History of the Franklin-Pearson House
The “University House” Hotel
Cowan’s first hotel was a two-story frame hotel building constructed in the late 1850’s. University House was the original name of the entity, although it was later called Cowan Hotel and at some point called Commercial Hotel. The only known photo shows the structure to be quite attractive with a full-length veranda.
The building was constructed immediately after the Sewanee Mining Company donated several thousand acres of mountain land to the Episcopal Church for building The University of the South. According to the oldest plat of Cowan, dated 1858, the hotel was located at the corner of Miller and Wetmore Streets. (Today, this is the corner of East Cumberland and North Tennessee Avenue where the Cowan Welcome Center is located.)
Being on the railroad mainline, the hotel served a critical purpose. Although Sewanee had its own rail service, affectionately known as “The Mountain Goat”, it hardly qualified as a rail “connection”. Service was sporadic, at best. Sewanee bound passengers who arrived in Cowan discovered that trains to and from the mountain did not run on a predictable schedule, and sometimes did not operate with passenger cars.
The accommodations at University House allowed Sewanee bound passengers to cool their heels, rest, and figure out the best way to get to Sewanee. Some waited for the next train up the Goat Track, some would hire a stage coach, and some would make the long steep hike up the mountain. (It’s worth noting that passengers would ride in freight cars on the Mountain Goat if no passenger coach was available!)
The building also accommodated a retail store front that served as Cowan Post Office for a brief period. The University House continued to provide accommodations well into the 20th Century. It was demolished sometime in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s.
The only known relic that still exists from the University House is a light fixture that now hangs at Cowan Railroad Museum. The cistern that supplied water for the hotel was recently uncovered and will soon be landmarked.
The Franklin House
Cowan was a relatively quiet place following the Civil War. By 1881, The University of the South was growing to become a prestigious institution, and then the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad purchased Cowan’s “Sewanee Furnace” and introduced a large scale operation. The furnace grew to become the largest producer of pig iron in the entire South. This led to tremendous growth and economic prosperity for Cowan and prompted the need for a more upscale hotel.
Two employees of the furnace, a Mr. Ben Glidwell and a Mr. Tom Kelton, put their resources together and built a handsome two-story brick structure next door to University House. The business opened in 1886 and was leased and operated by a Mr. and Mrs. Buchay.
Besides the overnight accommodations, this facility featured a top-notch restaurant that provided contract meal service to railroad passengers. Through the first few decades of operation, train #3 stopped in Cowan at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast and train #6 stopped at 6:00 p.m. for dinner.
As the trains pulled in to the Cowan Depot, the restaurant waiter would stand outside the front door and ring a bell signaling for passengers to come over and be seated. Once inside, the passengers were greeted by an elegant dining room with crisp linens, china and crystal. The tables were pre-set with food already cooked and ready to serve “family-style”. After finishing the meal, the passengers would return to the train and continue on their journey.
Railroad historians are quick to point out that Cowan’s Franklin House operation bears very close resemblance to the famous Harvey Houses that were connected with the Santa Fe Railroad in the American West. Harvey Houses were famous all over the country for their incredible food, accommodations that served rail passengers from 1875 until the 1930’s. Although the Franklin House was nowhere near as famous as the Harvey Houses were, it was well known throughout the South and was published in railway guides as a great place to stay and dine.
The introduction of railroad dining cars in the late 1920’s meant that contract meal services at the Franklin House were no longer necessary. Although the restaurant stayed in business, the hotel portfolio became more and more crucial. With the demolition of the University House next door across Miller Street (now East Cumberland Street), the Franklin House adapted to also serve as a boarding house for railroad employees and for Cowan families in transition.
The Franklin House also earned revenue by leasing out storefronts (much the way hotels do in large cities). The longest running leasehold was a barber shop followed by a pharmacy, both of which lasted well beyond the Franklin House hotel operation itself.
The Parker Hotel
With the advent of the jet airliner and growing popularity of the motorcar, passenger rail service began a long period of decline. The Franklin House was less visible and less important, but was still a valuable enterprise. Sometime in the late 1940’s, the Franklin House sold and was reinvented as the Parker Hotel.
The new owners of the Parker Hotel put on a new image by painting the entire building white, converting more downstairs rooms into retail storefronts, and downgrading the restaurant to a casual coffee shop. Although Cowan was changing economically and demographically, the Parker Hotel was a relatively stable operation up until the construction of Interstate 24 over Monteagle Mountain. With that, the hotel began a steady decline.
On May 9, 1965, disaster struck downtown Cowan. The hotel caught fire and was engulfed in flames requiring the service of seven area fire departments. The intense fire spread to other buildings and caused extensive damage throughout the oldest part of downtown Cowan.
The following day’s newspaper reported the cause of the fire as unknown and that there were no injuries. More than half of the structure was completely gutted with the remaining portion having extensive smoke and water damage. The newspaper reported the sad news that one of Cowan’s most famous and most important landmarks was lost forever and that the remains of the building would probably be razed.
The Surviving Section
The section of the building that survived the fire did not meet its demise as originally planned. Instead, business owners Curtis Jackson (Jackson’s Barber Shop) and Blevins Rittenberry (Rittenberry Pharmacy) each bought their respective sections and reopened for business. The original stairway was destroyed in the fire, so Mr. Jackson built a new stairway to access the upstairs from one of the front entrances. Using the few rooms above the barber shop, Mr. Jackson opened a small boarding house for low-income individuals. (This operation continued up until the property was acquired by the Pearson family in 2002.) The section over Rittenberry Pharmacy was sealed off from the rest of the building and subsequently abandoned.
Although it was a relief to Cowan residents that part of the hotel survived, it was no comfort whatsoever that Cowan entered a long period of economic decline. Besides the loss of the hotel in 1965, passenger train service discontinued as well rendering the old Cowan Depot useless.
Cowan residents put their best foot forward in the mid-1970’s by preserving the depot and creating a railroad museum and by turning the downtown rail yard into a park area. Later that same decade, Cowan lost its two largest industries – Marquette Cement Company and Genesco shoe factory. In the following two decades, Cowan’s economic decline continued with businesses closing, buildings falling into disrepair, and families relocating.
Effort was made to breathe life back into the old hotel building at one point in the early 1990’s. Although the pharmacy relocated to another building, an antique dealer bought the buildind and put in a full retail floor incorporating almost the entire downstairs. This operation was short-lived, but under a new set of owners a new stairway was built to the hotel rooms that were formerly sealed off and the space rented as one single apartment. Unfortunately, no investment was made in the structure and appearance of the building itself, and it deteriorated into a prominent downtown eyesore.
The Franklin-Pearson House
The Rittenberry half of the building was back on the real estate market by late 2001, but there were scarcely any interested buyers.
The Pearson’s, a five generation Cowan family, put together a prop osal in the spring of 2002 to buy the entire building and restore it to its original purpose. Both owners agreed to sell, and by summer the Pearson’s started construction on the Franklin-Pearson House, a Bed and Breakfast Inn using the remaining rooms from the original Franklin House hotel.
The project was one of the largest building restorations in Cowan history. The rooms were re-equipped with the original basins and bath fixtures, the former pharmacy storefront was converted into an elegant lobby, and one of the downstairs storefronts was made into two additional guest rooms.
The hotel project restored a tired old structure into a gleaming downtown landmark and helped spawn other revitalization projects. Cowan turned from four decades of steady decline to a new a new phase of economic growth and revitalization.
The Franklin-Pearson House opened for business in August 2003 and picked up where the Franklin House and Parker Hotel left off – providing quaint accommodations in a small town setting! Like its predecessors, the Franklin-Pearson House serves Sewanee families, business travelers, and tourists who enjoy a scenic getaway in the Tennessee hills.
Today, the Franklin-Pearson House is affectionately known as the “Old Hotel” in downtown Cowan and is daily recalling Cowan’s long history of service and hospitality.
Information for this article was gathered from the writings of Jim and Jenny Lou Brock, Harry Easter, and Andrew Rittenberry with personal contributions by Curtis Jackson and Howard Coulson. Compiled by L. Jarod Pearson, proprietor of the Franklin-Pearson House.
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