By Andrew Kenneson
Editor’s note: 2012 Science Hill High School graduate and Davidson College senior Andrew Kenneson conducted extensive research and interviews this summer on the subject of the Oaks Castle. Much of his early focus centered around Cher Cornett’s efforts to raise funds for potential purchase of the estate and its conversion to a public arts space.
The property came under contract in the midst of that research. Kenneson gamely changed course. The following story is based upon research at the Archives of Appalachia, and interviews with Cornett, local historian Hal Hunter, and Johnson City employees who help oversee the conservation district created in 2000 to protect the historic integrity of the mansion and surrounding property.
Thanks are due to the Archives of Appalachia for photos used in this article (more will appear in our online article, jcnewsandneighbor.com/oakshistory. They were found in boxes 28 and 29 of the Cox-Painter-Adams Family Papers. Those papers are open to the public. For more information call (423) 439-4338 or visit etsu.edu/cas/cass/archives/
The story of the Oaks Castle begins with several hundred acres of land in what would become South Johnson City. Today it contains a golf course, a segment of interstate, several churches, a liquor store, and numerous other amenities of 21st-century life. But in 1918, when construction began on the Oaks Castle, it was just farmland. On that expansive patch of farmland, there was a hill.
Today South Roan and Buffalo streets border the hill, and it rises behind a Walgreens and an Advance Auto Parts. From the top of that hill a century ago, a person could see all across the land below it. The man who owned the land was named Thaddeus Abraham Cox.
His friends called him Thad. Everyone else called him Judge Cox. Born in Sullivan County in 1871, Judge Cox started his own law firm in Johnson City when he was 20. He practiced there until his death in 1950. Between those years, Judge Cox became one of the most powerful figures in Tennessee politics.
He sat on the Tennessee Supreme Court, where he got the name “Judge.” He traveled to Baltimore in 1912 and to Chicago in 1932 as a delegate for the Democratic Party. He served as the president of the Tennessee Bar Association. He only ran for office once, early in his career in 1900, when he ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket. He lost. But that didn’t matter.
Although he never became a politician himself, Cox was surrounded by them. He was the man behind the scenes who knew everyone, a power broker, who knew just whose ears to whisper in at just the right moments. In those days, a word from Judge Cox was often the difference in elections all across the state.
In 1918, he needed somewhere to live, a place befitting his status in politics and considerable wealth as a businessman. He and his wife Pearle chose an architect from Connecticut, a man named James C. Green, to build them a mansion on the hill.
Green built an Italian style villa, with stone walls, soaring windows, a ballroom, a library, a sun room, and eight bedrooms, each with its own fireplace. The crowning feature was a square tower in the center of the house, where Judge Cox would later meet with other power players to smoke cigars, look out over his land, and discuss politics.
Pearle Cox helped extensively, especially with the decorating and design of the house. She bought thousands of dollars of lavish furnishings, like bolts of roman velvet, Italian wrought iron lanterns, and chenille rugs from salesmen in New York with names like Elbert G. Treganza. When the mansion was finished in 1922, it was unlike anything else in East Tennessee. Because of the number of oak trees on the property, the Coxes and others referred to it as the Oaks Estate.
Pearle and Thad Cox never had children of their own. But in 1936, they legally adopted their niece, Mary Elizabeth Matthews, after her parents died. She married Richard Griffin Adams, an Army captain in World War II turned banker.
The Adamses lived in the Oaks Castle, gaining ownership after Judge Cox’s death in 1950. The three Adams children, Dabney, Gail, and Griffin Jr. were raised in the castle. By the late 1990s, only Griffin Jr. was living there. Tired of the expensive upkeep of such an old and large home, he and his siblings decided to sell the property.
A buyer emerged. Dr. Robert Allen wanted to turn the Oaks Estate into a holistic health clinic, and opened “The Castle Clinic” in 2000. He experienced some success, but personal problems intervened. Following a well-publicized episode in 2013, one result of which was revocation of his medical license, Allen lost the property to bank foreclosure. The Oaks Castle has sat on the market ever since.
Since then, there have been people interested in buying the Oaks Castle. Sylvia Polite, a reclusive out-of-town musician, almost bought it last year, but the deal fell through. Cornett’s local arts group, Create Appalachia, developed a plan to turn the property into an arts center. It was an intriguing vision, and it even garnered support from Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, but the group struggled to raise the close to a million dollars needed to buy and begin restoring the place.
Then, just a few weeks ago, the Oaks Castle found a buyer. It is now under contract to Kailyn Realty Management (KRM). It is not yet clear what all the company plans to do with the house, but it is likely to involve a combination of office space and a rentable venue for events. They also plan to restore much of the original design and architecture.
Any plans for changes at the Oaks Castle, however, will have to be approved by the Historic Zoning Commission (HZC). The seven-person committee is tasked with preserving historic structures in the area.
The 1966 federal law creating the National Register of Historic Places also created guidelines for local governments to make their own laws that would legally protect historic places. Johnson City formed the HZC in 1999 to do just that.
Before the Adams siblings sold the Oaks Castle, they wanted assurances it would be preserved. After visiting the property, the HZC agreed to protect it. In 2000, the city approved the Cox/Adams Conservation District Design Guidelines. These rules restrict what developers can do to the house. All plans for remodeling must pass the HZC before the developers receive their building permits.
Other HZCs, including Jonesborough’s, regulate new construction on the exterior and interior of protected buildings, but Johnson City’s only covers the exterior. At the Oaks Castle, builders cannot, among other things, change the size or shape of doors, alter the roof, or paint any unpainted masonry surface. The conservation district also mandates that any new construction on the property must, in an architectural sense, fit with the existing design. This doesn’t mean new buildings must be exact copies, but they must be good neighbors to the original.
Developers who don’t like the ruling of the HZC must appeal to chancery court. This makes the HZC uniquely powerful, since other zoning appeals often just go to the city planner. In addition, the HZC has a history of stopping or changing the direction of construction.
Developers who ignore HZC rulings can be sued. If the offense is particularly egregious, like demolition, the suit brought against the developer could be in the millions of dollars. Right now it seems like the new owners of the Oaks Castle are intent on preserving and restoring the house. Thad and Pearle Cox would not recognize the land that was once theirs. It has long since been thrust into modernity. But, atop a certain hill, there is a place that still feels like 1922. To the Coxes, it might even feel like home.