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Next chapter starts at historic Hazelett building

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The pair of Franklin developers knew they couldn’t save much of the collapsing Hazelett building beyond the walls shared with neighbors and concrete second floor.

The historic downtown building that started as a carriage shop before becoming an auto dealer, then a department store and finally a fabric shop had become a downtown eyesore. The 15,000-square-foot building directly across from the courthouse sat empty since 1997. The front walls were collapsing under their own weight and bowing out toward the street. The inside continued to deteriorate.

After about a year of construction, the Bemis Group has transformed one of the city’s biggest eyesores into one of Franklin’s most eye-catching renovations.

Construction on the first floor is ongoing, but brothers Billy and Todd Bemis and their workers have finished and opened the second floor, which is the new home of the Daily Journal. The $1.5 million restoration, including three first-floor storefronts, should be complete by the end of April.

The project cleaned up one of Franklin’s oldest downtown vacancies, and has spurred new economic growth around the courthouse square, Billy Bemis said.

The building was first built in the 1860s by Matt Hazelett as a stable and carriage repair shop. Visitors to Franklin could leave their horses and carriage at the site for the day while visiting the city. After Hazelett’s death, the building burned down in the 1920s and a brick building was put up to replace it. An auto dealership was located in the building before the Goodman-Jester department store moved in, bringing high-class fashions and items to Franklin.

The building was renovated for the department store in 1940 and was hailed as a major move to revitalize Franklin’s downtown, Franklin Heritage Director Rob Shilts said. The push being made in recent years to restore and rejuvenate the downtown is similar to what was happening 70 years ago, he said.

“The mayor at that time was really pushing it as ‘This is going to help our downtown.’ Kind of funny how things come around in a circle like that,” Shilts said.

Discount Fabrics followed the department store in the 1970s and was the last business to operate in the Hazelett building until the store closed in 1997. After that, the building sat empty and started to wear down until the Bemis Group purchased it in 2010. The Franklin Development Corp., a local organization that was created and funded with tax dollars by the city, provided $400,000 to help pay for the project.

The Bemis brothers had finished a large renovation project on the former Rhoades True Value hardware store in Franklin and were looking for a new space in the city. Franklin wanted more downtown retail space, city officials were talking about redoing nearby parking lots and the Franklin Development Corp. was working to buy out the Hazelett building owners, who weren’t local residents and weren’t doing anything to repair it, Todd Bemis said. All of those aspects made the Hazelett building the right project to take on at the time, he said.

By the time the Bemis brothers started planning the project with architect Dan Mack and structural engineers, years of neglect had taken their toll. The original walls, roof and support beams were all in too bad of condition to be saved. The weight from the bricks towering above the building was crushing the walls underneath and the facade was bending out from the building.

“I don’t think people realize how dangerous that facade was for the last 10 years,” Todd Bemis said.

The project then became a matter of removing the existing building and constructing nearly an entirely new structure in the gap.

That job fell on the design skills of Mack, who put in countless hours before and during construction to make sure that not only would the building physically fit between its existing neighbors but also capturing the historic style of the original carriage shop and department store designs, Todd Bemis said.

The large sets of three windows facing the courthouse are reminiscent of the previous building and the garage doors of the original carriage shop, while the brick sign reading “Hazelett” has been replaced by the Bemis Group “B” logo.

The demolition was the trickiest part of the project, because the building could have collapsed if not done carefully. A collapse potentially could also have damaged the walls of the neighboring buildings, so demolition was a methodical process, Billy Bemis said. Once the existing structure was mostly torn out, they started to build it back up. They put up a new brick wall on the south side of the building, built new facades on the east and west sides, put on a new roof and divided the first floor into three storefronts.

Now that it’s nearly complete, city officials are hailing the project as an economic boost to the downtown as well as a model for the effect historic restoration can have in Franklin.

“It’s one of the largest transformations regardless of the size of the building that we’ve seen in a long long time and it’s one of the largest buildings in the downtown. To see where it was for potentially decades, to where it is with useful life being injected back into it is extremely impressive,” Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness said.

McGuinness recalls walking past the Hazelett building when he was a student at Franklin College and thinking how unfortunate it was to have such a large, wide-open building sitting vacant on the courthouse square.

Franklin has had a burst of historic restorations in and near the downtown that has led to new business growth. Within the past year, shops have sprung up along the edges of downtown and several grants have been given to restore facades on more than 10 downtown buildings. The Hazelett building is a project McGuinness plans to promote when working to attract new development or persuading a downtown property owner to consider a restoration project.

“It’s something we can showcase for those businesses that are interested in coming to downtown Franklin. Don’t look at it for what it is, look at what it could be,” he said.

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