When Bernie Butler announced his plans to transform a vacant field near Franklin’s downtown district into luxury homes that look old, he said the local real estate community thought he was a “whack job.”
But Butler’s 2004 vision created the Brownstones, a small neighborhood modeled after late 1800s architecture and outfitted with modern amenities on a 2.2-acre plot that formerly housed flour factory tenant homes.
The community of only 26 units (even though he was approved by the city to build 39) were priced at $407 per square foot in 2007, which Butler said was unheard of in Williamson County at the time. Today, the median listing price per square foot in Franklin is $192, according to Homes.com.
The property, which was owned by Williamson County, sat empty until Butler pitched his vision to Mayor Rogers Anderson.
The homes were the first to be built in the downtown neighborhood by Butler and gave buyers a way to live near the square without the purchase and maintenance of a centuries old home. They were quickly snatched up, and the development gave Butler the clout he needed to pursue other projects in the city’s 16-block historic district.
“It helped a lot of people go, ‘Holy smokes, Franklin’s a lot cooler than I thought,’” he said.
Transforming historic buildings is no easy task
Butler, who’s president and founder of D9 Developments, said many developers shy away from historic projects because the process can be lengthy, painstaking and expensive.
“The basic rule of real estate is highest and best use,” he said.
But in a city like Franklin, rich with history, it’s about more than that for him.
“It’s about creating things that last generations,” he said, “because they won’t be torn down.”
Butler moved to Franklin from Mississippi in 1993 and was immediately drawn to the community and its charming downtown district. It was sleepy then, he said, filled with quilt stores and antique shops. Higher end stores like Anthropologie and local boutiques hadn’t yet set up shop on the square.
Developing homes and commercial properties in a historic district means following tight city guidelines, which some developers view as a frustrating burden not worth the results. Butler works in step with city officials to meet their rules while accomplishing his plan to add a new dimension to downtown Franklin.
After the success of the Brownstones, Butler moved on to other downtown projects, such as redeveloping the old First Tennessee Bank building into 231 Public Square, a $14 million project that took three years to complete. The bank, which was a previous mayonnaise factory, was constructed in the late 1800s.
The imposing building is the largest on Franklin’s square but was built with no clear vision of cohesiveness with other buildings, he said. Butler said his redesign of the property set the tone for the square’s development, including the new City Hall that will be constructed in the coming years.
“All these projects are just stupidly hard, but when you see them, the building looks spectacular, and it basically sets a standard,” he said.
Butler is wrapping up his latest project now: The Arlington on West Main.
The condos are located in the Hincheyville neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are like the Brownstones in that they’re glamorous and modern homes designed in a historic way to fit in with the city’s character.
Butler is building only 10 residences, which will be custom and modeled after 1920s architecture. He expects that the homes will sell for up to $1,000 a square foot.
His dream of The Arlington residences was planted in his mind nearly 15 years ago by then-Planning Director Bob Martin. A small apartment complex previously stood on the land, and in 2007, Butler began reimagining the property. It took a decade before the property was listed for sale, which got the ball rolling to bring Butler’s planned community to reality.
The homes are slated to be finished by March, he said. The coronavirus pandemic’s effect on building slowed things a bit with tight labor and a competitive materials market.
Butler’s Next Project
With the near completion of The Arlington comes Butler’s next plan, a monumental project that will revitalize a historic home: Magnolia Hall.
The 1840 manor that has been featured in National Geographic and Southern Living has sat on the market for the last decade.
“It hasn’t been loved on as well as it could’ve been since probably the ’80s,” Butler said.
The restoration for the home itself is likely to be around $3 million, Butler said, a substantial investment on top of the cost of the property, which was listed for $3.9 million. The estate includes 12 acres, which Butler plans to convert into a dozen cottages modeled after the mansion’s Italianate Greek Revival style.
Magnolia Hall will be the centerpiece of the neighborhood. Butler said the community will include a public street that gives people the opportunity to view the mansion up close.
He plans to sell the manor for lower than what he paid, anticipating the cottages will offset his personal investment into the property. If his plan comes to fruition, then the future Magnolia Hall buyers will snag a good deal, making restorations more accessible.
“Magnolia Hall has a chance to be a ridiculously beautiful, quaint, very elegant neighborhood,” he said. “It’s the Disney castle in the middle of the place.”