Neglected property owners take note: A site for sore eyes

Johnson City Press • Nov 6, 2019 at 7:30 AM

If ever there were a problem child in downtown Johnson City’s rebirth, it would have to the “1888 building.”

Sitting just off Fountain Square at 107 Buffalo St., the two-story structure is among the city’s oldest. It’s also downtown’s worst eyesore.

Owners and developers have remodeled and repurposed such historic structures as the First National Bank building (Freiberg’s Restaurant), the Farmers Exchange building (Trek Bicycles and London’s Lofts) and the adjacent Commerce Street railroad platform warehouses. Even the Betty Gay and the Liberty Theater buildings, both of which were mere shells, on East Main Street are getting new life.

Sadly, it took threats of condemnation and demolition from the city’s Board of Dwelling Standards to get the long-vacant 1888 building’s absentee owners to join the party. On June 27, the panel found the structure “unfit for human habitation.” The board ordered the California-based owners to provide within 90 days a work plan that included repairing the facade, storefront and broken glazing, as well as replacing masonry.

The order got the owners’ attention. Married couple Gemma Velasquez and Murray Cruickshank engaged Johnson City developer Ernest Campbell and Limestone-based Artistry in Glass to make the necessary improvements.

Lo and behold, the contractors were on site this week to start the repairs.

This was not the first time the city had to force Velasquez and Cruickshank to work on the building. The city also raised the ugly specter of demolition in 2013 when an inspection revealed multiple holes in the building’s roof and found that the street-side parapet wall was leaning. The lean was so severe that codes inspectors feared loose bricks from it could fall on pedestrians passing by on the sidewalk. Scaffolding soon appeared for what were obviously only stopgap repairs.

We hope that’s not the case again with this effort. Johnson City’s historic district deserves better than absentee, irresponsible, neglectful ownership.

No one seems to know exactly how old the building is or what its original purpose was. It’s called “the 1888 building” because of the date stamp atop its northwest-facing wall, but the stamp is clearly an added feature given its contrast to the adjacent masonry.

Old city fire insurance maps show the structure was used as a clothing store and fruit stand in 1891, vacant in 1897 and a restaurant in both 1908 and 1913. Telephone directories show it was a cafe in the ’50s and ’60s and a beverage store in the ’70s. By the mid-’80s, it was vacant.

Velasquez recently told Staff Writer David Floyd that she and Cruickshank, who purchased the building in 1996 for $48,000, hope to “restore it to her former glory.”

“The building was a significant investment for us when we purchased it, and the restoration ... represents significant commitment by us monetarily and regards to our resources,” Velasquez said. “Again, we’re not wealthy. I don’t even think we’d consider ourselves comfortable. We’re just normal, everyday working folk.”

If the couple cannot gather the resources to do more than simply shore up the conditions, they should put the building on the market. Its position near the square and across the tracks from the Pavilion at Founders Park should make it attractive to buyers who can put the spot to good use.

Other building owners should take note of the city’s willingness to enforce codes with threat of demolition — the Historic Zoning Commission’s recent decision to raze two century-old homes in the Historic Tree Streets District being another prime example.

Johnson City’s historic areas have come a long way in recent years, but there are still numerous properties — along Market Street for example — in dire need of better care and purpose.