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County OKs pursuit of historic designation for Ashe Street Courthouse

Robert Houk • Jan 10, 2020 at 8:00 AM

Efforts to preserve Washington County’s 109-year-old Ashe Street Courthouse in Johnson City have entered a key phase.

Washington County’s Commercial, Industrial and Agriculture Committee voted Thursday to give the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia its blessings to efforts to have the vacant former post office turned courthouse placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Heritage Alliance officials said the designation will allow the county to qualify for essential grants to refurbish and protect the building at 401 Ashe St., which was a post office when it opened in 1910.

“It will make the building stand out,” said Anne G’ Fellers-Mason, executive director of the Jonesborough-based Heritage Alliance. “It puts us in the position to be eligible for money that would not be available otherwise.”

Earlier this month, Johnson City officials told local state lawmakers they have asked Gov. Bill Lee include $5 million in his budget for renovations to the Ashe Street Courthouse.

City manager Pete Peterson said the old courthouse presents an opportunity for the county and city to work together to create a business incubator, which represents an important part of the West Walnut Street redevelopment plans.

Bob Cantler, the president and CEO of the Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, told CIA committee members Thursday one focus of his organization is to help entrepreneurs start their businesses.

“If there is a conversation about Ashe Street Courthouse becoming an incubator, then we want to part of that conversation,” Cantler said.

Megan Cullen Tewell, who is a programming coordinator of the Heritage Alliance and a leader of the Coalition of Historic Preservation and Reuse, said the Ashe Street Courthouse’s Beaux-arts architecture was a popular style for government buildings constructed in this country between the1890s and the 1920s.

The building continued as the city’s post office until 1938. A year later, Washington County began its lease of the property and the building was used as a county courthouse for decades until it became the headquarters of Washington County’s 911 Emergency Communications District in the late 1980s.

The building has been vacant since 911 moved its operations to Boones Creek in late 2017.

If the county doesn’t find a new public use for the Ashe Street Courthouse, its ownership will revert back to the federal government. That could result in the property being sold at auction.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy has said it could take at least $3 million to make all the needed repairs to the Ashe Street Courthouse, but noted late last year the the immediate concern is to deal with the “water penetration that will ruin the building.” 

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