Downtown Franklin is well known for its long-standing traditions, including the White Building’s famous NOEL sign.
Believe it or not, the NOEL sign originally had nothing to do with Christmas, rather it was the name of a Nashville hotel.
The historic White Building, built in 1923 at the Five Points intersection, has been home to the NOEL sign since the late 1980s. But to look further into the sign’s history, Karen Cochran, owner of the White Building shared the story of the Noel family and how her sign became placed atop her establishment.
The NOEL sign was originally placed on top of the Noel Hotel in Nashville, at 200 Fourth Avenue North. The hotel was the tallest building in the city back in the 1930s when it was built. With its green neon lights, the sign could be seen from the Cumberland River. Business partners and brothers Oscar and John Noel opened their hotel on January 6, 1930.
Marr, Holman Architects, designed the hotel and it was host to celebrity residents including Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Roy Rogers.
The Noel Hotel closed its doors in September 1972 when bought out by Hamilton Bank.
Cochran’s ties to the NOEL sign come from her former husband John Noel III, the grandson of John Noel Sr. When she learned that the hotel business had run its course, Cochran and Noel decided to take the sign back to their home.
For years after, the couple would set up the massive sign at the corner of Franklin Road and Elysian Fields for passerby’s to see while driving each year for Christmastime.
Then one day, Cochran thought, “Why not put it on top of the White Building at Five Points?”
Though the building is white, its name comes from Dr. John White who used it as his office in 1923. White kept it as his office and drug store until 1928.
The early history of the site has its routes in Irish immigrants. In 1831, Michael Doyle bought the southern part of the original town plat on which the White Building now stands. Doyle, one of the first Irishmen to settle in the area, ran a grocery business nearby with Hugh Dempsey, according to research by Visit Franklin. Both came from Newbridge, County Kildare, Ireland.
Over the mid century years, the building was owned by Regen, Bethurum and Padgett Funeral Home. Also, the Nashville Bank & Trust Company and the Harpeth National Bank have owned the building.
Eventually, the building was turned back to its roots: It was the site of the Rexall Drug Store until at least the street-scape remaking of downtown Franklin in 1989. The Cochrans, who in county records first appear as owners in 1993, eventually leased the first floor of the building to Starbucks, which opened in downtown Franklin in 2001.
A little known fact: on the roof with the NOEL sign are solar panels. There are 64 panels on the roof, providing the electricity that makes so many of the local residents’ morning coffees, according to the Franklin Visitors Bureau.
As for the NOEL sign, the Cochrans moved their sign in the late ’80s– no one is quite sure of the exact first year– from their yard to a more permanent location on the White building’s roof, and each year those driving from Lewisburg Pike or Columbia Avenue have the perfect view of the NOEL sign.
“It was wonderful to be able to share it and keep it in Downtown Franklin because my kids and I used to live in the area,” Cochran said. “Every Christmas they go back to look at the sign fondly and they think it’s a lot of fun to have it up there.”
While the sign stays up on top of the building year-round, it is tilted upwards every year on the week of Thanksgiving, in order to begin the celebration of the new holiday season.
Cochran says she’s glad that the community received the sign’s message well.
Cochran, a preservationist who was involved in the Heritage Foundation has restored several historic properties and buildings in the Williamson County area, including the White Building, the Cool Springs Farmhouse that now sits in Crockett Park and Jasmine Grove, the Antebellum on Julianna Circle off of Mack Hatcher Parkway.