'Elegance' in downtown: The John Sevier Hotel's heyday and history

Becky Campbell • Sep 22, 2019 at 7:45 AM

It was the place to be in Johnson City.

Drawing wedding receptions, business meetings and lunches and dances, the John Sevier Hotel towered over downtown physically and socially.

It was a place people wore their Sunday best.

That changed about 40 years ago, when North Johnson City began its burst of growth and stores began moving out of downtown, but city native York Trivette can still recall the elegance of the John Sevier.

As a boy, he and his friends would bypass the 10-cent bathroom stalls by crawling under the doors. Yes, it cost 10 cents to use the restroom at the John Sevier. He also remembered one of the most intriguing items in the hotel was the revolving door.

Trivette said several businesses ringed the perimeter of the first floor, with access from the street as well as from inside the hotel.

“There was the Chamber, two insurance businesses, a chiropractor’s office, a men’s barber shop” — where he could get a 35-cent haircut — “a flower shop and a bookshop.” Trivette said bellhops would walk through the lobby yelling, “airport!” to alert travelers the limo service was collecting people who were traveling by air to get them to the airport.

“It was plush, there was a dining room on the second floor. Sometimes dignitaries visiting Johnson City would stay there,” Trivette said.

He also recalled a high-wire act in the 1970s — the high wire walker trekked from Science Hill High School’s original downtown site to the top of the hotel. Hundreds of people went to the streets to see the feat, he said.

Trivette and his wife were one of many couples that had their wedding reception in the ballroom, the most elegant place in town for that type of event.

Local native Sharon Lloyd Willingham remembered working in the Book Shop as a teenager.

“I was 18, just out of high school, and it was my first job,” she said. “I worked at The Book Shop (in 1962 and 1963). “I loved that little shop. There were books and gifts, the customers were very nice. The clientele was the more prominent people in Johnson City.”

Willingham said the hotel “was the place to be.” While she never wandered through the hotel, Willingham said, but remembered “for the day, it was well appointed, and there were many famous people who stayed there.”

The beginning

Named for the first governor of Tennessee, the hotel rose at the corner of East Market and South Roan streets in the early 1920s. The building was planned in stages, two of which were completed.

The Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University offers this brief history of the the hotel:

The John Sevier Hotel, Johnson City, Tenn., was constructed as the tallest building in the city in 1924 at the intersecting block of Market Street and North Roan Street. An addition to the hotel was completed in 1929. A planned third addition was never completed because of the Depression. In 1979, the hotel began operation as a retirement center and became known as the John Sevier Center. On December 24, 1989, a fire damaged part of the building and killed and injured several residents. The building was repaired and continues to operate as an apartment complex for lower income residents.

A grand beginning

There was a full-page advertisement in the Aug. 5, 1924, Johnson City Chronicle that the first phase was opening and the public was invited.

The paper went on to say, “This house has been a dream; today it becomes a reality. Yesterday, it was a mystery; today it is a completed masterpiece. Yesterday it was a jumble, a chaos, a bedlam of noise and activity; today, it is a marvel of dignified, noiseless operation. Thus comes into being the full expression of Johnson City’s hospitality, the comfortable housing of Johnson City’s guests in a restful atmosphere of refined elegance.”

The paper noted the two-day open-house program of ceremonies and events on Tuesday, Aug. 5, 1924:

• 2-5 p.m. — reception and inspection with the public invited to see the hotel from basement to roof;

• 7 p.m. — a banquet for stockholders and invited guests with informal talks; and 9 p.m. — a ball for stockholders and invited guests.

The following day included another “reception and inspection” from 3:30 to 6 p.m., opening dinner at 7 — table reservations required — and dancing in the ballroom beginning at 9.

“On those two days, the hotel was opened with what was described as the “ultimate in hotel excellence,”  according to unofficial Johnson City historian and Press columnist Bob Cox. “It was deemed to be the social and business headquarters for the ‘State of Appalachia,’ being a fine modern hotel located near the center of the business district. Further, it was a house wherein Johnson City could proudly entertain guests.”

In a 2013 column about the hotel, Cox wrote that for two days, the John Sevier throbbed with receptions, inspections, curious onlookers, gala banquets and well-attended balls. The entire populace of Johnson City was invited to preview the new facility, from its spring-laden basement to the top story with its splendid view of the mountains.

The public was urged to take advantage of the new hotel: “You built this house; it is yours to enjoy. Make the John Sevier your club and your other home. There is every facility here for a social or business function, be it a cozy dialogue for two, a bridge game, a luncheon, a reception, a business conference, a committee or club meeting, a banquet or convention.”

The John Sevier, one in a series of Foor and Robinson hotels built in that era, was elegance without being extravagant — handsomely designed, decorated, furnished, equipped and constructed for possible future expansion of rooms. The company’s experience in creating a dozen fine new hotels made it refined, durable and at reasonable cost, raising the standard in hotel designing. The interior of the facility contained the latest and best expression in furniture, draperies, equipment and fittings, adding to its desire to achieve restful beauty, durability and grace.

Bits and pieces

• The John Sevier was not the first hotel in Johnson City.

The Carnegie — not the location today on State of Franklin — in the short-lived boom town by the same name provided the first hotel accommodations for guests and locals. The Hotel John Sevier was built out of the desire for the city to have an elegant hotel.

• The $500,000 bill to construct the hotel was footed by teams from the Chamber of Commerce of just 160 people. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the funds were raised in only six days.

• When the hotel finally opened, more than 1,500 people attended the grand opening. Walking past the revolving door, something many attendees had never seen, the people marveled at the elegant amenities throughout the ten-story building.

• The new hotel would take over as the central hub for social life in Johnson City. Its famous guests over the years included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and actors Tyrone Power and Gabby Hayes. 

Vance Cheek Sr., a former mayor of Johnson City, said when he moved here from Weaverville, North Carolina, in 1949 to attend the teacher’s college — now ETSU — it was still the “heyday” for the John Sevier Hotel.

“It was the center of all social events. All the civic clubs met there, there were wedding receptions,” Cheek said. “It was a grand hotel during its heyday. On the second floor was the grand ballroom. That’s where they had all the biggest events in Johnson City. It was the place to go.”

When the hotel closed in the late 1970s, “the city had lost a real gem,” Cheek said.

• In 1975, the building would cease to be a hotel. The tall building was renovated in 1977-78 to became the John Sevier Center, a subsidized apartment building for elderly and physically challenged residents. But, like its predecessor, the Carnegie Hotel, this building would, too, fall victim to a fire. On Christmas Eve in 1989, the John Sevier Center caught fire, claiming the lives of 16 residents.

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