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America's Iconic Signage: Historic Franklin, TN

Posted on October 02, 2015 | Posted by Kris Williamson

We're feeling a bit nostalgic about the good ole days here in historic downtown Franklin, Tennessee. Founded on October 26, 1799, our quaint city was named after Benjamin Franklin. Yes, THE Benjamin Franklin. The City of Franklin's website accurately states that you can find the best of both worlds here: small-town charm and big-city sophistication. We couldn't agree more! To honor our city, we are bringing back our America's Iconic Signage series to feature some of the signs that truly represent our city's past, present and future.

There are many things that make a city special, and local businesses and organizations are part of that influence. (For Franklin, being a major part of the Civil War has a little something to do with it too!) In this edition of our America's Iconic Signage series, we feature a few of the landmarks that have formed our city into the special destination it is today.

1. Dotson's Restaurant

Images of the iconic Dotson's Restaurant sign through the years. 12-Point SignWorks

The Dotson's Restaurant sign still stands at its last location on East Main Street. The photo on the far left shows it at the restaurant's original location just a little farther down Main Street. (Photo Courtesy of franklinlife.net.)

Sadly, this popular destination on East Main Street currently exists as just a shell of a well-loved building with the iconic neon sign still standing tall (and dark) outside. After serving Franklin residents and visitors for over 60 years, Dotson's Restaurant closed its doors for good on December 30, 2014. The closing was met with sadness and quite a few tears. Dotson's served Southern fare to a large number of locals, including many celebrities who live in and around the area. Many of the restaurant's patrons had been coming to eat there for many decades. The manager of the restaurant had hoped to find another location in Franklin for the restaurant. If she finds one, we hope the iconic sign once again will brightly lead customers to its door.

2. GRAY's on Main

The original Gray's Drug Co. sign and the new GRAY'S on Main sign. 12-Point SignWorks

The updated GRAY'S on Main neon sign is a touching tribute to the original Gray Drug Co. sign that was installed in 1952. If you haven't yet been there, you must put it on your 'to go' list.
(Photos courtesy of franklinlife.net and graysonmain.com.)

The history for GRAY'S on Main begins with the building. In 1876, the brick building was erected on Main Street in the heart Franklin. On December 4, 1930, the building was purchased by Frank Gray Jr. and D.C. Kinnard. It served as the home to a pharmacy named Gray Drug Co. from the 1940s into the 1990s. In 1952, Frank Gray Jr. installed the Gray Drugs neon sign at the cost of $860.00. (Fun Fact: There used to be a soda fountain in the pharmacy that was removed in 1960.) After decades serving the residents of Franklin, the pharmacy was sold in 1998 and turned into Gray's Cards and Gifts. With the change, the neon sign was modified to say only GRAY'S.

The building was sold in 2004 and stood vacant until 2012, when Andy Marshall (a well-known local and owner of the Puckett's Restaurants) purchased the building. Throughout the course of the next eighteen months, the building was renovated and GRAY'S memorabilia was repurposed to create a brand new restaurant and music hall. On August 4, 2013, more than 3,000 people gathered in the restaurant and on Main Street to celebrate the relighting of the GRAY'S sign. Just as residents flocked to the building in the late 1900s, locals and visitors once again meet at GRAY'S and reflect on the history of the building and its name. As the restaurants owners have said, "It's thrilling to see the GRAY'S sign light up our Main Street again and put life back into this historical building." If you haven't driven down Main Street at night, it's such a treat to see the iconic sign glowing once again.

3. The Franklin Theatre

An image showing the original Franklin Theatre marquee and the new marquee in downtown Franklin, TN. 12-Point SignWorks

Just like old times! The above photo shows a little peak at the original Franklin Theatre marquee. (Photo courtesy of franklinhomepage.com.) We are thrilled to have the marquee once again light up Main Street.

In the summer of 1937, the marquee above the Franklin Theatre first illuminated Main Street. (Fun Fact: Admission at that time was 10 cents for children and 25 cents for adults. Can you imagine?!) The iconic sign attracted moviegoers who enjoyed fresh popcorn and treats in front of the big screen. In the 1970s, the beautiful marquee was taken down and replaced by a simpler Franklin Cinema sign.

For seventy years, the theater served as a meeting spot and also as a reminder of days gone by. (I attended quite a few shows there myself in the 1990s!) Sadly, the theater closed its doors in 2007, a victim of increasing rent costs and the impact of larger mega-theaters. 

In 2008, The Heritage Foundation of Franklin and Williamson County began a Save the Franklin Theatre campaign to raise the funds to restore the historic landmark. After three years of work and over $8 million in investment, the theater opened again in grand fashion on June 3, 2011. The renovation included a new marquee sign that once again lights up Main Street every evening. Along with movies, the theater hosts musical events, live theater and other special events. 

Our city is full of historic and iconic locations, and I'm sure we can find many more to feature here. What's your favorite iconic signage in Franklin, Tennessee? Let us know in the comments section below.

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