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"Ultra modern" Downtowner Motor Inn drew attention from loss of Kingsport Inn

J. H. Osborne • Apr 17, 2020 at 4:00 PM

In early July 1959, it was announced Miller’s, the Knoxville-based department store chain, had purchased the property the Kingsport Inn had occupied at Broad Street and Church Circle for 43 years, and tear down the inn to build a new store on the site. By the end of the month, another big announcement: a Downtowner Motor Inn would be built downtown, the first of what was planned to become a national chain.

It was actually the second, as the first Downtowner already existed in Memphis. But Downtowner Motor Inn, Inc. had recently been purchased by Diversified Management Corporation and the new Downtowner in Kingsport was to be the first in the company’s planned expansion of the NationWide Downtowner Motor Inn concept for modern hotels built in the center of business districts.

Kingsport’s Downtowner opened to great fanfare at the corner of Shelby and West Center Street on Saturday, September 10, 1960 (just five short months after the Kingsport Inn fell to the wrecking ball for a department store that was never built).

Congratulatory advertisements filled several pages of the Kingsport Times News the day before. Then City Manager Charles K. Marsh was quoted in one ad as saying “The Downtowner Motor Inn is certainly a welcome addition to our city. We have been in need of modern hotel facilities for many years, and we are very pleased to have such a unit to serve our community ... it brings us even closer to being ‘the Model City.’ “

J. Fred Johnson department store ran a “welcome neighbor” ad, that read, in part: “The new and beautiful Downtowner Motor Inn brings accommodations long needed to keep pace with our fast growing city.” Another ad proclaimed “Downtowner Most Modern Hotel in Northeast Tennessee” and noted it would be the tallest building in Kingsport’s business district.

The Downtowner (never in my life, during the time the building stood, did I hear anyone speak the “NationWide” or “Motor Inn” parts of its official name) boasted to be “the only hotel in the area with a swimming pool” (20’ by 40’ and ranging in depth from 3’ to 8’). The pool was secluded from street view, accessible to guests without passing through the lobby, and overlooked by a sun deck. It was used as backdrop in The Nettie Lee Shops’ ad welcoming the Downtowner to downtown, with Miss Sullivan County Frances Fransisco and Miss Kingsport Phyllis Burnett modeling Jantzen clothing from Nettie Lee.

In addition to the pool, other bragging rights included “ultra modern” accommodations (no two of its 104 rooms had the same decor, each having its own color schemes, furniture type, and interior design), free TV, free parking (some in a large lot on the end of the property bounding Market and Shelby streets, some of it underneath a portion of the four upper stories), and no tipping.

The front of the ground floor area was occupied by the lobby and The Harlon Fields Restaurant, which was meant to serve as a model for “all future operations of the company.” The main dining room had seating for 124. The Club Room, meant for social events and civic club meetings, would seat 184 for a sit-down meal, but had dividers that could turn it into two rooms, each with a capacity of 85. The Club Room would be home to a buffet on Sundays, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mr. and Mrs. James Garrison were manager, and assistant, respectively, of the restaurant and had moved to Colonial Heights from Birmingham, Alabama, on August 1 for the jobs. The chef was Eddie Woods. Hostesses were Mrs. Pearl Oden and Mrs. Edith King. The restaurant’s hours were 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, and it provided catering for groups in the Club Room and room service to guests in the 104 rooms. Pushed to name a specialty of the house, Garrison said roast beef, but he liked to think all their food was special.

Hotel manager on opening day was Don Baker, who’d moved his family to a home on Garden Drive in Kingsport from Paris in order to take the job here. Oh, that’s Paris, Tennessee, just to be clear.

An article about the grand opening and public open house noted Kingsport would have “mayors galore” that Saturday morning, as mayors from 85 cities within 100 miles of Kingsport had been invited to attend and bring their wives. They would be honored guests at a luncheon (featuring keynote dedicatory speaker Congressman B. Carroll Reece), an informal dinner, and an overnight stay in the new Downtowner. A chartered railroad car was bringing about 30 big shots from Memphis, including officials with NationWide Downtowner Motor Inn, Inc.’s parent company. Several planes would also be bringing guests to town, from Texas and the midwest. The guest expected to be traveling the farthest was a businessman from Mexico City, Mexico. He was interested in opening a Downtowner there.

After its grand opening, I haven’t found many news articles about the Downtowner. It celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1970. But apparently it soon went through several name changes and changes in management and ownership. It ceased being a part of the NationWide Downtowner Motor Inn chain in 1973. By September 1975, just 15 years after it opened in grand style, and having most recently been operated as The Port O’ Kings Motor Inn, it was set for a foreclosure auction.

I would have been 12 years old. I only remember if being referred to as the Downtowner. None of my family’s out-of-town visitors ever stayed there. They stayed at the Holiday Inn or the Tennessee Motor Lodge (built and opened as a Howard Johnson’s). I have only two memories of the Downtowner. When I was in high school and would sometimes cruise Broad Street, we’d go in the coffee shop if it was open or get soft drinks from the vending machines. And in the early 1990s, very early one Sunday morning and as a fairly new Times News reporter, I joined my now boss Stephanie McClellan, who then covered city government, on the far west side of the parking lot behind City Hall to watch the old Downtowner be demolished. It was meant to be an implosion. But the explosions only brought half the building down. The elevator tower in the center sort of stopped the momentum. But still, small bits of debris made it all the way to near where we were hunkered down with city officials. And that’s why, on a counter at home, I have a chunk of concrete. From the Downtowner.

The site of the Downtowner became a city-owned parking lot, which is now a parking garage.

 

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