JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Diners at the region’s first “food hall” set to open in late 2024 may not notice the massive wooden roof trusses spanning the massive downtown Johnson City building and capable of bearing 25,000 pounds of load.
The man restoring the 21,000-square-foot former tobacco warehouse certainly did, and Sanjay Bakshi says the trusses are staying put — like many other historic features of the old Miller Brothers building at South Roan and Cherry streets.
“We’re still working on the actual design but seven to 10 chef-driven (and) inspired restaurants,” Sanjay Bakshi said of the main attraction at a space that will include a handful of other food and drink features in its cavernous space.
“It’s almost like bringing a food truck indoors. So we’re going to provide kitchens, counters, we’re going to provide all the open seating, work space areas. So people can just come in they can see what they want to eat.”
Bakshi said visitors to the space, which he hopes to open in late 2024, will be able to see much more than that in a building featuring architecture and design that simply doesn’t exist anymore.
“I’m always driven by the building,” Bakshi told News Channel 11 while standing inside the cavernous space that represents less than a third of the warehouse’s original size. The remainder of the warehouse, attached and to the west, was redeveloped several years ago, albeit without the same careful nod to the interior architecture.
“This was a tobacco warehouse and they used to roll tobacco down this slanted floor right onto the railroad tracks,” Bakshi said, pointing to a still-slanting, 160-foot long floor with a low point at the Cherry Street end of the building. “A lot of history here.
“The building’s almost 100 years old, and these trusses and the supports are that old,” he said, pointing to a set of about nine massive trusses spanning the 130-foot width of the building.
“They’re still in excellent condition except for a few of them that we have to rebuild, and I wanted to make sure we rebuilt them the exact same way. So our guys got in here, we hired the engineers to help us design it and we built the trusses from scratch just like they did 100 years ago. We wanted to make sure we paid homage to that history.”
Megan Tewell is a historic preservationist who works for the Heritage Alliance. She said she was thrilled when she heard about Bakshi’s plans.
When people walk into buildings with restored interiors they’ll see “a connection to place that rarely happens in the same way with newer buildings and newer spaces,” Tewell said.
“You’re going to see a great preservation of historic and cultural resources,” she added. “You’re also going to see features that you’re not going to encounter in contemporary architecture because those design elements or those aspects of craftsmanship aren’t practiced regularly. It’s not practical or affordable to do that in contemporary architecture.
“So you’re really going to have a travel back in time in a way and a great encounter with buildings that we just don’t build anymore.”
Bakshi said that should be one of the draws for a business concept he believes Johnson City is ready for at this point.
“All the new people moving here, they’re also coming from bigger markets too … this will be something they’re familiar with,” he said. “The university’s here. People are ready for something new and I think we’re going to give it to them.”
Bakshi said he was at least mildly curious about the building’s history even before he knew it might be for sale.
“I’m from here, been here over 30 years, have always wondered what is in this building, why hasn’t anybody done anything with it,” Bakshi said.
A random purchase of a coffee table from a downtown furniture store led Bakshi — whose family business includes the Holiday Inn Express in Boones Creek and who also owns two older downtown buildings — to the longtime owner.
The father of the table’s seller owned the building and Bakshi reached out. By mid-2022 he was the owner.
“Once I got in here, I realized that a food hall type concept would fit very well.”
A food hall won’t fill the entire space, though.
Preliminary plans also include a separate independent wine and charcuterie type restaurant at the corner nearest Cherry and Roan, where the building’s floor is about six feet lower than the rest of the space.
That, and the rest of the front, will feature indoor/outdoor space with roll up windows.
Two bars are planned, a sports bar in the back near Ashe Street and a rooftop bar on the portion of roof near the attached buildings. Kiosk space for candy and coffee vendors will be inside sharing space with the kitchens, and Bakshi said there will still be room for private venue space.
“You can get food here, you can get drinks at the bar, you can go to the wine bar, get some wine,” he said. “There’s all kinds of things you can do here.”
While several potential food hall vendors have already contacted him, Bakshi said he’s looking for more and they can email with interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preservation with an eye toward the long game
Bakshi acknowledged the way he’s approaching the warehouse rebuild isn’t the most affordable in the short term. His current ballpark estimate for redevelopment cost is $3 million.
“It would have been a lot faster to just go up with steel, but I don’t want to do that,” he said.
Instead, he’s become well-versed in the building’s history. Bakshi found archival information showing that Miller Brothers, a hardwood flooring enterprise, decided in 1931 to close its retail lumber and building material business where the warehouse now stands.
An “official statement” from the company said they would keep their hardwood flooring manufacturing business on West Walnut Street open but were going to extend their retail warehouse building “at the corner of Roan and Cherry Streets” west to cover its retail lumber yard.
“This entire property is to be used for a tobacco warehouse.”
The local paper reported March 29, 1931 that the Millers and partners believed “an additional tobacco warehouse is one of Johnson City’s paramount needs.” It noted that “scores of tobacco growers have been forced to take their products to other markets due to the fact that only two houses have been available here.”
Those lumber barons put some fine materials in their new building in an era when engineering and construction were at a different level, Tewell said.
“I am completely joyous at the idea that we are honoring those materials and incorporating them because the truth is they’re better,” she said. “They’re stronger, they’re sturdier.
“We do not build with those materials now because they are impractical or expensive or difficult to maintain but they are the best components of sustainable architecture, and so to see someone prioritizing that in development while also pursuing business, entrepreneurship, development – that’s a wonderful thing. So they can coexist and they really should coexist.”
Tewell said people can picture cities with significant amounts of cultural and historic tourism. Whether it’s Charleston, S.C., Savannah Ga. or Washington, D.C. “all of these cities in our mind have a look and a feel and a lot of that has to do with the historic architecture of the downtown space.”
Johnson City still has enough historic architecture to develop an identity that will be attractive to visitors, but those efforts need to be cultivated, Tewell said. The resources need to be preserved, protected and shared.
“We are a railroad boom town like other places. However we still have a vibrant downtown, we’re still continuing to grow.”
That makes Johnson City different from some towns and cities with similar industrial architecture that are experiencing decline, she said.
“I would say we’re at a crucial pivotal moment of historic preservation and it’s really imperative that we protect what we have now, because you can’t undo those losses. You can’t make up for those incredible buildings once they’re gone or even the materials. So we do have the potential. We just have to capitalize on it.”
Tewell said in the long run, Bakshi won’t just help keep some of the city’s building stock closer to its original look — he’ll actually save money.
“They always say that the most affordable building is an existing building because materials from before World War II tend to be of higher quality they tend to last longer,” she said. The current lifespan of new buildings is 30 to 40 years.
“If you can salvage older materials you’re going to be looking at more up front cost but a longer term savings.”
While Bakshi concerns himself with the building’s history, he’s also tackling a project with other wrinkles. The other projects he’s done downtown, including the building that Black Olive restaurant uses the first floor of, have been cut and dried — restaurant or retail on the first floor and apartments above.
This one is a little different because there’s a lot of moving parts,” he said. “You have different restaurants, different bars, different seating areas, so everything has to flow correctly.
“We don’t want any vendor to feel left out like they’re in a bad spot, everybody has to be visible, so we want to make sure it’s fair for everyone and that everyone gets to be in the spotlight.”
That spotlight should be shining on the grand old building before the ball drops for New Year’s 2025.