It’s said that 90-year-old Jim Ryan, owner of The Donut Friar in Gatlinburg, has taught generations of local children their manners. And indeed, a gaggle of well-mannered children from the Pi Beta Phi Elementary School next door was lined up out the door of this quaint donut shop located in The Village Shopping Center on the Friday we visited. “He’s taught every child in Gatlinburg to say ‘thank you,'” says Dan Booth, general manager of The Village, with a laugh. “When a child steps up to the counter and says ‘I want that,’ he will look at them until they say ‘May I please have that?'” And then he delivers a divine confectionery treat to each and every one with a smile — as long as they say “please” and “thank you.”
The Donut Friar is one of 27 shops in this whimsical retail complex. And while the shops definitely make The Village a must-visit when in the Smokies, the architectural components and historic elements that make up the buildings are equally as intriguing. “We tried to build an attractive mall that was different from anything else in the world,” says Village co-founder and former co-owner Jim Gerding, “and I feel like we accomplished that.”
Gerding and his business partner Dave Dych, who passed away in 2003, traveled far and wide in pursuit of discarded or for-sale treasures that could enjoy new life in their one-of-a-kind complex, all part of their vision to create a shopping experience like none other in the region. It’s these fascinating elements that, still today, make the outdoor mall not only a retail destination, but also an architectural treasure worthy of exploring.
“We spent considerable amount of time gathering up old glass windows and doors and transoms and slate and hand-carved mantles and hand-carved stairways,” shares Gerding. “Not any one of them is a standout, but The Village is a blending of these different items.”
Indeed, it is an impressive creation how each of these various design elements were put together to create the finished product, which is still lovingly maintained and appreciated by the current owners — Gerding’s and Dych’s children.
“On our ramblings, we took a 35 mm camera with us so we had a bunch of slides. It was a project that we gave a lot of thought to,” Gerding continues, referring to their travels to collect inspiration for The Village design. “The interstate system was being built, and the construction path led through a lot of cities and high-profile neighborhoods that had what we called jewels from the past. We purchased them from churches and various buildings — old homes and mansions … We went to a lot of different towns.”
The pair traveled not only through the South — to places like Savannah, Charleston, Nashville, Knoxville and Birmingham — but to Europe and Canada as well. And they weren’t quick to settle on architectural drawings either. “We had an architect who basically went through seven different revisions of a model,” Gerding shares. “On the sixth, he finally said ‘I’ll do one more, and if you don’t like it, you can get yourself a new architect,’ and the seventh was perfect.”
Indeed, if the walls of these businesses could talk, they’d have plenty to say. Nearly every shop offers a unique architectural component worthy of mention. For instance, the doorway, side panels, transom and arched window of The Spice & Tea Exchange were originally part of the home belonging to Robert Hunter of Johnson City, which was built in 1911. Gerding and Dych purchased these pieces in 1971 to incorporate them into The Village. The Hayloft‘s slate roof? That came from the Ross mansion, owned by early Knoxville industrialist W.C. Ross. In fact, many of The Village features came from the Ross mansion, including a stairway and various light fixtures.
The windows in The Honey Pot are believed to have come from Italy; Gerding acquired them from Second Presbyterian Church in Knoxville. The antique mirror in the Life is Good shop is also believed to have originated in Italy, though it was acquired for The Village Shopping Center at auction in 1977. And the newel post in The Sock Shop came from a four-story mansion in Montreal, a structure that was built in 1880. This component has enjoyed new life at The Village since Gerding purchased it in 1975.
Without a doubt, The Village features a trove of salvaged and repurposed pieces that invite the mind to wander to a far-off place. Leaded glass windows, walls made of hand-made bricks, hand-carved mantles and ornate stairways … all of these offer a quality rarely seen in modern construction, especially in more commercially driven destinations such as Gatlinburg. The fact that you can wander mere steps off the city’s bustling downtown parkway and enjoy a casual walk through another time and shop the variety of boutiques and small eateries makes The Village Shopping Center a local treasure worthy of a visit.
Jim Gerding will head north from Stone Mountain, where he now lives, to Gatlinburg for a June 1 celebration in honor of The Village’s 50th anniversary. If you’re in town, stop by to say hello to one half of the team that created this magical retail destination. And if you can’t make it on June 1, stop by anytime, grab a donut from The Donut Friar (Make sure to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’!), and enjoy a casual stroll through this treasured Southern spot.
The Village Shopping Center is located at 634 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738. Learn more and find a complete list of retailers HERE.