The Ashe Street Courthouse has filled several important roles in Johnson City, Tenn., since its completion in 1910: federal bank and post office from 1910 to 1937; Washington County Courthouse from 1940 to 1985; and 911 emergency call center from the late 1980s through 2017.
City officials now plan to prepare the Beaux-Arts-style architectural gem for a new role as an incubator and accelerator site for health-related businesses.
“We’re hoping this space can be used for additional support for those startup businesses and entrepreneurs,” said Bob Cantler, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce serving Johnson City, Jonesborough and Washington County.
The project, which should be completed by January 2023 or earlier, started with the goal of preserving the building, which became vacant in 2017, said Randy Trivette, assistant city manager for Johnson City, a community of more than 70,000 people tucked in a valley in the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Tennessee.
“The architecture of the building is really, really amazing, and just with the time frame of when it was built and it still has held up as well as it has on the exterior,” Trivette said. “It just needs a little tender loving care.” This includes cleaning and some repairs to bricks and ornate cornices decorating the exterior.
The brick building, which stands downtown at Ashe and Earnest streets, originally was known as the Johnson City Postal Savings Bank and Post Office, according to the application to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places, which was written by the Heritage Alliance of adjacent Jonesborough, Tenn. The two-story structure, which was added to the National Register in late 2020, was the first federal building constructed in Johnson City, the National Register application said. Its location, near three railroad stations and the business district, made it a hub of communications and business for northeast Tennessee.
For the planned renovation, the city partnered with Washington County, which owns the building, and the state of Tennessee. State officials approved $5 million for the work, with a request the building provide space to start and grow health-related businesses. The state funding should cover all project costs, Trivette said.
“We’ve worked out an agreement with the county to do this renovation on the building,” he said. “And then the county and the city also are negotiating and working out some type of agreement now where they may deed it to us or give us a long-term lease so that, after the renovation, we’ll maintain the building and keep up the maintenance on it.”
They also are seeking input from residents, businesses and other stakeholders before deciding on final design plans, which must be approved by the city’s Historic Commission.
The planned renovation will address several needs:
- Repair water damage from roof leakage.
- Construct a tower containing an elevator and secondary staircase to make the building accessible for people with disabilities.
- Replace electrical, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning systems and install cables for modern communications systems.
- Create an interior space for public use and smaller spaces for business startups.
“I would say the biggest challenge is all the electrical is going to have to be completely upgraded to new code-compliant material, all the plumbing is going to have to be completely torn out and updated to code-compliant material, and then the HVAC — the heating and cooling system — is going to have to be an overall upgrade, too,” Trivette said. “So those are big-ticket items, and they’re hard to do in a building that you are trying to maintain the integrity of some of the historic walls and things like that.”
Maintaining its purpose as a public space is also a must in the design, Trivette noted. When the U.S. government closed its post office in the building in 1937, it deeded the structure to Washington County with a clause stating the building would revert back to the federal government if it ever ceased use as a public space.
Trivette hopes to partner with East Tennessee State University, which is located about a mile west of downtown, to provide business coaching to entrepreneurs using Ashe Street Courthouse space. To better connect downtown and the university, the city has launched the $35 million West Walnut Street Corridor project to add bike lanes, pedestrian pathways, sidewalks and traffic-calming devices along Walnut Street. City officials believe the enhancements will attract businesses to the street.
Hopefully, Cantler suggested, the West Walnut Street project also will draw ETSU’s 14,000 students into the community more and will bring Johnson City residents onto the university campus.
Cantler and Trivette said the Ashe Street Courthouse project builds on the growing entrepreneurial spirit in their area.
“There are a lot of people who are looking for places to start up family-owned type businesses, whether it be crafts or restaurants or food or bakeries — all those things, there’s a lot of interest,” Trivette said. “And there are a lot of businesses that are buying these older buildings and renovating them.”