Letter to the editor
To the Editor:
The demolition last month of the two-and-a-half-story Cherryville Hotel, built circa 1767, I’m sure, hardly raised an eyebrow. This was a largely forgotten piece of Lehigh Township history.
For most of its life, the Cherryville Hotel served as the social and commercial center of the township.
In the building’s final function, it housed the Betty Seidel Gift Shop (1949-2001), whose clientele included stars of stage and screen to most presidential first ladies from Grace Coolidge to Pat Nixon.
But it should be remembered that this hotel was the birthplace of arguably the most successful and philanthropic native son of Lehigh Township.
Here Samuel H. Kress was born in a second-floor bedroom in July 1863. His parents raised him in Slatington. As a young man, he chose to be a retailer, being inspired by the “five and dime” empires of F.W. Woolworth, W.T. Grant and others.
Kress believed he could start a chain store selling better-quality goods at a lower cost than competitors. Due to regional competition with the similar sounding S.S. Kresge store chain (ancestor of today’s Kmart), Kress chose to move to Memphis, Tenn., in 1896.
By the time he died in 1955, the S.H. Kress chain had 260 stores spanning Georgia to Texas and a few in California. His estate was valued at $17.5 million. In today’s economy, adjusted for inflation, that would be $165 million.
However, his legacy was art.
A lifelong bachelor, Kress spent his expanding wealth collecting European old masters’ works of art, mostly paintings. He eventually amassed over 2,000 pieces. Through his Kress Foundation, art works were donated to churches, schools, colleges and museums nationwide.
In 1939, along with the collection donated by financier Andrew Mellon, a large portion of Kress’ collection formed the core of the then-new National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Kress never forgot his Cherryville roots. He wanted the public to enjoy great art; however, there was no museum close to his birthplace. The Kress Foundation did see an opportunity in the fledgling Allentown Art Museum.
In 1960, a gift of 63 Renaissance and Baroque paintings bolstered that museum’s collection.
Today, this group of paintings is still on display. This is the legacy of Samuel Kress, Lehigh Township’s forgotten philanthropist.