Unicoi County's Economic Development Board hopes to procure more of these plaques from the Tennessee Historical Commission in buildings and locations throughout Erwin and the county. (Photos by Brad Hicks/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — The A.R. Brown House on South Main Avenue was once occupied by Albert Rosecrans Brown, an influential figure in the town’s early days.
Off Tenn. Highway 107 near Erwin and within the boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest stands the remnants of the Clarksville Iron Furnace, which was constructed in the 1830s to produce iron from the ore mined in nearby Bumpass Cove.
On the grounds of the Tilson Farm in Flag Pond are two cabins constructed in 1845, which predates the founding of Unicoi County by 30 years. This land was purchased in 1856 by James Tilson, who fought in the Civil War and was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga. According to current property owner Leon Rhodes, the cabins were threatened when the construction of Interstate 26 was proposed, but the Tennessee Historical Society stepped in to champion their architectural value, and as a result, the cabins on their original site still stand today.
What is now the county public library was once the Clinchfield Depot. The building, located along Nolichucky Avenue in downtown Erwin, was once a busy hub when Erwin served as the headquarters of the Clinchfield Railroad.
Although these four sites have very different histories, they have one thing in common — each is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And recently, officials discussed the possibility of taking steps to further expand the county’s list of NRHP-designated properties.
County Economic Development Director Tish Oldham said for around the past 18 months, she has discussed the possibility of evaluating local properties for NRHP designation with the Economic Development Board and its executive committee. Oldham said an NRHP designation has its advantages, and these benefits are not something county officials want to leave on the table.
According to the National Park Service website, the NRHP is the official list of historic places in the nation worthy of preservation. The program was authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.
Oldham said officials are in the survey and exploratory stage of looking at potential NRHP designees — the earliest of stages. She said if officials determine an NRHP designation is worth pursuing on a building, item or district after this initial examination, they would need to decide how a possible designee fits into the National Register guidelines and standards.
“So right now, what we’re trying to do is figure out are there individual buildings, are there groups of buildings in the downtown area where we should be looking?” Oldham said. “Also, are there some adjacent neighborhoods where things should be observed? So we’re in that discovery stage to see what type of potential is there.”
The A.R. Brown House was the last location in the county to receive a designation on the NRHP, going on the register in 2007.
Gray Stothard, community development coordinator and historic preservation planner with the First Tennessee Development District, said a spot on the NRHP is mostly an honorary designation.
“You get put on the list and you are allowed to put up a plaque that says ‘Listed in the National Register,’ ” Stothard said.
But a listing on the NRHP does come with benefits, Stothard said. Property owners may be eligible to receive federal tax incentives if they make rehabilitative improvements to a structure in accordance with NRHP program standards. A designation also comes with a level of protection, Stothard said.
He said if federal money is being spent on a project or licensing that could potentially impact an NRHP-registered property or district, work will be done to ensure a negative impact is averted.
However, Stothard said a designation will not protect a site if demolition is the property owner’s prerogative.
“A lot of people think that in a National Register Historic District that you’ve got all kinds of rules and regulations that you have to follow. That’s not the case at all,” Stothard said. “If somebody wants to tear down their own building that’s in a National Register district, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”
Oldham said the program is also beneficial in that it can provide people with an appreciation of how those who came before lived and can demonstrate that history can come in “different shapes.”
NRHP nominations can be handled in a variety of ways, Oldham said. She said an individual property of historical significance can be nominated, as can properties with unique architectural designs. She also said districts, made up of multiple structures in a larger area, can be nominated.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all with the National Register, which is a great thing because you have different circumstances and you have different reasons for why some things are important,” Oldham said.
“Some things are important because something important happened at that place. Some things are important because they have a certain architectural characteristic that is unique and needs to be preserved. Some of those may be because of the way a community was planned, that’s another way that things go to the National Register.
“There are a variety of ways, and we’re just going to look and see if any of those are available and, if some of those are ruled out, we’ll just look at the different possibilities.”
For a structure, item or district to be eligible for the register, it must meet at least one or more of the program’s four primary criteria. This process involves examining a property’s age, integrity and significance.
The National Park Service website states it must be associated with “events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history,” be associated with the lives of significant persons in the past, embody the “distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction,” or has yielded or may be likely to yield information important in history or prehistory.
Oldham said officials are particularly interested in looking at structures and areas in and around downtown Erwin for possible designations.
“The one thing that is fantastic about Erwin and the way that the community was planned is you can live a couple of blocks away and you can walk to the school, you can walk to the Y, you can walk to the movies, and it’s all very connected,” Oldham said. “That is a certain pattern of development that’s important. It’s a very all-American way of doing things, but it’s something that was lost over time, and now people are building that way again. They’re realizing how important it is.”
But the exploration of possible designees won’t stop with the area around downtown, Oldham said. She said there may be some other structures or areas throughout the county worthy of evaluation to see if pursuit of an NRHP designation would be worthwhile.
“We’ve talked about downtown because there’s great potential in commercial buildings because people are willing to invest, but also looking at residential areas and then looking at some outlying areas, as well, it’s just something you don’t want to leave untapped if there’s an opportunity to do that,” she said.
On top of the potential benefits that come with a designation, Oldham said a place on the NRHP will make a property an attraction.
“People will come to go see one particular building if it is that unique, or they will come see one particular style of development or pattern of history because of that,” Oldham said.