One day more than 10 years ago, Bud Carman drove by City Hall and saw something across the street that made him pull over.
There was a for-sale sign stuck in the front yard of a stately, home circa 1892 on Third Avenue South, and the long-time businessman immediately envisioned towering wedding cakes through the tall bay windows and couples taking afternoon tea in its accompanying rooms.
Bud and wife Barbara quickly purchased the property in the spring of 2002, and 60 days later served their first Lillie Belle’s lunch and tea from the Queen Anne-style Victorian house.
“I’ve been a real estate investor for quite a long time. When I first saw Lillie Belle’s I got out on the sidewalk, took a panoramic view and had the initial thought that this could be a great wedding or event venue,” Bud said. “I asked Barbara if she would also like to have a tea room, and she was excited about that from the very beginning.”
It wasn’t the first time the Carmans have taken on this kind of project. Several years before, the pair operated The Bridge House tearoom and wedding venue on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Bridge Street. After heavy renovations and years of running the place, Bud and Barbara sold the property to Wynonna and Naomi Judd and retired.
The retirement didn’t last long.
When Lillie Belle’s first opened, the couple served regular lunches and Barbara hosted a Victorian afternoon tea. She picked up a passion for them on her extensive travels with Bud – they’ve taken tea in cities like London, British Columbia, Chicago, New York and more – and provided guests with an accurate experience in downtown Franklin through mix-matched antique china, homemade pastries and loose-leaf teas.
Nearing its 11th birthday, the venue is now focused primarily on weddings, special events and private luncheons. And though they’ve stopped taking walk-ins for their teas, the owners said they’ll continue to host couples on Tuesdays and Saturdays when reservations are made beforehand.
“Over the years, our business plan has evolved. Now, everything we do here is a scheduled event or by reservation,” Bud said. “We have completely refurbished the rooms upstairs, so we can now accommodate overnight visitors.”
Today, Bud’s business savvy has inspired another new Lillie Belle’s venture: it now also operates under the trade name The Inn at Franklin Square, and bills itself as a four-bedroom rental that caters to the venue’s wedding or party guests. Barbara, who has a history of fixing up vintage homes, re-decorated and restored the rooms herself with antique furniture and modern touches.
“I love older houses. I just love the feeling you get when you walk in to one,” she said. “Houses are not built like this anymore. This house has character, and that includes the structure.”
And with its romantic courtyard and sweeping stairway, the home has seen its fair share of holy matrimony since the Carmans took over.
“The house just comes alive for parties, and especially weddings,” Barbara said. “The energy when a bride comes in is very different. Wedding parties love the history behind the house, because it’s special.”
Bud, who has called Franklin home since 1972, said that Lillie Belle’s and its bread-and-butter operations mirror a distinguished mark of downtown Franklin and its Main Street.
“I think the word is character.”
For more information on Lillie Belle’s, visit its website at www.lilliebelles.net.
This is part of a series on merchants in Downtown Franklin. To read more, visit www.downtownfranklintn.com.