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The Kingsport Inn and Miller's Department Store

J. H. Osborne • Apr 5, 2020 at 1:15 PM

I ended last week’s column with the revelation (to some) that the Kingsport Inn was torn down by Miller’s, the Knoxville-based department store chain. Miller’s had purchased the property the Inn occupied, in the block bounded by Broad, East Sullivan, Commerce and New streets on July 4, 1959. The chain’s plan to tear down the Inn once the then-current operators’ lease was up in the spring of 1960 wasn’t a secret. Miller’s had already announced plans to enter the Tri-Cities market by constructing a new store on the property.

In an article in the Kingsport Times on Nov. 5, 1959, Miller’s President Gustave Handly announced architects, engineers and planners had been selected. Architects were William Hamilton Wallace of Kingsport (his prior works included the Palmer Memorial Center, the American Legion building, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, Kingsport National Bank and the then-new Green Acres shopping center) and Painter, Weeks, and McCarty of Knoxville (principal architectural firm for the under-construction Knoxville Coliseum).

Flannery & Associates, of Pittsburgh, was named store planners. The firm, an April 1, 1960 article noted, had “planned some of the top ranking stores in the nation. Its clients include John Wanamaker of Philadelphia, Joseph Horne of Pittsburgh, H.&S. Pogue of Cincinnati, and Woodward & Lothrop of Washington, D.C.”

The Inn had closed the day before that article published and demolition began shortly after. Handly estimated construction of the Miller’s store would begin in July 1960.

“Miller’s will be the largest store between Knoxville and Washington, D.C., and between Knoxville and Richmond,” the article stated. “It will have approximately 94,000 square feet of selling space on two floors, in addition to basement storage. Deck parking — at the rear — will accommodate 210 cars. These parking facilities will be open every Sunday for those attending downtown churches.”

By June 1960, the description of the store had grown to it having 116,000 square feet of floor space, and the target opening date was announced as August 1961.

But Miller’s didn’t make it to Kingsport until 1967. And it never built a store.

Less than a year after tearing down the Kingsport Inn, MIller’s announced the property the Inn had occupied was up for sale and listed with local firm Bennett and Edwards. That article appeared in the Kingsport Times on Jan. 28, 1961 and noted the land “was purchased by Miller’s with the intention of building a three-story $1.5 million department store.” The likely answer to why the lot was suddenly up for sale can also be found in that article: “The announcement came two days after the purchase of Rich’s Knoxville Store by Miller’s.” For those who don’t recognize the name, Rich’s was an Atlanta-based department store chain that had, in 1955, built and opened a multimillion-dollar store on Henley Street in Knoxville.

That article’s last sentence regarding the old Inn property: “The property has been leveled and is now being used as a parking lot.”

Six years later, on Jan. 29, 1967, a story ran in the Kingsport Times with the headline “It’s official.” It announced that recent rumors had finally proved true: Miller’s was buying Kingsport’s original department store, J. Fred Johnson Company, from Chattanooga-based Loveman’s, Inc. Loveman’s purchased J. Fred’s in September 1954 when it was still located in the 100 block of Broad Street and decided not to change the nameplate. On Feb. 26, 1956, under Loveman’s ownership, J. Fred Johnson moved into a brand new $1 million building (with the region’s first escalator) at the corner of Broad and Center streets. Miller’s bought the store, its inventory and accounts receivable (customer charge accounts), and immediately changed the nameplate. The “j. fred johnson” (lowercase) logos came down from the store’s facade, to be replaced by “Miller’s.”

I grew up shopping at Miller’s, but many of my elders called it “J. Fred’s” until the day they died, even after Miller’s moved from downtown to the Fort Henry Mall. Among my father’s papers I found a postcard from 1956, featuring a full-color artist’s rendering of the new J. Fred’s store at Broad and Center and inviting Mom and Dad to come in and use their charge account at the new store. I’d love to find the charge card itself.

So that’s how Miller’s came to tear down the Kingsport Inn and eventually how the department store came to town. But there were other factors that played a role in the Inn’s demise. New hotels came to town about the same time. The Downtowner. The Holiday Inn. And Howard Johnson’s. No wonder no one wanted to buy the 43-year-old Kingsport Inn to keep it open.

To be continued.

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