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Look out downtown: Rum Runners is coming

by Brian Clarey

The ground-floor space at the SH Kress Building in Greensboro came together in an era before drywall, before modern air-conditioning, before the New Deal and before white flight and the Shopping Mall Revolution turned the South’s downtown business districts into boarded-up husks and shady thoroughfares in the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s.

That era has since passed, as well ‘— at least in Greensboro, where the environs between Church and Spring streets thrive like they haven’t since the electric trolleys that once roamed these avenues were pulled out in 1956.

And yet the Kress Building, the jewel of Elm Street, has not fully participated in the resurgence. At least not yet.

But a plan by local entrepreneurs Steve Carnish, Steve Jones and Andrew Shoffner aims to elevate the grande dame of the district once again into the belle of the ball.

The trio intends to lease the space for a franchise of the Rum Runners Dueling Piano Bar and Grill chain.

Rum Runners, begun in the late ’90s by bar-industry veteran Michael Scozzafave with a location in Lansing, Mich., employs a ‘vacation’ concept, with tiki bars, frozen drinks and lush interior foliage in evidence in their five current locations, including spots in Raleigh and Wilmington.

James Auerbach, vice president for Rum Runners USA in Raleigh says, ‘“We’re coming, and we’re coming to be part of the fun downtown, part of the growth.’” He adds: ‘“We looked at that spot two years ago. It’s been a long time coming.’”

The Greensboro incarnation, Carnish says, will be primarily a restaurant with an extensive Caribbean-themed menu and a music stage with live entertainment all night.

Each of the Rum Runners is unique, with individual interior designs and menus, but all feature a live stage with dueling pianos, whereby a pair of musicians parry with repartee and sing-along favorites on a couple of baby grands.

‘“What makes us unique is our live entertainment concept,’” Auerbach says, ‘“heavily focused on crowd participation and interaction.’”

Auerbach says the menu for the Greensboro restaurant will feature a few signature items that are available in all the Rum Runners ‘— ‘“We have the best burgers anywhere we go,’” he claims ‘— but he says that each of their restaurants has the freedom to add whatever they like to the selection.

‘“We like to have regional items that distinguish each store, [so] we’re open to seeing menu items that are unique to Greensboro.

‘“It makes people feel like it’s their Rum Runners,’” he adds.

All of this will transpire, he says, before the fall of 2005 comes to an end. Today the space is empty save for the three Greensboro entrepreneurs who pace off the square footage, stare at the ceilings and stamp on the solid terrazzo floor for the umpteenth times.

The space is huge, with 5,300 square feet devoted to the restaurant on the first floor, big enough to play a regulation game of tennis, Shoffner says, ‘“as long as you keep your lobs under control.’” It’s big enough, even, for a basketball game. In fact, an unused hoop and pole stand in a corner off the stairs to the basement.

There are small plaster crumbs on the floor, dropped from the intricate Greek Revival ceiling molding some 26 feet above. ‘“That’s one of the things that’s got to be fixed,’” Shoffner says, his voice echoing in the cavernous space. ‘“You can’t serve food with that.’”

But the Corinthian columns that gird the room stand tall and strong in relief against the walls. The bay of stained-glass casement windows on the back wall remains intact, as does much of the ceiling molding, quite a bit of the marble near the front and the ornate relief piece above the entrance. The etched brass elevator, recessed from the wall between quarter columns, no longer goes up and down but it still looks very, very cool.

SH Kress & Co was a five-and-ten cent store founded by Samuel H. Kress in 1896 and which gained momentum during the Great Depression, when everything else was slowing down economically.

Kress, an art and architecture lover, built elaborate downtown buildings in both classical and modernist styles in the 1930s, taking advantage of cheap labor and materials and creating goodwill in communities where work, or any economic activity for that matter, was scarce. And the elegant structures housed thousands of goods, which were kept at affordable prices. Kress stores enjoyed great popularity before their decline in the ’70s and eventual dissolution in 1981. At one point the company had a crew of approximately 100 architects and draftsmen on staff to design the stores, which in their heyday numbered nearly 400 and existed in 28 states, including Hawaii, though they were most prevalent in the South.

Edward Sibbert, Kress’ chief architect during this time, designed the Greensboro store, which opened in 1930. The building was done in an Art-Deco style, with the aforementioned columns and also dental molding, cast iron duct grills and floors of terrazzo, with upper-level flooring of limestone and heart pine.

The façade of the building shows iron flourishes and the Kress coat of arms, as well as terra cotta medallions of tobacco and narcissus bulbs.

The bulbs are a nod to Kress’ brother Claude, a South Carolina plantation owner who discovered that the narcissus bulbs, a product of France, could be grown in American soil. For this he was awarded an honorary degree from Clemson, and the bulbs were sold exclusively in the Greensboro store.

The old place also featured what was once a revolutionary cooling system called a ‘chiller,’ which made ice at night and used it to cool the building during the day. Recessed wells above the upper front windows channeled the rising hot air and ushered it through the openings.

The upper floors today house offices and a rooftop terrace that has been the scene for many parties and weddings. The office- dwellers must cross through the first-floor space to get upstairs; a fact which Shoffner says, will be accommodated by side passages built into the room.

They plan to build the kitchen in the back and create a vestibule in the front. Partial walls will break up the dining rooms and the entertainment space, and the trio says they have hired a lighting and sound man who will transform the room to suit their needs without changing the character that already exists there.

‘“This is a great space,’” Shoffner says. ‘“We intend for the most part to keep it [looking] the way it is.’”

‘“This will be the kind of place you can bring your wife,’” Carnish says, ‘“your kids’… go out and have a unique experience in downtown Greensboro.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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