display cases. After F.W. Woolworth went bust with his first venture, a 5-cent store, the concept was broadened to cover more upscale merchandise, and five-and-dimes transformed American retailing, setting the stage for the more specialized, more annoying chains of today. Of course, standards of service were different then: The photo of the 1937 opening of Kress’ Birmingham, Ala., outlet that greets exhibitgoers reveals that the store had enough staff to run a dozen Wal-Marts. Kress also has local cultural significance: Washington was never a Kress town, but Samuel Kress’ major collection of Italian Renaissance art ended up in the National Gallery. At the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. FREE. (202) 272-2448. (Mark Jenkins)