Holiday Inn opened its doors in Kingsport in 1961

The Downtowner was the first new hotel to open after the Kingsport Inn was demolished. But it wasn’t the first announced.

Miller’s bought the Kingsport Inn property on July 4, 1959. Less than two weeks later — 13 days to be exact, and 12 days ahead of the announcement about plans for the Downtowner — the big news was a Holiday Inn would be built at the fairly new half-cloverleaf interchange of Lynn Garden Drive and West Stone Drive. But the Holiday Inn didn’t open until spring 1961, several months after the Downtowner opened. And, technically, the Downtowner was, well, downtown. Lynn Garden wasn’t. The new Holiday Inn was barely inside the city limits.

But it still was a star in Kingsport’s crown on the day it formally opened: Sunday, June 25, 1961. Speaking of stars, a curiosity I learned of while digging through old newspaper articles: Due to a Model City zoning regulation, the star atop the Holiday Inn’s trademark marquee sign wasn’t allowed to “twinkle” as it did at Holiday Inns across the nation. I found that in a story from April 1972, nearly 11 years after the Holiday Inn opened. It was mentioned then because the owners of the Tennessee Restaurant, adjacent to the Tennessee Motor Lodge, were seeking permission to install a 42-foot tall sign with a giant candle, complete with gas flame, on top. The city’s planning commission debated whether the flame would violate a zoning code that required lighting on signs be “steady,” as compared to “flickering,” which was seen as a potential sleep disturbance for nearby residents.

“What’s the difference between a twinkle and a flicker?” Allen N. Dryden Jr. was quoted as having asked the planning commission. The gas flame was approved.

The Holiday Inn’s grand opening was June 25, but the motel had been operating a couple of months. The first guests to register were Mr. and Mrs. Charles J. Fritsch of Rochester, New York, according to a photo in the Times News celebrating the grand opening.

It was the 197th Holiday Inn to open in the United States. And it was at the time the only one in Tennessee being operated as a franchise. The franchise holder was Kingsport Motor Inn Corp., Jack Trayer, president and treasurer. Trayer, if you’re too young to know, was already an established businessman in Bristol, where he had four restaurants at the time, the oldest of which had been open for 30-plus years. Before he’d opened it, he’d first considered opening a restaurant in Kingsport. The Holiday Inn and its restaurant became his first venture in the Model City. The rest of the Kingsport Motor Inn Corp. included Carl Moore (vice president), Homer Jones (vice president and secretary), and a board of directors made up of the three men and their wives.

The innkeeper (Holiday Inn lingo for manager) was Oscar Stone.

Trayer said he hoped to draw conventions to town.

On May 27, during the soft opening, 120 Franciscans from Montreal were booked into the new Holiday Inn and it seemed a good start to Trayer’s hopes for the 108-room motel, which was two stories and built around an “L” shaped swimming pool. At the time it opened it held claim to being the largest Holiday Inn on U.S. Highway 11 between Canada and Birmingham — and the largest Holiday Inn on U.S. Highway 23 between Mackinaw City, Michigan, and Atlanta.

Three basic colors dominated the decor throughout the rooms: copper, gold and green. Unlike hotels, most motor inns or motels such as the Holiday Inn did not offer vast lobby areas. Instead, there was a front desk, a restaurant with a large dining room, a coffee shop and a “lounge” meant to provide a socializing area for guests or locals gathering for a meal in the restaurant. Val Edwards, president of the Kingsport Gideon Camp, said Holy Bibles were on order for each room and the group hoped they would arrive by the grand opening.

Comment cards from guests during the soft opening presented largely glowing reviews of the decor, amenities, staff, and food. The most critical was this: “Light in bathroom not located right for man to part hair on top of head.”

The restaurant, with seating for 110, was open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Trayer said he wanted to make steaks a specialty. The restaurant had a “steak cart,” loaded with iced steaks, so diner could choose their piece of meat and have it cooked to order. Also already popular by grand opening day were the restaurant’s salad bar and relish table.

If one wasn’t in the mood for steak, one could chose from among “exotic specialty dishes” such as: Shrimp in Cheddar Sauce, with buttered, parsleyed rice; Chicken Alona, breast of roast chicken in sweet and sour sauce with oriental fried rice; Beef Burgundy, beef in rich wine sauce; or Chicken Paprikash, chicken in red wine and sour cream sauce.

The new inn also boasted two banquet rooms, which could seat 85 each. However, with the opening of a dividing wall, 175 could be accommodated in the one resulting room.

Jump ahead 18 years. The Holiday Inn continued to do a robust business and was well maintained. Through our mutual friend Doug East, I met Rosa Whitten. Rosa was the events and catering coordinator, or something like that, at the Holiday Inn. I was 17 and my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary was approaching in March 1980. My siblings already lived out of town. Planning a party fell to me, although my cousin Barbara Carr had my back (especially when deposits were needed). Rosa took me under her wing for the rest of the planning. That party went so well, a few months later my brother Keith and his bride, Kim, chose to have their wedding reception there. And on prom night in 1980, as my date and I tried to wrangle a drunk friend and her date home safely, I wheeled into the Holiday Inn and we spent an hour or more as the only people in the dining room, drinking coffee and laughing it up. There were other family parties there over the next few years, including the 50th anniversary of at least one aunt and uncle.

The best part of having a party there, of course, was getting to have the guests of honor and their special occasion posted on the marquee sign out front. Twinkling star or not. What is the difference between a twinkle and a flicker? Nothing when it comes to good memories. Some twinkle in your heart still. Others flicker, momentarily, in your mind. Either way, they make you feel good.

The Holiday Inn that opened on Lynn Garden Drive in 1961 is gone. A later, freestanding “expansion” remains as a Super 8 motel. But where the main restaurant, coffee shop, front desk and banquet rooms once stood, today there’s a Dollar General.