The NOEL Sign is Franklin’s Beacon of Light

Noel Sign – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

Without a doubt, Franklin, Tennessee is one of the most magical Christmas towns in America! When those four letters that spell out “NOEL” are raised up from the roof of the White Building in the Five Points District, we know the holiday season has officially begun. For those new to Franklin, Five Points is the intersection of Main Street, 5th Avenue, and Columbia Avenue.

Karen Cochran – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

We want to introduce you to the very special woman behind the sign. Karen Cochran is the owner of this building which includes Starbucks, Awaken TN, and Vue Optique. She is a remarkable preservationist and brilliant businesswoman. Her former husband was part of the “Noel” family that built the Noel Hotel in Nashville.

“Noël” is the French word for Christmas and comes from the Latin verb nasci, meaning “to be born.” A variation of this word, nael, made its way into Old French as a reference to the Christmas season and later into Middle English as nowel.

The surname was used for someone born during the Christmas period. Alternatively, it was a nickname for someone who had some special connection with the Christmas season such as providing a yule-log to the lord of the manor.

Noel Sign – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

When that historic hotel sold, the family wanted to keep the letters from the sign. Because of their love for Franklin, they wanted the NOEL sign to be a beacon of light for the locals and visitors of our downtown. You will love the backstory of how this iconic Nashville sign made its way to Franklin. It all started with the “Smartest Hotel in Nashville.”

The Historic Noel Hotel in Nashville

Noel Hotel – Nashville, Tenn.

Built in 1929 by business partners and brothers John and Oscar Noel, the Noel Hotel opened at a time when Nashville was expanding its growing skyline of hotels and department stores. The NOEL sign was placed on the roof and could be seen from miles around when it first opened on January 6, 1930.

Noel Hotel in Nashville, Tenn. (The Tennessean)

The Noel Hotel was located at 200 Fourth Avenue North, near what is now Printer’s Alley. The Grand Ole Opry (WSM Barn Dance) had already begun on the fifth-floor radio studio of the National Life & Accident Insurance Company building in 1925. Nashville was becoming a major U.S. city.

Noel Hotel at 4th and Church St. – Nashville, Tenn.

The Noel Hotel was a Beacon of Light for Nashville Travelers

The Noel Hotel was the tallest building in downtown Nashville at the time. Steamboats could see the green neon sign aglow as they traveled down the Cumberland River. The main steamboat lines dur­ing this time were the Cincinnati and Nashville Packet Co., the Cin­cinnati and Pittsburgh, the Nashville and Burnside Packet Co., and the famous Ryman Line. It was owned by Capt. Thomas G. Ryman of Ryman Auditorium fame. They carried important products like wheat, corn, and tobacco. Read our backstory on Hugh Cathcart Thompson, the architect for the Ryman here.

Matchbook from The Noel Hotel

While the glowing Noel sign served as a beacon of light to welcome weary travelers to Nashville, the hotel promoted itself as “Nashville’s Smartest Hotel” because of its state-of-the-art technology at the time.

Marr & Holman Architects, Madison Jones, Joe Holman, and Thomas Marr in 1923

Designed by Marr & Holman Architects, this firm had many notable projects. In addition to the Noel Hotel, they designed the United States Postal Office (now the Frist Center in 1934), the Tennessee Supreme Court Building (in 1937), and several buildings on the campus of Tennessee State University.

With 12 stories and 250-rooms, The Noel was a luxury hotel that attracted many famous guests over its forty years including Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Roy Rogers, and Jayne Mansfield.

Its public spaces included the hotel lobby, a coffee shop known as the “Kaffee Klatsch, a bakery, a ballroom, a restaurant, and several small retail shops along Church Street. The Noel Hotel closed in September 1972 after it was bought by Hamilton Bank. Over the years, it served as various banks and offices.

The Noelle – Nashville’s Luxury Boutique Hotel

The Noelle – Nashville, Tenn.

In 2014, new owners Rockbridge Capital wanted to return the building to its original use as a hotel. Their mission was to pay homage to the original hotel, while making a fresh start at the same time. They made the decision to exclude the word “hotel” and simply name her “Noelle”.

The Noelle – Nashville, Tenn.

Next time you visit Nashville, I hope you can visit this incredible boutique hotel. Noelle is especially beautiful at Christmas. The developers have done a marvelous job honoring its historic past. Now let’s move forward to learn how the NOEL sign ended up in Franklin.

The Noelle lobby – Nashville, Tenn.

The White Building at Five Points

In 1923, Dr. John White built this corner building as his office on Main Street and 5th Avenue. Many people believe the name is because of the color, when in fact it was a surname.

Wilbur R. Jenkins, owner of Corner Drugs in Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

Over the years it has been a variety of drug stores. In 1935, Wilbur Jenkins renamed the “North Brother Drug Store” to his business called “Corner Drug Store.”

Corner Drug Store in Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

Corner Drug was the hub of commerce and social activity. By the 1920s, apothecaries opened soda fountains and invented various carbonated drinks because it was a legal place to gather during Prohibition. Surprisingly, cocaine and caffeine were popular drugs found in pharmacy drinks to help with headaches. Later, milkshakes were added.

Corner Drug Store soda fountain in Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

Pharmacist Jacob Baur began the Liquid Carbonic Company in 1888. He manufactured carbon dioxide in tanks and that is when the real soda fountain was born. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper were all invented by pharmacists during that time. Coca Cola’s name refers to two of its original ingredients: coca leaves and kola nuts (a source of caffeine). Soda fountains peaked during the 1940s and 1950s.

Then in 1950, Walgreens introduced full self-service drug stores which began the decline of the soda fountain as we know it. During the 1960s, soda fountains began to be replaced by drug store chains.

Corner Drug Store in Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

Similarly, Gray Drug Store operated where the popular Gray’s on Main restaurant is located. The photo below shows Gray’s during its soda fountain heyday. Read our backstory on Gray’s on Main here.

Frances Hay, William Miller, Frank Gray, Mr. McMahon – Gray Drug, Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

In the 1940s, the building also housed Moody’s Tires. Tom and Ed Moody started the tire business on Main Street. Because of tire rationing during WWII, recapping was they chief service. Bicycles at Christmas were also popular.

Moody’s Tire – Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

The White Building was a recognizable landmark for downtown Franklin events. We love this photo of Main Street during the 1957 Franklin Rodeo Parade.

Franklin Rodeo Parade 1957 (Rick Warwick)

Later Corner Drug rebranded to “Corner Rexall Drugs” as the Rexall brand was licensed to over 12,000 drug stores across the United States from 1920 to 1977. Notice the advertising on the side of the building including Coca Cola and Meadow Gold Ice Cream.

Corner Rexall Drugs – Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

A New Era for the White Building

When the Noel’s purchased the White Building during the 1980s, downtown Franklin was being reimagined. At the time Karen and her family lived in Franklin. Manuel Zeitlin Architects in Nashville did the restoration work. Their preservation efforts won an award by the Heritage Foundation.

Corner Drug Store in Franklin, Tenn. (Rick Warwick)

The downtown area wasn’t always as charming and historically preserved as it is now. Karen was friends with Mary Pearce and Rudy Jordan. They all worked together alongside a team of preservation-minded people to transform downtown Franklin. Karen says, “Mary and Rudy had a vision for what historical overlay could mean, and what it would mean for the community to be able to expand, not only the battlefield attractions, but also have a really cool downtown.”

Together, they helped reshape Franklin into the town we all know and love today thanks to an historic overlay of protection and zoning laws for the downtown district along with forming a downtown business association.

The White Building – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

Mary Peace was Director of the Heritage Foundation for 31 years. Because of her cooperation with key leadership, she helped save these amazing resources: The Franklin Theatre, The Factory, The Old Old Jail, and Roper’s Knob to name a few. She stood up to TDOT when they wanted to put an exit ramp off I-840 into Leiper’s Fork. This would have totally destroyed that special village and its charm.

Mary Pearce, Rudy Jordan, and Buffie Baril at Franklin’s Historic Cumberland Presbyterian Church

Rudy Jordan was a member of the Heritage Foundation and helped form the Downtown Franklin Association. Rudy worked with building owners like Karen who led the charge to save Main Street with historic zoning and streetscaping. She helped save her historic residence on 2nd Avenue South, the Cliffe-McPhail House (the current DFA office) and the old Post Office. Because of Rudy’s efforts, Franklin won the Great American Main Street Award in 1995. She also served on the Historic Zoning Commission for many years.

Karen Cochran with the Noel Sign – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

After the Noel Hotel closed in Nashville, Karen and her former husband, John Noel III, the grandson of John Noel Sr. would display the NOEL letters, minus the green neon tubing, on the corner of Franklin Road and Elysian Fields in Nashville. Eventually, Karen had the idea of putting them on the top of the White Building.

Karen’s dream of making the NOEL sign represent a beacon of light for Franklin came true. The sign actually stays on top of the building year-round. During the holidays, it is tilted upwards every year on the week of Thanksgiving to usher in the Christmas season.

Solar Panels on the White Building – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

The White Building is run on electricity produced by 64 roof-top solar panels. It is the only building in downtown Franklin operating on solar power. Karen believes that Franklin can have a few national tenants like Starbucks, but the majority should be local merchants. It’s a good mix.

After the restoration was complete, Karen put the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The upstairs has several offices that lease the space. Their views of downtown are phenomenal.

Noel Sign – Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

One of the very special angles of this story is that our Lovely Franklin photographer is a full-time pharmacist for Williamson Medical Center. Trent Wallace has had a great love for this historic building and the NOEL sign.

Trenton Lee Photography photo art available at Painted Tree Market

Trent sells his photo blocks (shown above), wall art, and note cards at the Painted Tree Market in Franklin. His photographs of the NOEL sign, including this incredible shot (below) of Franklin at Christmastime in the snow, are some of the most iconic in Franklin. Read our feature on Trenton Lee Photography here.

Christmas in Franklin, Tenn. (Trenton Lee Photography)

We hope you’ve enjoyed our backstory on the wonderful Karen Cochran and her generous gift to Franklin. May the NOEL sign continue to be a beacon of light to all of Franklin every Christmas.

Sharing the backstories of historic Franklin with love,

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