Trio works to add Ashe Street Courthouse to National Register
By Dave Ongie, News Editor
For over a century, the building most folks know as the Ashe Street Courthouse has been a lot of things to a lot of people. And if the three people who spearheaded the building’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places have anything to say about it, the building will be given the chance to continue to evolve and serve citizens in our region for generations to come.
“We know there is a future for this building,” said Anne Mason, executive director of the Heritage Alliance. “It is coming, and this is just a step in the process of securing that future.”
The step Mason was speaking of came last Wednesday when the Tennessee State Review Board approved the nomination submitted by Mason, Hal Hunter and Megan Tewell under the umbrella of the Heritage Alliance. With that hurdle cleared, there is just one more remaining as the nomination moves on to the Department of the Interior for final consideration.
It is unusual for such a small group to take on the rigorous application process to get a building approved on the National Register, but the trio championing the Ashe Street Courthouse was perfectly suited to tackle the challenge. Hunter’s knowledge of architecture, Tewell’s training as a historian and Mason’s deft diplomacy when dealing with a variety of governmental organizations and citizen groups proved to be a winning combination.
“It really was lucky all of our research interests and abilities complemented each other so well,” Tewell said.
The morning after the state review board’s decision, Mason, Hunter and Tewell huddled under an overhang atop the front steps of the Ashe Street Courthouse to avoid a steady rain as they talked to the News & Neighbor about the history of the building and the potential impact a spot on the National Register of Historic Places might have on its future.
The Ashe Street Courthouse began its life as the Johnson City Postal Savings Bank and Post Office back in 1911. The Postal Savings Bank was a new program instituted by President William Howard Taft designed to encourage people to save money. The public had a great deal of trust in the postal service in those days, and Tewell said Taft aimed to capitalize on that trust to encourage people to save their money.
“They trusted the postal savings bank more than they did actual banks,” Tewell said. “He tried to leverage the post office as the familiar neighborhood entity to get people to actually put money from their folders, jars and mattresses into circulation.”
The postal savings bank in Johnson City was part of the rollout, making it the first facility of its kind in the state of Tennessee and among the first in the nation. Tewell said the postal savings bank gave working-class folks, immigrants, married women and children as young as 10 years old the opportunity to make small deposits at a trusted location.
As Hunter prepared to write the nomination, he said the building’s groundbreaking role in the United States Postal Banking System, which peaked in the 1940s before being phased out in 1967, was a factor that helped set the building apart.
“It really gave us a punch, kind of put it into a perspective a little more than just another post office building,” Hunter said.
Form follows function
In addition to housing such a novel endeavor, the Ashe Street Courthouse is also unique because of the Beaux-Arts style architecture. For this reason, Mason noted the nomination was submitted in two different categories – government and architecture.
From 1852 until 1939, most federal buildings were constructed in this style under the oversight of the Office of the Supervising Architect in the Department of Treasury, and the design of the building set it apart from every other structure in Johnson City. During its life as a post office and bank, the Ashe Street Courthouse held its original rectangular form, adorned with intricate stonework, with just a single one-story addition to the back in 1929.
By the late 1930s, however, one of the main draws of the postal savings bank had been diminished with the passage of the 1933 Banking Act. Prior to the formation of the FDIC, postal savings banks had the advantage of being backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government, but that piece of mind didn’t extend to private banks. Once private banks were put on even footing with postal savings banks, they became less popular with working-class folks.
In 1939, Washington County acquired the building and began transitioning it for use as a courthouse, which opened in 1940. As the county’s needs evolved, so did the building, much to Hunter’s chagrin as he painstakingly researched and recorded every renovation made to the building over the decades.
“That was the biggest challenge of writing the document was that they wanted every single bit of that documented, room by room,” he said. “It was very, very technical the way it was written.”
Luckily for Hunter, Scott Lusk was able to produce a wealth of drawings chronicling changes made inside the building during the 1950s and 60s, and Jay McCusker came through with drawings detailing the changes made to the building when it was converted into the Washington County 911 office in 1987.
Hunter spent many hours at his dining room table, which was covered in blueprints, chronicling how Washington County met its ever-changing needs over several decades by adding to and renovating the interior of the building.
“What Hal did so great was trace each development with a new phase of the building’s life,” Tewell said. “It started as the postal savings bank and then moved into the Works Progress, a New Deal initiative to help local people, and then it served other civic purposes for the court. So he correlated the changes in architecture with the different civic purposes it served. He did a great job with that.”
A Tale of Two Futures
While Tewell researched the origin of the building and Hunter chronicled its complex architectural history, Mason rotated between the assortment of government committees and citizen groups with an interest in seeing the Ashe Street Courthouse restored and returned to use. Washington County still owns the building, but the Johnson City Development Authority and the South Side Neighborhood Association both have an interest in seeing it restored and repurposed with a total redesign of the West Walnut Street Corridor looming on the horizon.
“She really took on the diplomatic portion of this in terms of coordinating with all these different entities,” Tewell said of Mason. “She was front and center to help coordinate, which I think is a key part of this because this never would have happened if all of these different stakeholders hadn’t come all together. Anne has really helped facilitate that.”
Back on Jan. 2 of this year, the conference room inside City Hall was awash with optimism as Johnson City Commissioners met with local legislators to brief them on their wants and needs before the legislative delegation left for Nashville to draft bills and allocate funds.
At that meeting, Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock spent a good bit of time discussing the need for a new roof on the Ashe Street Courthouse and made a push for the funds based on the potential uses for the building in the years ahead. But since then, COVID-19 has changed the fiscal landscape on every level of government, creating a tough climate for everyone looking to fund capital projects.
To borrow from Charles Dickens, it really is the best of times and the worst of times for those looking to restore the Ashe Street Courthouse. It’s the best of time because there are more stakeholders invested in the future of the building, but it’s also the worst of times because funding is tight.
Amidst the sound of falling raindrops last Thursday morning, the prospect of landing a spot on the National Register provided a glimmer of hope. While Mason cautioned that a spot on the list does not ensure the building won’t eventually be torn down or drastically altered, it does open the door to more funding sources that could facilitate a bright future for a building with such a rich history.
“That grant money, which can total thousands or millions of dollars of accessible funds, is a game-changer in terms of preservation,” Tewell said. “That was one of our motivations aside from the distinction, opening up alternate revenue sources.”