Gregory Garcia-Riley and his wife, Mary Riley, would likely have missed their new home at the corner of Unaka Avenue and North Roan Street if they had not been caught by the red light there.
While idling at that light a few years ago they noticed the old Colonial-style home at 709 N. Roan was for sale. Mary had always wanted a Colonial- or Victorian-style home like that, so they inquired further and wound up buying it.
Mary and Gregory were living in Atlanta, where Mary was a self-employed accountant. They were visiting her brothers who live in Telford and Butler when they spotted the house.
“When we moved up here we started introducing ourselves to the people in Johnson City; everybody knows the house,” Gregory said. “And everybody loves the house. So it was really an incentive to renovate it and do a really nice job on it.”
The first order of business was to make the house livable. It had been vacant for a number of years. It had not been winterized, so some of the pipes had burst. The electrical wiring was a mess, Gregory said.
“Then it’s been continuous,” Gregory said of the work he has done. “When you see something you repair it.”
He estimated it would take a few years to completely strip all the paint from the house and reapply a fresh coat. This past week he was using a small paintbrush to paint a second-story dormer window a light green. He was using a hydraulic lift he bought to raise himself up to where he had easy access to paint the eves.
“There’s a lot of damage from neglect, so it’s going to take a couple of years,” Gregory said.
At some point during the past century the house had been divided into upstairs and downstairs apartments. There are two front doors; one leads to the upstairs apartment and the other leads directly into the downstairs unit. Gregory said he plans to remove the dividing walls and make it a single home once again.
The house is 3,300 square feet. A large attic adds an additional 1,000 square feet. There are three bedrooms and two baths, plus a kitchen, parlor, dining room and living room. The hallways and rooms are large. In fact, the rooms have about 2 extra feet in width than what the original plans called for, an unusual feature for a house so old.
The house itself has quite a bit of history. The architect who designed it was George Barber, Gregory and his wife learned. Barber was a fairly well-known architect in Knoxville who did pattern book designs at the turn of the 20th century. The house at 709 appears in one of his pattern books.
The couple found a reproduction of one of Barber’s books and, indeed, the house was featured in the book.
According to Barber’s book, “This artistic house was designed for erection in a Northern city, hence its construction is such as to stand against winter storms of the most rigid climate.”
“So, historically, it’s a fairly architecturally significant house,” Gregory said.
He thinks the house was built around 1906.
“We’re not real sure,” Gregory said of the building’s age. “There weren’t very good records back then. We do know the property was purchased right around the turn of the century, right around 1899.”