Kingsport's first apartment building was the Wex-Jo-Leon

J. H. Osborne • May 12, 2019 at 7:30 PM

Colton and Catherine Marcum are renovating and restoring Kingsport’s first apartment building, originally known as Wex-Jo-Leon Manor. It was built in 1927 and featured nine spacious apartments. When the Marcums finish their work, the first floor will be the new home of locally owned, independent Marcum's Pharmacy. The upper floors will continue to hold six apartments.

I’ve loved the building since I was a child, but had never been inside until this past week. I’d noticed it was fenced off for construction a couple of months ago. I’d also noticed the “Coming Soon, Marcum’s Pharmacy” sign. I wondered if that meant the building was coming down and a new one going up. I was relieved to learn the Marcums are preserving the building with a combination of renovation and restoration. And I was pleased as Punch when I dropped by the pharmacy (currently located on Ravine, catty-corner to the apartment building) and Marcum’s employee Pam Smith asked if I’d like a tour.

I am amazed the structure has escaped the fate of many of its former neighbors, knocked down to make way for modern medical offices. I was even more amazed once I saw how intact it is, especially now that I know it was built in 1927. Original moldings, doors and other woodwork — never painted. Wood flooring (some under carpet that will be coming up). And those little windows over each entrance? As a child I wondered what purpose they served. Pam showed me the windows give light to “reading alcove” window seats inset over each entrance, off the first floor landing in each of the building’s two staircases. Then she had me lean over the stair rail a bit and look up. Up above the third-floor landing, I saw a skylight. Each stairwell has one.

The apartments are large and airy with lots of windows. Although empty of furniture and devoid, at the moment, of kitchen and (for the most part) bathroom finishes, the building and its apartments retain a simple elegance of times past.

I’d already searched newspaper archives for information on the building. I knew it began as the Wex-Jo-Leon because of its inclusion in my first-stop, go-to source: an old Rotary book promoting Kingsport.

Searching for Wex-Jo-Leon took me back to the Sept. 4, 1927 Kingsport Times. That edition is dotted with articles and congratulatory advertisements about “Kingsport’s first real apartment building.”

Tidbits from that newspaper:

• The building, designed by local architect Allen N. Dryden, cost $50,000 to build and filled with tenants immediately. A wait list held many names.

• A separate article name-dropped “some of Kingsport’s most prominent” had moved on up by being the first residents of Wex-Jo-Leon Manor. “R. E. Davis, who is connected to the Kingsport Hosiery Mills, has leased three of the apartments for the use of his family and his father. The others are occupied by he following:  Mr. and Mrs. Charles K. Koffman, Mr. and Mrs. Robert E. Walker, Mr. and Mrs. Reginald R. Downey, Mr. and Mrs. J. Luther Bunts, Mr. and Mrs. B. F. Morris, and Mr. and Mrs. J. L. Hawkins.”

• Its original name was derived from two members of the firm that built and owned the structure — George L. Wexler and S.K. Jones — and that of L.B., Leonard “estimator of the concern.”

• Its design was described as being inspired by “the splendid manors to be found in England.”

• Each apartment had six rooms. Each had a  sun porch. And a “frigidaire, controlled by a central system located in the basement.”

• Yet another article reported, “Three magnificent residences are being built on Watauga and Linville Streets for City Manager Frank L. Cloud, Guy D. Pitts, of Poarch Brothers Lumber Company, and Dr. W.H. Reed. All are being erected by the contracting firm of Jones and Wexler, which concern has just completed the Wex-Jo-Leon Manor here.”

Throughout the rest of the 1920s and the 1930s, the Wex-Jo-Leon appears to have gotten regular mention in society columns. Dinners were hosted. Parties were given. Engagements were announced. Visitors visited. By the 1950s, the trail went cold. The last mention I could find, in what was admittedly a cursory search, was in an obituary for Roy F. Lewis in October 1974. It noted Lewis, a native of Cumberland, Ky., came to Kingsport in 1958 and bought the “former Wex-Jo-Leon Apartments, changing the name to Lewis Apts., Inc.”

Jump ahead to now. About the Marcums:

• Colton and Catherine took over Marcum’s Pharmacy from its founder, his grandfather, Carl Marcum. The elder Marcum started the pharmacy in 1962. It has been at its current location since 1991. Prior to that, it was just down Ravine from the apartment building in the Medical Arts Building (which was about where the current ER parking lot is). Colton and Catherine started working for his grandfather in 2008 and bought the business in 2011. They’re out of room. But they wanted to stay in the same general area. And they were able to purchase the apartment building.

“We’re going to have the pharmacy on the main floor,” Colton said. “We did tear down an addition that was put on maybe in the 1980s and we’re building a new section there. We’re leaving six apartments upstairs on the second and third floors. At least for now. We’re trying to preserve as much as we can.”

The new spaces they’re creating will house their compounding operation and the pharmacy’s drive-thru.

And, oh, if you’d like to own a little bit o’ Kingsport history, the renovation includes replacement of all the windows — and the old ones are for sale. Sizes and prices: 37 1/2 w x 32 long, $15; 32 1/2 w x 28 1/2 long, $10; and 28 1/2 w x 24 1/2 long, $5. She’s also got some window sash weights for sale. If you’re serious about wanting some, call Marcum’s Pharmacy between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and ask for Pam.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]