Saving Harriman's Princess Theater

As Harriman works to restore an art deco jewel, it's also betting that the Princess Theater will revitalize its city

The newsreel casts its black-and-white images like a transmission from a different world, a place where unbound optimism and faith in the future are still abundant.

A mass of people crowd a city street, shoulder to shoulder, looking expectant and excited as they jostle one another. Boys jump and wave at the camera. A marching band parades through the crowd in impossibly stiff uniforms. Officials in suits smile and congratulate each other. Men wear hats. It's clearly an important day.

A title card silently interrupts the proceedings to set the scene:

At Big Emory Gap, in Roane County, Tennessee, where the Emory river breaks through Walden's Ridge, after its rapid descent from the Cumberland Plateau, stands the City of Harriman.

On February 7th, 1891, Harriman was incorporated as a city. Living ever up to its slogan… "Advancing into the future – Boosting, Building, Benefiting."

Harriman keeps pace with progress in its sustained march toward the great, well-rounded metropolis it is destined to be.

It didn't quite reach that goal. But no one in this film suspects how different their main street will be in 70 years. For now, the city of Harriman, Tenn., is thriving with industrial anchors like The Harriman Co. Paper Mill, Cumberland Gap Woolen Mill, Harriman Mfg. Co. Farm Implements, and—biggest of all—the Harriman Hosiery Mill. There are five different railroads that serve the area. Downtown is bustling with businesses and consumers. And now, the city's progress is being recognized with an incredible honor, a glamorous gift blessed by far-away Hollywood: a new movie theater.

The 900-seat Princess Theatre is no ordinary moving-picture exhibitor. It is a streamlined portal to the modern world, with art deco curves and a swooping neon marquee that declare this theater to be the most up-to-date creation of a suddenly technological era. The smooth building juts out from Roane Street's assemblage of angular, brick Victorian storefronts like a visitor from America's soon-to-be future, a promise of marvels to come. The Harriman Record treats the grand opening with a special Princess Theatre Section, declaring Thursday, Nov. 16, 1939 to be "The Dawn of a New Day for Theatre Patrons" with the opening of the "South's Finest, Most Modern, Fire-Proof Show House." Clark Gable sends his urgent regards from Culver City via Western Union: "WITH EVERY GOOD WISH FOR THE SUCCESS OF THE NEW PRINCESS."

And for many decades, it did succeed. The Princess became the pride of the community, its focal point for entertainment, and downtown was its gathering place. Shops lined the wide sidewalks: the big department store of Miller & Brewer, Edwards Shoe Store, Ed Farnham's Hardware, Chase Drug Store, and many others. But they're all gone now: the shops, the factories, the people. Roane Street is mostly empty today, and optimism has been fading into memory.

"My time was from '57 through '68—to me that was the peak time in downtown Harriman," recalls Paul Mashburn, who's lived most of his life in this city 40 miles west of Knoxville, near Kingston. "But along about '74-'75, K-Mart came to town. Soon after that, Wal-Mart came to town. And then that's when you started seeing the shops, the mom-and-pops, close down. The paper mill closed, the hosiery mill closed, and it all just kind of dried up."

Even the spectacular Princess finally shut its doors in 1999, accelerating its inexorable deterioration. And now Roane Medical Center, the last major employer downtown and occupier of many downtown buildings, is set to leave in 2013 for a $72 million building being constructed out near the interstate by new owner Covenant Health. As in so many other small cities, the death of Harriman's downtown seemed inevitable, victim to the same progress it embraced over 70 years before. There are no longer many reasons to go there, so few do.

However, the Princess may yet show the way to the future. A decade-long effort to save the theater is culminating in a nearly complete restoration that will return the building's appearance to its 1939 heyday. City leaders, local educators, and citizens who remember the Princess in better times are betting everything they have that a restored theater—reconfigured as an arts education and performance center—will save their main street.

"Right now, to me, it's the only hope for downtown," says Mashburn, who has devoted himself to documenting the project in a blog, step by step. "If it doesn't go, then Harriman will continue to die."

It's a gamble that involves millions of dollars, political careers, educational aspirations, and a leap of faith.

The Mayor

Harriman is nestled below the Cumberland Plateau's Walden Ridge, a picturesque mountain setting that's accentuated by the city's many Victorian-era buildings and homes, especially downtown and in the historic district of Cornstalk Heights. It's a place with an equally quaint history, being founded by the East Tennessee Land Company in 1889 as a "temperance town"—an alcohol-free refuge for prohibitionists, led by the company's president, Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, who was the Prohibition Party's presidential candidate in 1888. Although the company went bankrupt in 1893, Harriman continued to grow, and the American Temperance University soon occupied its castle-like building, Temperance Hall, which is currently undergoing restoration and houses the Harriman Heritage Museum.

But Harriman Mayor Chris Mason is anything but quaint. A tie and dress shirt do little to constrain his burly physique. With sunglasses propped atop his shaved head, a spare goatee menacing his face, and a Roane County juvenile court officer's badge adorning his belt, he looks more like a streetwise cop from a TV series than the 37-year-old mayor of a small town of not quite 7,000 residents. The fact that he is Harriman's elected leader is a surprise to him as much as anyone. Born and raised here, he only left Harriman for four years to attend Tennessee Tech in Cookeville and then returned in 2000 to start an AT&T retail store.

"I had no interest in city government," he admits, fidgeting in a cast-off theater seat at the Princess construction site. "But I was watching some of the City Council meetings on TV, and it was one of those things where you kind of feel a call to do something better. So I ran for Council in 2003. On Council, I couldn't get done what I thought needed to be done, so I ran for mayor in 2007. I used the analogy that you're riding in a car in the back seat—you can't go where you want to go. So that's why I ran for mayor in 2007, and probably would not have re-run for mayor this previous year, but this whole downtown project is so close that it needs its hand held for a couple more years before it can go on its own."

The "downtown project" has become the hallmark of his tenure as mayor, one that he will be most remembered for, whether it turns out well or not.

"This is his baby. This is one of the things he ran his mayoral campaign on, and put his name on the line for," says Leslie Henderson, president and CEO of the economic development organization Roane Alliance. "You know how it is with anything—there are a lot of people who say, ‘What in the world are they doing?' But he stayed the course and said, no this is what we need to be doing. There are a lot of folks who believe in it, and I think it's going to work."

The most controversial aspect of the Princess project lies in how Mason finally got it off the ground: using $1.7 million of TVA economic development funding, a windfall that resulted from the December 2008 ash spill in Kingston. Combined with a state grant of some $400,000 to establish a visitors center at the theater, the project will cost $2.1 million—a figure that most involved in the project agree could not have been raised otherwise for many years to come.

"It was manna from heaven, as far as I'm concerned, because it's hard as heck to find that kind of funding—$1.7 million," Henderson says. "You just can't find funding like that for a project like this, it's usually nickel and dime stuff."

In February of 2009, the effects of the ash spill were weighing heavily on Mason's mind: "People from out of state who I had talked to were under the impression we couldn't even breathe here. ‘Are you all still living there?!'" That, combined with even his own constituents' comments that "Harriman is dead," convinced him that changing that perception would be his ultimate goal, he says, rather than using the ash-spill money for more practical projects like paving roads or building ball fields.

That month, he took some TVA representatives out to lunch and pitched an idea: Help Harriman restore its theater as an arts and education center. A few months later, TVA asked Harriman and other area municipalities to present economic development projects for consideration by the newly formed Roane County Economic Development Foundation. Mason took his proposal to the Harriman City Council where a formal resolution was passed to ask for funds to complete the Princess restoration.

"It went through several channels, but lo and behold they did. I never thought they would, or I would have asked for a lot more money," Mason says. "Hindsight being 20/20, that's probably the only thing in my first term that I would have done differently—I would have asked for more. But this will give us some synergy. What they have done for us is great. What this is going to do is give back to the youth, hopefully long after I'm gone."

The Dreamers

The idea of saving the Princess started with an unexpected partnership. In 2000, just a year after the Princess had shut down, local electrician Gary Baker decided he had to save the theater from the wrecking ball. His earliest memory of the Princess involved winning a coloring contest in the second grade, which afforded him the opportunity to see Old Yeller at the art deco palace.

Meanwhile, Hollywood character actor Muse Watson was also interested in rescuing the theater. Although famous now for his recent roles in the TV series NCIS and Prison Break, in 2000 he was probably best known as the demented hook-wielding murderer in I Know What You Did Last Summer from 1997. The Louisiana native's colorful career path had once taken him through Oak Ridge as a driver of nuclear fuel, which perhaps inspired him to later move back to the area to buy a 60-acre spread.

So, the electrician and the actor met and decided to purchase the Princess together from Carmike Cinemas. But then what? They certainly didn't have the money to renovate the building themselves. And reopening it as a regular movie theater didn't seem feasible. Other cities around the country—not to mention Knoxville—have utilized downtown movie palaces to spur revitalization by turning them into performing arts centers. This was something they were considering, but Watson had another component in mind.

"Muse Watson has had a vision from the very beginning of children and education," Baker says. "These small theaters, very few of them are economically viable just on ticket sales. You have to have other ways of keeping the doors open. So with education it gives us the opportunity to have something for the community."

While Watson worked his connections to open political doors and enlist friends like Bill Landry to the cause, Baker met with Dr. Gary Goff, president of Roane State Community College, Mayor Mason, and Russell Bird of Comcast to hatch an usual plan: Launch a government educational channel run by Roane State at the Princess and use it as a TV lab for its students. Watson and Baker would give the Princess to the city (which they did in 2007), and the city would lease the space to Roane State, which in turn would manage the TV station and the theater.

"I thought it was intriguing. I thought it had great possibilities," Goff says of hearing the plan. "You know, Roane State already operates an exposition center in Roane County that brings in about 30,000 tourists and visitors a year as an entertainment venue, so it wasn't too far off the mark to consider us being engaged in a restoration project of a 1930s theater and provide opportunities for it to be used in an educational process."

Thus, Channel 15 was launched about a year ago in a state-of-the-art television studio built next door to the Princess, funded by federal stimulus money. Roane State started its first mass communications program around the station this semester, eventually to include an associate's degree transferable to any four-year public university in the state. Once the theater renovation is complete, the stage will be rigged with remote-control cameras and microphones, allowing students to produce entire television performance shows. The Tennessee Technology Center will also offer classes.

"It puts the students out into the city, so we're closer to the people we'd be interviewing or communicating with on a daily basis," says Channel 15 Manager Matt Waters. "Next semester we'll be offering studio production and camera production, more than just video work, so they'll be learning to direct shows, how to run every piece of a TV set."

Furthermore, the Princess will be open to local schools as a venue for their own performances. "Right now our five high schools here in the county do not have theaters where students can do plays and have drama organizations," Goff says. "So part of it will be to allow performing art opportunities for those high schools, to have a place for them to put on their plays. The data reflects that students who are engaged in performing arts tend to have better and higher critical thinking skills and tend to be able to succeed in higher education and in the work place at a higher rate."

The theater itself will be managed by 25-year-old Megan Anderson, hired by Roane State in August, who grew up in a theatrical family in Nashville. Her father once produced a show for the Grand Ole Opry, and she started at Nashville's Texas Troubadour Theater at 16, working her way up from the concession stand to sound and lights and everything in between. Right now, about to start a theater essentially from scratch, she has a long to-do list, from examining different ticketing systems to planning the center's art gallery, to finding the right acts to perform each week.

"It'll be mostly regional acts, but I hope to expand," Anderson says. "It's going to take a lot because of the area we are in. We're not in a major hub, so I think we'll really have to build ourselves up to be exposed and to get different types of acts to come in."

Does being charged with revitalizing a city through her programming choices frighten her at all?

"I don't feel daunted," she says without hesitation. "Actually, I think it's really a great thing to be a part of. I feel the Princess is something that will bring people back to the downtown area, as well as into Roane County."

Of course, Roane State is still waiting for construction to be completed before it can sign the lease, and it looks hopeful this will happen in December. But it was a long time coming; from 2000 when Watson and Baker purchased the theater, it took 10 years before reconstruction even began, and another two years to finish the work.

"I never had any doubts it would happen, I just didn't know when," Baker says. "From the start of this project, we've been blessed. It's just like it's meant to be, because along this journey of 12 years, all along the way, when we didn't know what might be the next step, there's always been the right person who stepped up."

The Reconstructors

Tim Plemons is absolutely sure this is the biggest job he's ever done. The painter and his crew have labored at the Princess for six weeks, mostly on their backs on scaffolding high above the auditorium's floor, recreating the rolling art deco paint scheme first created by local designer Joe Vargas in 1939. But it's all worth it for Plemons, a Harriman native who grew up seeing movies at the Princess in the early '60s, after its moderne décor had been toned down with later remodelings.

"My grandmother took me to see Gone With the Wind here," he recalls, stopping his paint brush for just a moment. "We sat in the 20th row. The sound was so bad you couldn't understand a word. But she had read the book 25 times, so she literally mouthed every word of the whole movie. So that was my first memory, 1964."

The beguiling design and its colors were mapped out in schematics created by Daniel Scott Cooter of Sparkman & Associates Architects, deriving them from old postcards from the era. Based in a bungalow house in Bearden, Frank Sparkman has been specializing in preservation work for much of his 40-year career, beginning with the old Knoxville Printers and Publishers building at Broadway and Central in 1975. With his Father Christmas beard and professorial manner, he is central-casting perfect as the Eminent Architect.

"It's like any every field: If you're not interested in history, you miss some great lessons," Sparkman says. "That's part of why we do a lot of preservation work. So on the selfish side I can say it's because of my fascination with the architecture, but the reality is you come to know that this is really ‘green building.' This is sustainable design when you save something that might otherwise have been thrown out, and extend its useful life."

Captivated by older design ideologies and building technologies, he was particularly drawn to the Princess project, which involved not only updating the building to current codes, but also expanding its usable space to the nearby buildings. Baker had called him in 2000 to do some preliminary studies to show what could be done with the theater, transforming it into a multi-purpose facility. Once the TVA money came through in 2009, Sparkman began actually dealing with challenges of replacing the roof, expanding the stage and backstage to support live performances, and bringing in all-new mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire systems—all while trying to reproduce the theater's original 1939 appearance. Another challenge was dealing with community critics, something he was already familiar with from similar projects.

"People didn't understand why you'd put money in an old theater in a dying downtown," Sparkman says. "And then there were some who saw the vision that Harriman has a chance to revitalize itself, but it has to start somewhere. There have been a number of community theater projects that have made that difference. We worked on one in Crossville that was completed in 1999, and it was very controversial—people wanted to tear it down, make a parking lot, that sort of thing. A downtown group there fought for and got the funding to get it restored, and it likewise became a multi-purpose auditorium so it could support plays, live musical events, movies, graduation ceremonies, anything the community needed.

"It's about giving something to the community it never had before, and it really is a wise use of the money if they understand the long-term goals."

Still, the doubters touch a nerve even in the phlegmatic Sparkman: "From the beginning, people were saying, ‘Oh, they're out of money, they're out of money.' Well, I'm the one that's watching the money, and I know we're not out of money. So here we are, about to finish up, and by god we're still doing it."


So: Could there be any other way to save Harriman's downtown other than by reopening the Princess? Chris Mason considers the question for only a moment.

"Yeah, there is: Give me a check for $10 million and I'll have it done in six months," he snaps, before getting serious again. "This is the only way to do it, in my opinion. I felt so strongly about it, I told several people—I mean, we got raked over the coals for doing it—that if in my heart I did not feel it was the right thing, I would have stopped two and a half years ago and gone, ‘Let's pave roads.' But I know I'm right. It's a wait and see project. In four years, 99 percent of the people that didn't understand or didn't like the project will change their minds."

As the once city-owned hospital vacates many of the buildings along Roane Street, they have been reverting back to the city. "We're so fortunate because we are able to deed these properties over to our industrial board and they can market these properties at an attractive price to get some enthusiasm," Mason says. "I think that is going to help us just as much as the theater reopening."

The mayor reports that two of the buildings have already been sold, and the city has received seven letters of intent from developers—all sparked by the Princess' redevelopment. A date still hasn't been set for the theater's grand reopening.

Once Mason's term as mayor expires, he's not sure what he'll do next—maybe go back to being a business owner (he also ran the TradeBank franchise for Middle and East Tennessee) or figure out something in politics. But his experience with the Princess Theater has given him faith that things will eventually work out.

"I spoke to a group of high school students the other day and I gave them advice on life. I still don't think I'm at a point where I can give people advice on how to live, but what I told them was things that I didn't know when I was their age that might help them. The last thing I told them was to, on every decision you make, pray about it. That's kind of how this whole thing has gone. It's been divine intervention. If you'd been a part of watching how everything has come together, you'd be crazy not to believe it."