Looking back: Downtown development projects proceed

Published 10:23 am Friday, July 29, 2016

by Clyde Parker

July 29, 1966
Franklin City Council went on record Monday night as being in favor of having the two three-story warehouses located in the 200 block of Second Avenue included in the Franklin Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s (FRHA) proposed downtown urban renewal study. The unanimous vote to request the Authority to have the buildings in the study was tempered, however, with a “for study purposes only” stipulation.

Councilman Carl Steinhardt’s position on the buildings seemed to typify Council’s sentiment. “It seems that there are few objections to leaving those warehouses in the area to be STUDIED, even though I might not be for their being included in a later renewal PROJECT. I can’t see any harm in finding out what we’ve got and what we might need.”

In other words, some of the FRHA Commissioners think that if the buildings are left in the “study,” it is highly probable that they will eventually be demolished. “However,” said Frank Jester, FRHA Executive Director, “In accordance with the Commonwealth of Virginia Housing Authority Act, those buildings can be removed from the redevelopment plan by action of the local Authority.”

The prevailing thought is that a majority of the Council and Harold Atkinson, City Manager, are leaning toward the buildings being demolished as a part of the downtown Franklin renewal project.

However, consensus at the FRHA is that they think that we should not rush to take down those historic, but re-useable, buildings at this time.

The tentative downtown renewal project is defined as being all buildings encompassed in an area with the following boundaries: From the EAST side of South Main Street to South Mechanic Street between First Avenue and the Seaboard Airline Railroad — and the area EAST of Leggett Department Store to South Mechanic Street, bordered by East Second Avenue to the North and East First Avenue to the South.

The condition of the store buildings facing South Main Street, between First Avenue and the railroad, are marginal. The other buildings in that block, including the “Spotlight Café”, from behind the aforementioned structures to Mechanic Street are considered to be in poor condition.

However, getting back to the two warehouses fronting on Second Avenue, those structures are in good condition. Speaking to the Council, on behalf of the Authority, Frank Jester, FRHA Executive Director, said, “The Authority members just reached a tentative conclusion that the warehouses should be EXCLUDED because they are NOT structurally unsound, even though they are not considered suitable for use as commercial retail merchandise buildings.” They could be adapted for other yet to be determined purposes.

A brief history of the two buildings in question follows. In 1903, with Mr. J.H. Knight as president and Mr. B.E. Parker as vice president, the first of two three-story buildings was built to house the Parker Buggy Corporation’s (later, Knight Buggy Company) horse-drawn buggy manufacturing business. The first building was 40 by 100 feet. In 1906, a second building was put up taking the frontage on Second Avenue to 193 feet and putting the square footage of the complex to 100,000, covering 2-1/4 acres. And, at that time, a rail siding from the Seaboard Airline Railway was extended into the middle of the complex. In 1908, Mr. Knight bought out Mr. Parker’s interest in the business and renamed it Knight Buggy Company.

Later, in the early 1920s, when the horse-drawn buggy business was entering into a dramatic decline, Mr. Knight added a sideline business, which required some additional space, and called it Knight Screen Co. The primary products were screen windows and doors for both residential and commercial use.

In July of 1966, City Manager Harold Atkinson said, “The area between First Avenue and Second Avenue from Mechanic Street to Leggett Department Store was originally included in the redevelopment plan because although the buildings on that property were declared structurally sound, they are obsolete and exert a blighting influence. The buildings are incompatible with retail use in that area.”

“And”, he added emphatically, “The buildings are not in keeping with our downtown Franklin modernization plans.”

In the early 1970s, the Franklin City Council and the Franklin-Southampton Chamber of Commerce both went on record as being in favor of the downtown Franklin redevelopment projects. On July 16, 1970, Mayor Darden Jones said, “Since no real opposition to demolishing a significant part of the historic Franklin business district has surfaced, the prevailing sentiment among City leaders and the general public seems to be to proceed in accordance with FRHA recommendations.”

NOTES: Following closure of the buggy business in the late 1920s and, later, in the 1940s, the screen window and door business, the two buildings, over the years, were used for various purposes such as warehousing for Leggett Department Store, J.J. Pace Plumbing Supply Co., and Crumpler Plumbing Co. A few times, the Franklin Jaycees used one of the buildings for its “Operation Merry Christmas” headquarters.)

The store buildings facing Main Street between First Avenue and the Railroad Depot were being purchased by the FRHA and were slated to be torn down.

During the years 1971 and 1972, the FRHA was receiving bids for demolition of the buildings included in the downtown development project.

From 1972, right on up to 1976, efforts were put forth to develop the property with retail businesses. In 1976, Franklin Realtor Ashby Rawls was appointed agent for the properties. Representatives of various stores, in other cities, were contacted to see if there was interest in downtown Franklin property.

In June of 1972, following much discussion, the two former buggy company buildings, next door to Leggett Department Store, were torn down. In April of 1974, the property, then vacant, was sold to Boddie-Noell Enterprises of Rocky Mount, North Carolina for $55,500 and, later, in 1976, a Hardee’s restaurant was built.

Eventually, all structures, except the railroad depot, within the area bordered by South Main Street, First Avenue, South Mechanic Street and the Seaboard Airline Railway were demolished.

And, as it turns out, in the latter part of 1976, a decision was made to designate the property for use by the City of Franklin. A public Safety Building and a municipal parking lot were to be built.)

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net