Downtown Jonesborough building donated to Heritage Alliance

Sue Guinn Legg • Mar 2, 2013 at 9:41 PM

Work to restore and preserve the historic quality of Jonesborough’s downtown business district has taken a couple of big steps.

In late February, the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia announced that Bernard and Audrey Kaiman, leaders in the town’s decades-old preservation efforts, are giving their 108-year-old building at 129 E. Main St. to the nonprofit Heritage Alliance that maintains the Chester Inn State Historic Site and a couple of other distinctive buildings in Jonesborough.

On Tuesday, the dated and faded gas pump canopy that has long been considered a distraction on the Boone Street gateway to historic district came down, clearing the way for the town to fill and close the gas tanks beneath the property, complete the brick sidewalk to Main Street, and prepare the long-idle building for commercial use, perhaps as a new home for the Jonesborough Farmers’ Market.

“We’re very excited about the Kaimans making this generous gift and we’re more excited about our opportunity to make a decision on that building’s future preservation and protection,” said Deborah Montanti, Heritage Alliance director. “It’s a beautiful building. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in Jonesborough and it has a distinguished history.”

Built by the fraternal order of Masons in 1905, the building served as the home of the Masonic Rhea Lodge of Jonesborough for many decades. A brick hardware store, known as The Masons’ Storehouse, previously occupied the property and was demolished to make way for the lodge.

The Kaimans purchased the building and opened the Old Sweet Shop there in the 1970s, early on in the effort to rejuvenate Jonesborough’s deteriorated business district. The seasonal ice cream parlor, which has since changed ownership, is now one of the longest-operating businesses in the downtown district and Montanti said it is the Heritage Alliance’s hope that it will continue to operate in the building.

“We’re a preservation organization and we love to see those wonderful old buildings that are part of our history preserved and protected. Our main priority is to do what’s right for that building,” she said.

The Heritage Alliance board of directors will meet March 14 to discuss the building’s future. Board Chairman Jim Reel has indicated the best option may be to sell the building to someone willing to make extensive repairs, including a new roof, needed for its preservation. In the meantime, the Kaimans continue to maintain ownership and insurance on the property.

Organized in 2001 through a merger of the Jonesborough Civic Trust, the Jonesborough/Washington County History Museum and the Historic Jonesborough Foundation, the Heritage Alliance is a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation of the region’s architectural and cultural heritage. In addition to the Chester Inn, the alliance maintains the 1886 Oak Hill School used as a hands-on educational facility for schoolchildren, the 1840 Duncan House on Sabine Drive that houses the alliance’s offices, and a warehouse on Depot Street, where architectural pieces of historic value are stored and sold for use in the restoration of other buildings.

At the former Exxon station on Boone Street, Town Administrator Bob Browning said improvements to the town-owned property have been a priority since the downtown streetscape improvements wrapped up in December.

Removal of its gas pump canopy and island were completed last week and town crews hope to begin closing the underground gas tanks this week, or as soon as weather permits. Work to join the brick sidewalks that end on both sides of the old gas station will begin in May, when renovations at the McKinney Cultural Arts Center at Booker T. Washington School wrap up.

As for the building’s future, Browning said plans are being developed for some minor renovations that will be presented to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen for approval.

“Nothing is official but there has been an inquiry from the Jonesborough Farmers’ Market to use that building. It’s the board’s call how it will be used. But that’s the only inquiry we’ve had at this time,” he said.

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