Kingsport – Driving across town on my way to work last week, an old friend saw me…hmm…the middle and northwest corner of Cherokee Street.
I was so excited I wanted to stop and park but didn’t have time that day.
I knew that I would always have the opportunity to visit the same place.
My “old friend,” which I consider a Kingsport landmark, is Southern Finance’s “Loans” neon sign, which was first installed on the corner of the Center Key building when I was under 2 years old.
I’ve always had a fondness for classic neon signs. It has welcomed me to the city for most of my life. Or it means I’ll be home soon depending on my/our direction of travel.
The full text of this mark is “Southern Finance & Thrift Corp. Loans $500 Above”. Only three components of the design are neon: “Southern” in bright red; “Loan” in bright green; And, my favorite element, a large arrow running diagonally, in bright red.
On Friday I spoke to Steve Brumit, who now owns the building and business (he has a branch in Weber City and other family members operate Southern Loan locations throughout the area).
Brumit, 65, describes himself as the second generation and a half to join the family business.
“My grandfather helped my father start the business in the 1950s,” Brumit said. The first location was on Elk Avenue in Elizabethton, and Brumitt says he’s had a photo of the neon sign on that office before.
The first Southern Loan Finance & Thrift opened in the central building but in a plaza across from Cherokee Street in the mid-1950s.
In 1964, a corner store with a Center Street address became vacant when Jo-Ann moved out of the store. and moved further to the southern financial front.
Brumit said that perhaps at this point the neon sign became a prominent feature of the corner of the Center Key building. For Jo-Ann Shop, Brumitt said the walls still have a coral color scheme above the modern drop ceiling.
The building was constructed in the 1940’s by businessman WW “Bill” Cawood, who had an insurance company that he operated out of Center-Key. My own mother remembers that early in her marriage to Dad, around 1955-56, she saw Dr. Visiting James B. for dental appointments in Elliot’s upstairs office.
When I Dr. By the time Elliot visited, he had already moved into an office on Watauga Street.
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According to old news articles, Cawood was not only a business leader but also involved in local politics. He served on the Kingsport Board of Mayors and Aldermen.
Brumit said he bought the business from his father in 1988 and the building in 1989. He first renovated the sign in 1992.
“It looked so bad,” Brumitt said, “I sent it to Bristol Sign and got new ‘guts’, new transformers and all the hardware was replaced with stainless steel.”
About four years ago, a great storm swept through the city.
“I was going down there and the signal hit the light,” Brumit said. “I took it off the same day.”
He knew he wanted to redecorate it again, but put it off until he had decorated the entire building. If you’ve been driving for the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen center keys working on the outside of the building.
Brumit said he wanted to keep the building’s mid-century look.
I’m happy and I think he did a great job.
The icing on the cake is the return of the refurbished shield.
“It burns,” said Brumit. “Love it. I painted it with high quality paint like that used to paint boats and airplanes. It has all new glass and transformers. I think it’s a work of art and I won’t let it go.
In addition to outsourcing the paint job, Blountville Signs undertook this renovation.
Brumitt said that for decades the middle key was a sign on the corner of the building, sometimes someone climbed a ladder and painted the metal background.
I would like to see it.
But not as much as I would like to see this piece of Kingsport history where it belongs. Thank you, Mr Brumit.
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