The hall’s long row of high windows above the roofline allow shafts of late evening light to brighten the brick walls and the flowers nestled at the top of the pillars, wrapping down the poles to the floor. At the end of the expansive loft there stands a circular iron stairway leading to a balcony above the crowd. In minutes the bride will toss her bouquet from the balcony, fulfilling a familiar tradition. The fourth-floor space, with views of downtown and Lookout Mountain, is at its best on this early spring afternoon at one the venue’s first events.
Kathy Sok and Elan Sok Webster have created a place to fill a variety of needs. Not only will it make dreams come true for many, it will serve as a stage for informational and educational meetings for organizations around the city.
As the owner and president of ℹ Reliable Building Solutions (RBS), entrepreneur Sok has continued to look for ways to expand her original business. She launched RBS in 1992 and it offers complete facility maintenance services. Clients include the Volunteer Building, Tallan Building, Krystal Building and the University of Tennessee Chattanooga’s (UTC’s) residential housing. Many small area businesses also use the services of RBS. In 2002, the company started a wholesale janitorial products business, which has proven successful, too.
When she was eight years old, Sok moved with her family to Augusta, Georgia from South Korea. Years later, she met her future husband in New York. “When we married, I had to learn Korean to be able to speak to his family,” she says with a smile. Although he helped her get started, he is now a full-time minister. In November 2016, Sok bought the ℹTurnbull Building at Fort and 14th Street, because she felt it offered so many possibilities.
“My daughter is a natural people person,” says Sok. “And, we think the event venue is a good enterprise to add to the existing commercial maintenance business.” Webster, a graduate of UTC, combined majors in studio art and business for her educational foundation. She also spent several years working for local event planners.
“I really enjoyed that work,” Webster says. “I’m looking forward to helping brides and corporate meeting planners create perfect occasions.” In addition to the event space, there will also be roughly 5,000 square feet of office space for rent on both the first and second floors.
Sok and Webster worked with ℹ Elemi Architects’ Matt Winget to enhance the quality of the building and bring it into the 21st century. ℹ Dillard Construction was the general contractor and ℹ Adman Electric was the electrical contractor.
“Because of the National Register status, you’re not allowed to deviate from the original exterior elevation,” says Winget. “So, one thing the crew did—actually a labor of love—was to replace each pane of glass by hand, individually.” They added new bathrooms and relocated old ones. They created a new stairwell in the front of the building and ran power and data up into the columns on all four floors, paying special attention to the first and second floors that would be reserved for businesses like tech start-ups and design firms.
“It was in the middle of the foundry district,” Sok says. “But, we were fortunate there were no environmental issues.” The floors had to be replaced, but many aspects of the old construction were salvaged and repurposed.
The Turnbull Building had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. It was one of several buildings belonging to the Turnbull Cone & Machine Company, which operated for 95 years in Chattanooga and is where the first ice cream cones were baked and distributed commercially, using machinery developed by the Turnbull family. Turnbull Cone Company is credited with making the ice cream cone internationally popular. The family sold the company in 2002 to the now defunct Bake-Line Group. Renovation of the building began in May 2017 and was completed in January.
“We kept the historic name. And we’ve reclaimed and reused most of the original wood from the old elevator shaft to cover the walls,” says Webster. She believes the loft-style facility will be popular among brides and their friends, allowing that downtown businesses, too, will enjoy the location of The Turnbull. She has already booked over a dozen dates, both private and corporate, for the first and second quarters of the year. The urban-rustic ambiance of the venue is expected to be part of the ongoing popularity.
Exposed brick, wrought-iron handrails and pine flooring in the stairwell give the space a character worthy of the building’s history. The third and fourth-floor event halls, each with a 300-person capacity, celebrate the factory era with its preserved clerestory windows and roof. A clerestory is a high section of wall that contains windows above eye level. The purpose of the design is to admit light, fresh air, or both. The clerestory was used in the Hellenistic architecture of the later periods of ancient Greek civilization. The Romans applied clerestories to basilicas, as well as to bathhouses and palaces. The modern clerestory has another important role, in addition to daylighting and ventilation, it can be part of a passive solar strategy for saving energy.
The businesswomen have even kept the original typeface for the building’s new neon sign, visible from Interstate-24. Not long after the project was underway, Turnbull family descendant, Daly Turnbull, stopped by to see the progress. “She said she was pleased we were keeping the name,” says Sok. Keeping the old alongside the new attracts many to the district.
“There is a great mix of old and new. Repurposing of some of these older buildings gives the Southside a unique flavor,” says ℹ River City Company President and CEO, Kim White. “It’s one of the things that makes the Southside distinctive. It’s obvious with all the housing and entertainment offerings there that an event venue would have a lot of appeal.”
The mother/daughter duo may well expand the venue side of the business to offer a stress-free experience for those holding events at The Turnbull. With more than ample basement storage, they will be able to include furniture in their rental packages and may someday include in-house catering. This entrepreneurial family expects to build with steady growth and on a strong foundation.
In addition to the excitement about the new business venture, everyone involved seems pleased about the historic location. “We are all super excited about the project,” says Winget. “It’s great to bring an old building back to life.”
Photography by Steven Llorca