Redefining a Community’s Center: Donald and Carol Kress named Philanthropists of the Year

Just five years after the doors of the Donald and Carol Kress Pavilion opened in Egg Harbor, it’s hard to imagine Door County without it. 

Weddings and town halls. Environmental presentations and cabarets. Concerts and meditative yoga. Housing forums and writing conferences. The list of events that have taken place in the great hall is long and, more impressively, wildly diverse. And to the couple primarily responsible for making it possible, it remains a shock. 

“We could never have imagined the use it gets,” Donald Kress said as he sat by the fireplace on the first floor of the pavilion with his wife, Carol. “Sometimes we drive by at night and the lights are on and we wonder, ‘What is going on up there tonight?’ We can’t keep up with it.”

Seeing that use from all corners of the county gives them great pride. Donald said he always thought of it as a place for the entire county, not just Egg Harbor, and it has certainly become that. 

The design of the Donald and Carol Kress Pavilion evokes the look of the Thordarson Boathouse on Rock Island. Photo by Len Villano.

The couple was instrumental in the pavilion’s creation not only through substantial monetary gifts, but also through its design. Carol’s fingerprints all over what quickly became one of Door County’s most recognizable and admired buildings. 

“I was a library kid,” she said. “My mother took me to the library all the time, and we took our kids to the library all the time. As a child, going to the library was huge for me. My heart was in here because of that.”

The building’s first floor is home to the Egg Harbor Library, the Egg Harbor Historical Society’s history room, a children’s play and reading area, a business center and a maker space. 

Those areas were developed with input from a wide range of community members during a process that began when the village bought the property that’s best known as the former Lena’s Sip and Chat on Highway 42.

“Everybody’s opinion is in this building somewhere,” Carol said. 

The village board intended to build a community center and library on that lot, but as planning proceeded, the Kresses’ eyes wandered to a different location along Church Street.

“Everything in Egg Harbor was linear, along the highway,” Donald said. “Egg Harbor was a place you drove through to get to Fish Creek or Ephraim. Carol saw this property and said, ‘It’s gotta be here.’”

Donor names displayed on glass tiles inside the Kress Pavilion. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

As the committee coalesced around a design created by the firm of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson that was inspired by the Thordarson Boathouse on Rock Island, Carol insisted on a siting detail that has come to define the structure: Rather than situating the building perpendicular to the bay, she wanted it turned to sit parallel to it, affording a wider panoramic view of the village. 

The result is that one can now stand in the center of the second-story great hall and view orchards to the west, woods and the Niagara Escarpment to the south, and the bay to the east – four of the pillars that define Door County’s natural environment. 

But it wasn’t smooth sailing. Many people – including this writer – questioned the need for a large library and community center in Egg Harbor, a village of just 361 residents. A small group even sued to stop construction at one point, concerned that the building would become a costly albatross for the village. 

Ryan Heise, who was the village administrator throughout the project’s design and building phases, said the doubters only inspired Donald more. 

“When it got hard, when there were people who were coming out to challenge it, Donald doubled down,” Heise said. “He was determined to make it happen and make it beautiful. But [the Kresses] were very good about getting other people’s ideas into the project.” 

Donald and Carol Kress, named the 2023 Philanthropists of the Year by the Door County Community Foundation, have given generously to several community organizations, but the pavilion that bears their names has become a legacy beyond their expectations. 

Donald has been connected to Egg Harbor since childhood, when his father would bring his family from Green Bay to a summer home in the village. Donald said the peninsula is unlike any other place he’s been.

“Here you’ll find artists and writers and musicians,” he said. “North of Sturgeon Bay, there are no Walmarts, no McDonald’s. Door County has grown and it has changed, but in many ways, it’s still the same peninsula I knew when I was 5 – the beauty and the peacefulness. We felt we wanted to be a part of it. We wanted to give back to a place God has blessed geologically and culturally. My dad always said that the one good thing about making a lot of money is being able to help other people with it.”

Donald said he remains a little uncomfortable having his name on the building because he said that donations, input and courage came from all corners. 

“It isn’t really the amount of money you give, but why you give it,” he said. “People who gave $100 or $1,000 that was a reach for them, and they had to give up something they wanted to give that $100, they are the ones who really deserve to get the honors.” 

But he knows that’s not how these things work, and he hopes the honors serve to inspire others to give. The greater reward comes in other ways, Carol said. 

“I was at the hardware store one day, and a young man who was probably 18 or 19 asked if we were the ones involved with the Kress Pavilion,” she recalled. “I told him we were, and he said, ‘I want you to know that it’s because of that place that I’m able to go to college. I can go there and take my classes online, and I can’t do that at home.’ I went home, and I just cried. To know it made a difference in that young man’s life, that’s more than we imagined it could be.” 

The children’s room offers lots of games, books and a TV. Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

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