A community effort to protect the Ashe Street Courthouse

Robert Houk • Nov 17, 2019 at 8:30 AM

A newly formed group is working to preserve the former Ashe Street Courthouse in Johnson City, a 109-year-old building members of the Coalition of Historic Preservation and Reuse say is in desperate need of repairs.

Megan Cullen Tewell and other leaders of the grassroots organization are asking Washington County commissioners to fund $300,000 to replace a leaking roof that threatens the stability of the historic and architecturally significant building.

“We hope to convince commissioners of the community benefit and the historic value of this property,” said Tewell, a public historian and programming coordinator of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia. “A number of interested parties in Johnson City and Washington County are working with us on this, so there is widespread interest.”

Tewell, a resident of the city’s historic Tree Streets, said she and her neighbors don’t want to see the Ashe Street Courthouse lost to neglect or indifference. She became involved in the issue after speaking to County Commissioner Jodi Jones, who also lives in the neighborhood and is interested in seeing the building is protected and repurposed. 

“We are still in the early phases, so there is no specific reuse of the building determined at this time,” she said. “We are concentrating on protecting and preserving the building.”

She said last week “the community sees what is happening with the Model Mill, the John Sevier Center and other large preservation projects” and is confident the same can be done for the Ashe Street Courthouse. The coalition believes preserving the building will serve as an anchor for the redevelopment of West Walnut Street.

Tewell also said her grassroots coalition is currently working to have the Ashe Street Courthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While such a designation does not protect the Ashe Street Courthouse from neglect or demolition, it will allow the building to qualify for federal restoration grants.

Commissioners were recently asked to rank county capital projects on a priority list. They placed a number of projects ahead of repairing the Ashe Street Courthouse roof, including $2.4 million to replace the heating/cooling system at the historic Washington County Courthouse in Jonesborough, $2 million to replace the heating/cooling system of the county’s Detention Center and $475,000 to build a county Emergency Medical Services firefighting training center.

Last week, the county’s Budget Committee approved a resolution asking commissioners to fund the EMS training center.

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

As for repurposing the Ashe Street Courthouse, Grandy told commissioners there could be many “good and exciting possibilities out there.”

The building at 401 Ashe St. was a U.S. Post Office when it opened in 1910. Tewell said its 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 acquisition 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. 

“The Ashe Street Courthouse has a long history as a building serving this community,” Tewell said. “That’s why we want to protect it.”