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Fix the old courthouse roof

Johnson City Press • Updated Nov 21, 2019 at 10:11 AM

We give the local track record on preserving historically significant buildings a grade of C-, and that’s only because of such recent efforts as the train depot restorations along State of Franklin Road.

Far too many of Johnson City’s historic structures have been lost to the wrecking ball — the Majestic and Tennessee Theaters, the Arcade and the Windsor and Arlington hotels to name a few. Most of our old schoolhouses, most significantly the downtown Science Hill High School building erected in the 1910s, are gone. A portion of our office sits on the former site of Johnson City’s 1920 City Hall.

With perhaps the exception of the iconic First National Bank Building at East Main and Buffalo (Freiburg’s Restaurant), the most architecturally significant old building in all of Johnson City is the Ashe Street Courthouse. It, too, faces an uncertain fate.

Erected in 1910 as federal post office, the Ashe Street building functioned for decades as a Washington County courthouse until it became the headquarters of Washington County’s 911 Emergency Communications District in the late 1980s. The 911 dispatch center moved to Boones Creek in 2017, leaving the Ashe Street building vacant.

As Senior Reporter Robert Houk reported in Sunday’s edition, county officials estimate the building has about $3 million in repair needs, the most pressing of which is a new roof. Leaks in the existing roof threaten the buildings stability.

That’s why a new organization — the Coalition of Historic Preservation and Reuse — wants the county to pony up with $300,000 to replace the roof. Members do not want to see the courthouse lost to neglect or indifference.

Coalition member Megan Cullen Tewell, programming coordinator of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia, lives in the Historic Tree Streets behind the courthouse. She told Houk coalition members have seen the efforts to restore the Model Mill, the John Sevier Center and other structures and are confident the same can be done for the Ashe Street building. Preserving it and finding a new use would serve as an anchor for the redevelopment of West Walnut Street.

She’s right. The County Commission should move up the courthouse on its list of immediate capital projects. The county is surely to recoup that investment in preservation once a new development plan for the building is in place.

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