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A look back at the Kingsport Inn, 60 years gone

J. H. Osborne • Mar 29, 2020 at 2:30 PM

I don’t remember the Kingsport Inn. How could I? It was demolished in April of 1960, well over two years before I was born. But I’ve heard a lot about it, on and off, from various folks over the years. I’ve often heard dismay over its demise. For most of my childhood, the site where the Inn stood between 1917 and 1960 was a parking lot.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the site in question is at 415 Broad St., bounded on the other three sides by East Sullivan Street, New Street, and Commerce Street. It’s where the multistory former Regions Bank building is today, under renovation to become Kingsport’s new City Hall. But for nearly two decades it was a parking lot.

Did they pave paradise to put up a parking lot? The parking lot, was, in fact, referred to as the Church Circle parking lot — owned first jointly by Church Circle Parking, Inc., and the city of Kingsport, and later solely by the city. My paternal Uncle Harold, a 1952 graduate of Dobyns-Bennett High School who spent most of the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., often bemoaned the loss of the Inn. He firmly believed the Inn was torn down “because the churches wanted a parking lot.” I can understand now how he might have reached that conclusion.

But it just ain’t so.

So why was the Inn closed and demolished? To answer with a cliché, it was a victim of progress.

What kind of progress? The mid-20th century kind. Old and charming was out and modern and sleek was in. Kingsport was growing. New motels were coming to town. The 43-year-old Inn had seen better days. Its lease was up, literally.

Built in 1917, designed by Clinton McKenzie, the Inn made front page news in February 1920 when a $150,000 expansion was announced. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $3.04 million worth of construction today. That expansion was announced by J. Fred Johnson, president of the Kingsport Improvement Company, which apparently owned the Inn at the time. The enlargement of the Inn included two wings at either side of the 1917 structure (adding 100 bedrooms), another, larger dining room, a ladies’ room, a writing room, two lounge rooms, and would result in two courtyards for outdoor relaxation.

“The growth of Kingsport has made necessary these additions to the Inn, which for the past few months has not been able to take care of all the visitors who applied for entertainment,” Johnson said in the announcement. “And when they are completed Kingsport may expect to have one of the most modern hotels in the South.”

Twenty years after it first opened, the Inn still drew rave reviews in “Kingsport, Tennessee: City of Industries, Schools, Churches, Homes,” published in 1937 by the Kingsport Rotary. Its description of the Inn begins by pointing out “The Lee Highway from New York to the south and west by way of Virginia and Tennessee and the Dixie Scenic Highway from Chicago to Florida both pass by the Kingsport Inn.”

“Somehow, an ‘inn’ usually appeals to the weary traveler in a more comforting and romantic sense than a mere ‘hotel,’ ” the Rotary’s promotional tome reads. “Of Georgian architecture, with a wide portico adorned with high white columns in a true Southern style, this two-story, pleasantly rambling type of edifice immediately attracts one seeking rest and refreshment. With sixty-eight rooms, fifty of which have private baths (note: no, I don’t know what happened to the 100 new bedrooms mentioned in the 1920 expansion plans), a many-windowed, tile-floored dining room of generous proportions in which the most jaded and fastidious appetite may find viands that please, comfortable lounge rooms for both ladies and gentlemen, a game room, a piano for the music lover, books for the reader and, above all, the cleanest and most comfortable beds and rooms one can find anywhere, there are ample facilities for the comfort of guests.”

One photo in the book has drawn my fascination. Its title: “fish pond and arbor.”

“The Inn is a nationally-known stopping point for travelers and is also a center of the community’s activities,” states the description, which appeared verbatim in at least two subsequent printings of the Rotary’s book, including in 1951.

But things apparently went downhill in just a few short years, according to other sources.

In “Kingsport, Tennessee: A Planned American City,” (1987, University of Kentucky Press) local author and professor of history Margaret Ripley Wolfe wrote, “The once-gracious Kingsport Inn had deteriorated badly by the 1950s.” She went on to note the city judge had fined the Inn for violation of food-handling laws and the county health department had turned up numerous violations after civic club members complained of possible food poisoning.

Wolfe’s account states the Securities Company of Kingsport, owners of the Inn, then did not renew the lease of the management company that had been operating the Inn, and in 1958 offered to sell the property to the city as a location for a new City Hall. City officials rejected the offer, according to Wolfe, citing “adverse public reaction to the idea of destroying the Inn.”

But by Independence Day 1959, the Securities Company found a buyer for the Inn and its land. The operators of the Inn were allowed to continue business until their lease expired on March 31, 1960. Thus, the last Sunday dinner on March 27 of that year, 60 years ago. It was known at the time of the sale that the new owners planned to demolish the Inn. And they wasted no time in doing so once the Inn closed. A sale was conducted of the Inn’s furnishings, and demolition was set to begin immediately after.

So, who bought the Inn and tore it down?

Miller’s, the Knoxville-based department store company.

To be continued.

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