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The Rebirth of Jonesboro Part 3

Though specifically permitted from the beginning, there was no early rush in Jonesboro to erect brick or stone buildings. On the contrary, it was a long time before there were any at all. When Francois Andre Michaux, French botanist, passed through in 1802, he wrote in his journal: “Jonesborough, the last town in Tennessee, is composed of about a hundred and fifty houses built of wood, and disposed on both sides of the road. Four or five respectable shops are established there, and the tradespeople who keep them have their goods from Richmond and Baltimore. All kinds of English manufactured goods are as dear here as at Knoxville.” Just when the first brick building was erected is not certainly known, but a primitive painting of the square opposite the courthouse, executed in 1811, shows one, but for of by whom it was built, we have no record.
The first brick building of which we have positive details is the long, two-story, three-apartment “Sisters’ Row” on West Main Street, just east of the Methodist Church. It was built in 1820 by Samuel D. Jackson as homes for three of his daughters. Of purely Federal design, the central and western portions had no porches; the visitor stepped directly from the walk into the hall. The frame ell for the two western units was added about 1890.
Beginning in the 1820’s and continuing for thirty years, there was a building boom in and around Jonesboro during the course of which many of the earlier log and frame structures disappeared, replaced by much more elegant buildings, many of them brick. Most of the first these showed strong Federal influence, at times modified to suit the owner’s whims. In many cases porches were added years later. One of the earliest was the residence of John Green, who had come from North Carolina about 1825 with a fortune said to have been acquired as a successful privateer. The main part of the building is Federal, to which were added two-story porches with columns, pedimented gables, and trim showing much Greek revival influence. It was during this period that a detail appeared that has become one of the distinctive features of Jonesboro. In this, the gabled wall, instead of remaining flush with the edge of the roof or possibly overhung by it, continued above the roof line, reaching the apex in a series of steps. If a chimney was built into the wall, it usually was at the top of the steps, at the comb of the roof. This, known as a stepped gable, or corbie steps, originated in Holland during the Middle Ages but it has been impossible to trace the route by which it reached Jonesboro. Architects were scarce in the West and thus it seems that it was a favorite design of some local master builder, prone to suggest to his clients. The idea is borne out by the fact that there are said to be more stepped gables in Jonesboro than in any other area of the state. Most of the brick work, at least in the fronts of the houses, is laid in a pattern known as the Flemish bond, though frequently the sides and rear walls were less ornamental but easier laid English or common bond. Fancy brickwork (cornices, corbels, details) is found at the eaves of many houses. Another detail frequently seen is where the front wall of a residence rises from the sidewalk at the property line with a stoop or front porch protruding into or over the sidewalk. This feature is evident in the Sister’ Row, the Chester Inn, the Mansion House, and others. The Mansion House, at the corner of West Main Street and First Avenue, is a beautiful example of Federal design. It Is three stories high with stepped gables on one end. To it was added at a later date a porch over the sidewalk, with elaborate wooden brackets and scrollwork typical of the Victorian period. Thought this is not characteristic of Federal style here blends very harmoniously with the body of the building.
Scrollwork is found on many residences so often that it is, like the stepped gables, one of the distinctive and outstanding features of the town’s architecture. The most of it is thought to be the work of a local craftsman, George Sprinkle, who worked in Washington County between 1870 and 1900, and was a master with the scroll saw. The decade of the 1840’s was the peak of the building era and included besides several notable residences, a courthouse, two large schoolhouses, and four churches. One school and all four churches are standing today. Construction on three of these churches was started within four years, all in the Greek revival style so popular for public buildings at the time. In both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches massive columns supported a fully-pedimented gable over an open porch. In each case the sanctuary included a gallery for the use of the slaves of members of the congregation. The Presbyterian sanctuary still retains a quaint pulpit and the original boxed pews. In the 1840’s each of these congregations belonged to the Southern branch of its denomination. During the Civil War the loyalty of their members was solely divided. After hostilities ceased, the Northern portion of each attempted to exercise the right of conquest and take over. In each instance, though violence was at times threatened, the conflict was resolved by a lawsuit, with the Southern faction retaining the building; the Northern element taking a cash settlement to build a church for themselves. The original Baptist church, built in 1842, was a small, simple building at the corner of South Franklin and Spring streets, soon outgrown by expanding membership. Construction of the present building was started in 1849, on East Main Street. It, too, is Greek revival in style, though its columns are close to the front wall, and do not support the porch. It also contained a slave gallery but it was removed in a remodeling in 1892. Even before their church building was completed, the Baptists set about establishing a school, the Holston Baptist Female Institute, at the top of the hill east of the church. This large twtwo-storybrick building exhibits Federal influence, but it is not a clear-cut example. First a girls’ school, it’s classes were interrupted by the Civil War. Later it was the home of the Holston Male Institute, better known as the Dungan School, from its head, Colonel R. H. Dungan. In 1878 is was sold to Quakers and, as Warner’s Institute, was a school for newly-freed slaves. After housing a school for over half a century it was bought about 1910 by John A. Vines, who converted it into a residence. The property, now known as Academy Hill, is owned by Dr. and Mrs. Richter Moore, Jr. It has most recently been used as an antique shop. Also on Academy Hill is Jonesboro’s oldest cemetery where many of its first residents, including several Revolutionary War veterans, are buried. At least two frame residences in Jonesboro show a very strong Gothic revival influence. A small Carpenter Gothic house was built about 1850 by Matthew Aiken. The walls are of board-and-batten construction, unusual for this style, but the high pointed lancet windows, bracketed eaves, and steep roof definitely show the Gothic Character. The other Gothic revival dwelling, a two-story frame with clapboard siding, built about 1870, is on College Street. Its lancet windows, steep roof, and gables plainly mark its style. Another beautiful example of the board-and-batten type is a large two-story residence at 303 West Main Street. It may have been built by L. W. Keen, pioneer photographer, for it was long his home. The high squared columns of the portico and the flat roof display a strong touch of Greek revival influence. With the coming of the Civil War virtually all building ceased and did not resume until 1870. By the time there had been a change in architectural preference and the Victorian style was comin into vogue. There seems to have been no hard and fast rule to identify the Victorian style, but most ornamental scrollwork, wide porches, with bay and dormer windows. Many houses in the town display several of these features. Probably the best example is on West Main Street, just past the city limits. Contemporary with the Victorian was the Italianate villa design, arriving in the vicinity in the 1880’s. Largely of brick, with arched bay windows, ornamental wooden scrollwork at the eaves, and a windowed tower rising a full story above the roof, they add another distinctive touch to the varied architecture of the town. James H. Dosser, a wealthy merchant and landowner in Jonesboro, built three Italianate houses during this period as wedding gifts for three of his children. One of then, the Isaac Reeves House, red brick with wood brackets, a square tower which rises above the top floor, with bay window and arched windows, is almost textbook example of the style. Another of the three, also conspicuously located on a hill, plainly to be seen, is the residence of Dr. and Mrs. Richer Moore, Jr. The historical restoration or, more correctly, preservation of Jonesboro has long been a dream in the minds of some of its citizens, but no definite steps had been taken until the spring of 1969. Under the auspices of the Tennessee Historical Commission, a meeting was held at Jonesboro. Present were Dr. Sam B. Smith and Stephen Lawrence of the Commission, Dr. Richard Hale, chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, members of the Tennessee State Planning Commission, county and city officials, and other concerned citizens. At the time, the visitors pointed out the urgent need for immediate steps to preserve the remaining but fast-disappearing buildings of historic and architectural significance and emphasized historic Jonesboro’s great potential for attracting visitors. Much local interest was aroused by the meeting. Shortly thereafter, a team from the staff of the Tennessee Historical Commission (Stephen Lawrence, Herbert Harper, May Dean Eberling, Robert M. McBride, and Ruth Armstrong) spent several days in the town and, accompanied by other regional planners, James Wagner, and interested citizens, made a thorough study of all buildings. they carefully photographed, mapped, and completed data sheets on 158 structures in Jonesboro. Of the 158 properties surveyed, 72 were considered worthy of preservation. As a result of the investigation the Tennessee Historical Commission recommended to the National Park Service that Jonesboro be placed on The National Register of Historic Places. In the last week of 1969 it was announced that the Jonesboro Historic District had been accepted-thus it became the first district in Tennessee to be given that honor. The Historical Commission made a grant to the town enabling it to secure the services of a professional preservationist. In November, of 1969, Dr. Richard Hale spent several days in making a comprehensive study. His recommendations have been followed closely by the Tennessee State Planning Commission in developing a detailed plan. It was also at his suggestion that the Jonesboro Civic Trust was formed, modelled after a similar and very successful group in England. The duties of the Trust are to encourage and enlist public interest and support in the preservation and restoration of historic sites and buildings, and to secure and administer gifts of properties and funds for this purpose. In the meantime, a historic district, embracing the most significant portion of the town, had been outlined, and the Tennessee State Planning Commission had prepared zoning ordinances which were adopted by the City Counsel to protect the historic district.
As part of a publicity campaign the Civic Trust, during the summers of 1971 and 1972, promoted “Jonesborough Days,” celebrations that attracted thousands of visitors from all over the United States. It is planned to make this annual event. The Civic Trust has also been successful in securing the services of the Planning Section of the Tennessee Valley Authority and of the Department of Architecture, University of Tennessee, to aid in supplying architectural studies. The Upper East Tennessee office of the Tennessee State Planning Commission, already under contract with the town of Jonesboro, has drawn up a master plan for the development of the restoration area. The first project to get underway has been the acquisition of the Christopher Taylor home, near Jonesboro, one of the oldest buildings in Tennessee and the home in which Andrew Jackson lived when he first came to the West. The Taylor house will be moved to a site near the center of town and will be used as a visitors’ center. This action has been made possible by a federal grant through the National Park Service. The Washington County Power Board and the United Intermountain Telephone Company are cooperating in a joint project of placing power and phone lines underground. This operation constitutes Jonesboro’s contribution as matching funds for a grant of $309,000 from the Office of Housing and Urban Development. Final details of the restoration project are being prepared. They include replacing present cement sidewalks with ones of brick, as they were more than a century ago, and appropriate street lighting. Other planned projects are rehabilitation of several historic structures, restoration of the facades of mercantile buildings to the original design; arrangements for additional parking areas, and development of interpretive material for visitors. The once and future Jonesboro is in the process of re-birth. There has been sufficient planning, official action, and local support to insure that active restoration and preservation will be accomplished. Historic Jonesboro, enhanced by the preservation of its old structures and careful control of any new construction, is sure to take its proper place in the expanding list of significant historic districts in our country.

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