Out with the New, In with the Old: The Factory at Franklin

From the outside, the Factory at Franklin looks just like any other run-down old building. Its darkened windows and discolored brick walls stand tall and steadfast behind a garden and canopied entranceway.

Within, however, lies a completely different world.

A diverse collection of colorful shops, restaurants and businesses fills the inside space of this 15 building complex, and what the Factory lacks in exterior decor it makes up for in rich history.

Property manager Jack Grant greets me at the receptionist’s desk before leading me up a winding stairwell and through a corridor to his office where he recounts The Factory’s long transformation.

Built in 1929 for the Allen Manufacturing Company to make stoves, The Factory was eventually occupied by the Dortch Stove Company which made wood burning stoves, Magic Chef which made gas stoves, and Jamison Bedding Company which made sleeper sofas.

Its most recent major renovation into the collection of trendy shops and businesses it is today began some 17 years ago.

Entrepreneur Calvin Lehew bought the old factory in the hopes of repurposing the massive building instead of it being torn down.

“He bought it for $1 million and put $10 million into it,” said Grant.

“He recreated the shell. In other words, it has two new roofs, it has all new air conditioning, new electric and all new plumbing… although he left much of the original interior form to look like an old factory.”

It wasn’t until 15 years later, with the building full of tenants and no more ways to physically expand The Factory outward, that Lehew sold the company for a hefty $24.5 million in 2012. Today, the 250,000-square-foot factory houses six restaurants, five learning centers, about 46 retail shops and much more.

“We have record labels and a variety of innovative businesses. He wanted it to be creative, artistic- to have something to do with food, and something to do with education,” said Grant.

Inside, this place has the feeling of a trendy New York City loft. Round white lights on a string zig-zag across the iron ceiling rafters and a combination of brick, metal and concrete makes up the eclectic interior. In the main commons area, an enormous glass chandelier suspended from a ceiling pipe gives this place an odd surreal feeling when contrasted against the stained windows in the ceiling and upper walls.

When 10 a.m. rolls around, slowly The Factory at Franklin comes to life. Employees unlock doors and drag away metal gates surrounding their businesses while groups of customers wander in, each pausing only to stare at the massive chandelier before disappearing down the halls lined by shop signs and trees decorated with lights.

Almost immediately, 3rd Coast Clay, a business housed within The Factory fills with customers. Rachel McConnell, a manager smiles as she explains the idea behind her shop.

“Basically, we’re a paint your own pottery studio. So people come in, pick a piece and paint it, then we glaze and fire it for them. Everything’s food safe and usable, and it’s easy to do.”

The walls, tables and chairs are painted with bright colors, and shelves filled with clay objects and figurines line the walls of the store waiting to be picked over by children for painting.

“It really is the craziest place but fun,” McConnell said.

“There aren’t any chain-stores here that I know of. So I think that’s unique about it, they’re all single stores- it’s one of a kind.”

Hildegard Yerger, owner of the business Nature’s Art, has also been with The Factory at Franklin since it’s opening 15 years ago. A transplant from Georgia and originally from Austria, Yerger felt that The Factory was the perfect fit for her colorful nature-themed kiosk.

“I like the artistic aspect. The idea back then was to bring entrepreneurs together; diversity of art, anything connected to learning and I like the atmosphere,” said Yerger.

“Sometimes on a Saturday morning it’s really bustling here. The grey hound society comes in and we’ll have the dogs hanging out, or there’s an adoption day for animals, or sometimes this is all blocked off with wedding receptions and we might have six weddings going on at once, or we’ll have three proms. So it’s not always peace and quiet.”

The Factory at Franklin is truly a unique place, and according to Grant the new owners hope to make it more music and event-oriented.

“It’s not at all unlikely to see the Kings of Leon here or any of the major rock acts. Mumford and Sons were here last year. There will be a lot of shows going on here that are going to be geared toward a wide variety of entertainment,” said Grant.

“We already in our halls for the past six years have offered the space for our crossroads productions. Our halls are state of the art when it comes to sound.”

Yerger on the other hands hopes The Factory will maintain some of it’s homey atmosphere.

“We all like to have a place to come and mingle. There are a lot of things that take place in here. The diversiy of unique individually created products and the atmosphere around it, it’s a historic place.”