Longtime Chattanooga industrial resident Dixie Mercerizing Co.'s buildings and property on South Watkins Street, once forlorn and vacant, now have an official place in history as the site takes on a new role in the community as a residential and commercial space.
The art deco concrete-and-brick building built between 1920 and 1925 has been recognized with an official listing on the National Register of Historic Places, according to documents on file with the National Park Service.
Melissa Mortimer, historic preservation planner with the Southeast Tennessee Development District, said the building represents a significant period of industrial and local history related to Chattanooga's textile industry and the people it employed.
"Dixie stands out architecturally as the only art deco-style textile mill of concrete construction in Chattanooga. The company is also significant in relation to Chattanooga's long history with the textile industry," Mortimer said Friday.
"Dixie went on to become the largest yarn-only producer in the nation, as well as the largest locally-based manufacturer in the city of Chattanooga," she said, recalling its related operations in the city. "Lupton City (on the north side of the Tennessee River) was the site of the company's mill village with mill worker homes, community buildings and the spinning mill that is now in ruins."
The site on South Watkins Street features a parking lot, brick smokestack, a water tower, cooling pond, a concrete creek bed and a concrete shed built for caustic tanks. The Dixie complex retains a high degree of integrity in setting, design, location, feeling and materials, the National Register documents state, adding that the architectural style and design remain intact and reflect the plant's desire to have a new modern facility for its time.
The Dixie Mercerizing Co. was the predecessor of the current Dalton, Georgia-based The Dixie Group. According to the company website's heritage information, the plant a century ago used the process of "mercerizing" cotton, long popular in England because of its silk-like luster. The process was not then widely used in the U.S.
According to records, the textile industry expanded after World War I with new possibilities for cotton, including the mercerizing process.
Mercerizing puts cotton under tension with caustic alkali, records state. Products made from mercerized cotton were stronger, silkier, wore longer, washed better and were more comfortable because they were more absorbent.
Dixie and nearby Standard-Coosa-Thatcher used the new mercerizing technology at their Chattanooga plants.
The Jan. 3, 1920, edition of The Daily Times in Chattanooga reported the Dixie Mercerizing Co. as being among three incoming industries creating a "wave of prosperity," but the company had not yet announced where it would make its home, though it was said that "options" had been secured on much of the property to be developed.
Before the month was out, the newspaper was extolling how much was being invested in local industrial building and Dixie Mercerizing Co.'s construction project — its building permit was reported at that time to be for $400,000. The building was the second largest in the city, next to the Somerville Ironworks project in the north part of town that had an estimated 1920 price tag of $1.5 million. The cost figure for the Dixie plant would go up when it was filled with its machinery.
Dixie Mercerizing Co. was organized in the fall of 1919 with plant operations beginning in February 1920, the National Register documentation states. Later accounts showed the plant was built and equipped in 1920 at a cost of $840,334 as operations began at the end of 1920.
The company drew many workers from surrounding farms who were looking for better pay. They often worked 55 to 65 hours a week and were given Saturday pay if they had to go in to attend to equipment on the weekend, according to the documentation. The plant employed 125 men at full capacity, producing between 85,000 and 100,000 pounds of cotton a week.
"With a rocky start to the venture because of unexpected construction and startup costs, the company was reorganized under the new leadership of John T. Lupton," documents state. "In 1921 the plant was completed, and Lupton became president of the company. Lupton, a local entrepreneur and industrialist, also had a family bottling business that was transformed by his grandson, John T. Lupton II, into one of the largest bottling operations in the world through sales of a single brand: Coca-Cola."
In 1923, Dixie built a spinning plant across town along the Tennessee River in what would become "Lupton City," named after John T. Lupton. The spinning plant, at that time, boasted the largest machines for producing fine yarns in the country, the documents state.
Although the spinning mill is lost to history, Lupton City has continued to exist and many of the mill town's homes are still occupied, according to Mortimer.
"Historic preservation is an important tool to protect our community's history, sense of place, and architectural fabric," Mortimer said.
But a listing on the National Register doesn't offer protections some expect.
"A misconception of the National Register is that you will now be told what you can and cannot do to your property. This is not the case," she said. "The National Register is purely an honorary designation that helps to document historic resources and opens up opportunities for historic tax credits or federal preservation grants.
"Local historic zoning overlays that we see in St. Elmo or Ferger Place are what enables governments to regulate changes to the exterior of a property, not a National Register listing," Mortimer said.
The historic mill is about to take on a new life and assume a residential and commercial role in Chattanooga's downtown area.
CHATTANOOGA INDUSTRIES ON NATIONAL REGISTER
Of 131 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Chattanooga as of Aug. 1, only four are industrial sites.
— Dixie Mercerizing Company
— East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Company Blast Furnace
— StandardCoosaThatcher Mills
— Turnbull Cone and Machine Company
Source: National Register of Historic Places
Anca Rader, of Chattanooga-based Ryno Group, said Friday that company and historical officials worked on the National Register listing for the past two years, and plans for the property include the architecture recognized in the register listing.
"The original building has really beautiful architecture, especially for an old mill," Rader said. "We plan to highlight the industrial look of the building and keep as much of the old charm as possible.
"The site is composed of several buildings built during various decades that now make up one building," she said. "The plan is to phase out the development and gradually bring those back to their former beauty."
On the outside, the original "Dixie Mercerizing Company" logo and sign on the front will remain and be restored, Rader said.
"Inside the buildings, we would like to display old photos of the mill and its workers as art in the hallways," she said.
Mortimer applauds Ryno Group's goals and plans for the building.
"The developers are very conscious about the historic value of the mill and plan to use historic tax credits for the rehabilitation," Mortimer said. "This rehabilitation must follow the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, as determined by the National Park Service."
But that doesn't mean the developers have to make the building look as it did a century ago.
Rehabilitation standards "offer a way to adaptively reuse buildings in a respectful way to maintain the historic integrity, while putting the building back into service," she said. "The worst thing for any building and for a surrounding community is for it to sit vacant, so I am thrilled that this building will receive a new life."
The return of people creates a link between history and the community, she said.
"Today, people want to live, work and play in interesting spaces, and that's where historic buildings come into play," Mortimer said. "Dixie Mercerizing Company's National Register listing and rehabilitation will help further solidify its place in Chattanooga's storied history."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.