By Lyda Kay Ferree
Originally published in The Jackson Sun - Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013
On a recent crisp, sunny autumn Friday I drove from Jackson to nearby Linden in Perry County to visit the newly restored Commodore Hotel & Cafe in downtown Linden. It's an easy 1 1/2 hour drive from Jackson. Just head down U.S. 412. You will enter another world that will make you forget your troubles and the busy lifestyle you left behind. I found myself taking deeper breaths and at least momentarily forgetting about deadlines. Sometimes you want to look back at the way things used to be. I drove by some Mennonites working in their yard and thought what a different world I live in and how I could benefit from their simpler way of life. From the moment I arrived at the Commodore Hotel, I was treated like a celebrity! I felt so special throughout my visit. The staff is most accommodating and friendly. The first person I met was the Chef, who happened to be outside the hotel's kitchen door when I drove up to the hotel. He took time from his kitchen duties to carry my luggage and book satchel to my guest room. Kathy Dumont, owner of the hotel, warmly greeted me in the lobby. She and I had met a year ago at a Tourism Marketing conference in Jackson.
The Dumonts thoughtfully arranged for Linden's Mayor Jim Azbill to escort me around the quaint little downtown whose centerpiece formerly was the Courthouse (Now it is the renovated Commodore Hotel). I was impressed that almost every shop is rented. The stores carry a variety of merchandise, and the owners are friendly and welcoming. The mayor introduced me to Matthew G. Votaw, Executive Director, Perry County Chamber of Commerce, whose office is located at 215 East Main St., where you may pick up a variety of literature on the region. My only minor disappointment on the downtown tour was that the Armstrong Pie Company, established in 1946, had locked its door for the day (It opens early and closes early). I had heard rave reviews about their 13 Southern style homemade turnovers. A Bavarian Creme, coconut or lemon turnover or one of the home-style toffee cookies with a good cup of coffee would have been the perfect afternoon treat after my downtown walk. When Rhode Islanders Michael and Kathy Dumont purchased their remote, 400-acre getaway in Middle Tennessee, they intended to retire there in a few decades. Little did they know they would spawn a restoration and re-invigorating re-birth of a sleepy, neglected town only a few years later.
Michael is a passionate preservationist of buildings and homes. Starting with his renovations of lofts in Boston to restoration of a 1756 sea captain's home in Rhode Island, Michael honed his gift of what he describes as "hearing the space." He says that "a vision comes to him, and he sees the space as she was meant to be." The Dumonts moved to Linden from Florida where Michael was a real estate developer. It seems that Kathy became fascinated with caves and waterfalls, and Michael is interested in fish farming. They researched Tennessee and discovered that Linden and Perry County fit the bill. "It was love at first sight," said Michael. When the Dumonts relocated to Perry County, Michael restored the mid-1800s, dilapidated farmhouse on their farm in Tennessee. An organic garden at the farm is tended by a hotel cook. Buying and restoring the all-but-forgotten 1939 hotel in the middle of town was another story. The hotel had been closed for 20 years. Renamed in honor of the county's namesake, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hotel has become the downtown centerpiece. A grand fireplace, high ceilings and crown moldings adorn the hotel lobby.
A TOUR OF THE RESTORED COMMODORE HOTEL
Following my tour of downtown Linden, I toured the Commodore Hotel, which has been attractively restored by the Dumonts. It is an award-winning, quiet Green Hotel with 12 clean, comfortable rooms with private baths. My accommodations had a sitting room with a coffee pot, a must amenity for me.
The Dumonts had never been in the hotel or restaurant business. "We had only eaten at a lot of nice restaurants," said Kathy jokingly. It was never the intention of the couple to run the hotel, but the operator who struck the deal of running it got a job in another state, and the Dumonts took over the operation of the Commodore. Their backgrounds were in real estate and finance, but Kathy loves to entertain. "She knows how to make everyone feel welcome and at ease," said Michael.
The restoration of the hotel, which had not been a hotel in 20 years, went smoothly. "I fell in love with the architecture of the Commodore Hotel," said Michael. The narrow-planked oak flooring was stripped of its 70s-era multi-colored shag carpeting and refinished, along with restoration of the original period tile floors and tubs in several bathrooms. Art deco door hinges and doorknobs were saved. The warm, brick walls were exposed, and the huge, broken windows were replaced. Wi-fi is offered in every guest room.
THE COMMODORE CAFE:
Big time flavor in a small town setting
The hotel's cafe, a gathering place for locals and visitors, opened as Staley Cafe with a jukebox in the corner. Later it became a Western Auto store. Now the space has been transformed into a casual and artsy eatery with sidewalk tables outside.
The lobby is a warm, inviting space that encourages guests to sit and visit with other guests and locals who just drop by from time to time. Framed newspaper clippings are hung on the walls, including one from "The Sunday Star Pictorial Magazine" in Washington, D.C. dated August 29, 1948 whose headline states that the "Whole Town Has Gone Fishin'!"
A statue of Minnie Pearl, who was a native of nearby Centerville is a conversation piece in the hotel's lobby.
In a few months, Chef has transformed the Commodore's menu and staff with an emphasis on superior service, value, and local ingredients. Farm cheeses from nearby farms are featured on the menu. His crab cakes, prime rib, and steaks are popular among the cafe regulars.
Chef prepared appetizers for the Dumonts, a friend and me to sample while viewing a video of the restoration of the Commodore in the hotel's conference room. For dinner I chose a salad with a delicious lemon-oregano dressing and grilled salmon with shaved cucumber and lemon-parsley gremolata for my entree (The chef buys his fresh fish from a purveyor in Franklin), and I sampled an array of attractively presented and delicious homemade desserts. My breakfast consisted of perfectly poached eggs over wheat toast. The Commodore offers its own blend of locally roasted coffee called "African Smoke."
On Friday evenings live music is offered in the cafe. When I was there,
"Professor and The Bull, described as "old souls in young energetic bodies," performed a mixture of American music, blues, rock, R&B, country, pop, bluegrass, and soul. A clean-cut duo, they feature tunes from the 1920s through the present-day music. The two young gentlemen perform in dinner clubs and at music and arts festivals. Current plans call for a single national release in late fall with a full CD to follow in late winter or early spring.
In November the Commodore will present its popular Murder Mystery Dinner Theater on November 1, 2, 8 and 9. Reservations are required by calling, (931) 589-3224.
LINDEN ARTS DISTRICT
Faced with a dismal 27 percent unemployment rate in January 2009, the small town of Linden "desperately needed to find a way to revive the local economy, bring about positive economic changes, and restore community pride," wrote Barbara Biehler of "Tennessee Home & Farm Magazine."
With that in mind, Linden launched an arts and historic district that features public art, murals, galleries and shops. The town joined the Federal "Downtown Project," which restored the town's streets and sidewalks. A Summer Youth Work Program supported beautification projects such as painting murals, weaving a giant "basket fence," and making a stained glass sundial and trash cans, under the tutelage of professional artists. There's a summertime "Music on Main Street" annual concert series.
Michael Dumont talks enthusiastically about the work of VisionPerry, which teaches people how to set up jobs online, and the organization creates summer youth art camps. Now Michael consults cities across the country and offers suggestions on how they might create similar arts districts in their struggling towns.
"A renaissance is happening in Linden," said Michael, "and you can see it while the paint is still fresh."