National Register of Historic Places designation to be sought for 110-year old former courthouse

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JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – The former courthouse on Ashe Street in Johnson City took a step toward inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places Thursday. The move came just days after Johnson City officials requested that Gov. Bill Lee include $5 million in his fiscal 2021 budget proposal to restore the building for possible use as a business incubator. The building at 401 Ashe Street is part of the West Walnut Street corridor, a district in which the city is spending tens of millions of dollars to spur redevelopment.

The Washington County Commission’s Commercial, Industrial and Agricultural Committee approved a request that would allow the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee to complete an application. Heritage Alliance Executive Director Anne Mason said that process typically takes about a year, but that inclusion would be both a symbolic and practical benefit for efforts to preserve the building at 401 Ashe Street.

Several architectural features have fallen from the roofline.

The full county commission will consider the recommendation at its Jan. 27 meeting. Upon approval, Mason, co-worker Megan Tewell and a team of volunteers who’ve been working toward preserving the building can begin accessing the old courthouse and start the application process in earnest.

Mason said inclusion on the register could boost nascent efforts to see the building saved and used again. It needs an estimated quarter-million dollars of roofing work, and its last function was housing Washington County’s 911 dispatch before that operation moved in late 2017.

“It definitely first of all raises awareness and makes people pause and say, ‘Okay, this is an important building, why? How do we preserve it?'” Mason said. “And then it opens it up to different federal grants that it wouldn’t be (eligible) for right now because it’s not on the national register, but if you get that designation then that provides different funding opportunities.”

This piece has fallen from the roofline.

Constructed as the only Postal Savings Bank in Tennessee, the building opened in 1911 on land donated by George L. Carter. President William Howard Taft instituted Postal Savings Banks in 1911 and they were designed to “prioritize financial security, affordable credit, and macroeconomic stability.”

The Ashe Street site was one of just 48 nationwide when it opened, and served that purpose until the late 1930s. After a year as part of a New Deal youth program, it became a courthouse at the urging of the Washington County Bar Association, according to a research report by Tewell.

Washington County paid the federal government $12,000 for the building, which had been built for $89,000. (Tewell). A reversion clause states that ownership could revert to the federal government if the building is unused for a certain period of time. It must have a public use, or, if it was proven there’s no feasible public use, it can revert to the federal government prior to an auction — during which it could be sold to a private developer.

Megan Tewell of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee has authored a research study on the building’s history.

Within the past half year, several volunteers have stepped forward to help move the process forward and lay groundwork for an application. They’ve formed a group, the Coalition for Historic Preservation and Reuse. One goal from here is getting a small-scale feasibility study completed to look at the bones of the building and insure preservation is worth pursuing, CIA member and County Commissioner Jodi Jones said.

That study will help determine just how much it might cost to even get the building into the kind of shape that would allow for some use, Jones said. County Mayor Joe Grandy said a roofing company put a “band aid” on the roof last summer and provided the ballpark $250,000 estimate for full repair.

Next steps will include an evaluation of any human health risks (asbestos, mold, etc.). Following that, if those aren’t present, inmates could do a general cleanup and some remediation, and then volunteers from the community would do further cleanup work.

“The second floor has some really neat features,” Grandy said. “It was left the way it looked when the courthouse closed (in the mid-1980s) with the witness box and benches.”

Mason said the historic designation approval comes from the Tennessee Historical Commission and the National Park Service. She’s confident the building will qualify.

This photo shows the Ashe Street Courthouse building on the left. (Courtesy Johnson’s Depot website)

“We know there’s a lot of people in the community who are really interested in this building and its future and possible reuse,” she said. “The first step is preservation and this helps bring attention to that.”

Mason said the building has always had a civic mission. “It really has been a focal point of downtown Johnson City. It’s a part of Washington County’s history, and just to continue that building’s use — I mean, it’s a presence. You go down there it’s this big, beautiful early 1900s structure. It’s gorgeous inside and out.

“I really feel like, the Heritage Alliance does, there’s another future for that building.”

So do members of the Johnson City Commission, commissioner John Hunter said Thursday. “Our representatives (including Mayor Jenny Brock) explained to the governor’s people that ultimately it’s about the whole corridor, the Walnut Street corridor, and that this component (the former courthouse) is key and it’s going to take a lot of money to fix it.”

Hunter said city leaders are envisioning the Ashe Street segment of the corridor as a hub for entrepreneurism. “The goal is that that building becomes a business incubator Tying in with (East Tennessee State University) it’s kind of that progression from education to innovation.”

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