All Known Records
Was Carried Out
BY SARAH GREGORY
The final chapter in the story of a mid-19th-century home in downtown Greeneville closed Tuesday with the razing of a house at 224 N. Main St. -- a private residence traditionally known as the George Jones home.
The demolition of the house, the earliest part of which dates at least to the mid-1860s, is related to the planned dramatic expansion of the Greeneville/Greene County campus of Walters State Community College (WSCC).
That expansion, an approximately $20 million project for which the community college is seeking donations, includes expansion of some programs and the beginning of others.
A DEBATED HISTORY
The history of the home has been the topic of considerable community debate during the last few years.
For a number of years, the house was widely believed to have been constructed in the 1830s as the residence of a prominent Greeneville merchant, George Jones and his wife, Keziah Sevier Jones, a daughter of Cpl. John Sevier.
Two prominent local historians, including the late Richard H. Doughty and Dr. Robert Orr, have supported the circa-1830 construction date.
Oral tradition has also maintained that the house was a stop on the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves in the years preceding the Civil War, although no proof of that association is known to exist.
However, strong evidence uncovered in research by WSCC disputed the 1830s construction date and pointed to an 1860s-era date for the home under a different, younger Greeneville man also named George Jones.
WSCC President Dr. Wade McCamey directed WSCC Greeneville/Greene County Campus Administrator Cindy Painter to undertake the research to make clear the home's history through examination of property deeds, tax records, U.S. Census data, and other historical records.
WSCC also formed a committee to ensure academic research methodology, and requested an external review of the research by Don Miller, Greeneville/Greene County Public Library and T. Elmer Cox Historical and Genealogical Library Director.
Deeds recorded for the property in 1860 indicated that the property had no structures and was only a "lot of land."
NOT IN HISTORIC DISTRICT
The 200 block of North Main St. is located in the Greeneville Historic District; however, the home itself is not part of the district.
The reason for this is because, at the time of the Historic District's creation in the 1970s, property-owners had the option of choosing not to be included in the district.
At that time, Laughlin Memorial Hospital owned the properties on both sides of the home and decided against being included in the Historic District.
Although not part of the Historic District, the home had been a stop on a 90-minute walking tour of historic downtown Greeneville called "A Walk With The President."
The walking tour is designed to allow visitors to experience the downtown Greeneville area as President Andrew Johnson would have when he returned from the White House in 1869.
A CONTROVERSIAL CHANGE
Whichever date of the home's construction -- 1830s or 1860s -- is correct, the structure was certainly in existence during the latter years of President Johnson, who died in 1875.
Thus, the home has been a part of the streetscape and history of downtown Greeneville for at least 140 years.
Because of this, and the reported though unproven link to the Underground Railroad, there was considerable local support for protecting the structure -- either in its current, original location, or by having the house moved.
WSCC acquired the property in 2009 from Dr. and Mrs. Bob Thorpe, the last persons to own and occupy it as a private residence.
Following that purchase, at first there were indications that the college planned to retain the house and use it for some college-related purpose.
Later, plans developed for the dramatic expansion of the Greeneville/Greene County campus.
The building plans associated with that $20 million expansion included razing the house and other nearby structures owned by WSCC so that the space could be used for the campus expansion.
The Jones house, a row of offices at the corner of Main Street and Tusculum Boulevard, and the former site of Ross Furniture & Bedding at the corner of College Street and Tusculum Boulevard are in the "footprint" for WSCC's planned new 84,000-square-foot facility.
In March 2012, the college declared the "Jones House" to be "surplus."
The college then offered $15,000 toward the cost of relocation if anyone was interested in purchasing the house and having it removed and the lot cleared by May 2012.
Two individuals attended a pre-bid conference; however, WSCC received no viable bids for the purchase and removal of the house.
A statement from Pectol released Tuesday, after demolition of the house began, said, "After purchasing the 224 North Main Street property, Walters State conducted extensive research into its history. The research provided overwhelming evidence that the house was owned by a different George Jones than was previously thought.
"Also, deeds to the house and property clearly indicate that the house was built between 1860 and 1865.
"Walters State has provided copies of its research as well as photographic and video documentation of the house to the Greeneville/Greene County Public Library and the T. Elmer Cox Historical and Genealogical Library for public viewing and permanent record purposes.
"Walters State also met the appropriate mitigation requested by the Tennessee Historic Commission related to the Tennessee State Building Commission's approval of the demolition of the house.
"Walters State is excited to begin construction on a state-of-the-art facility that will enable the college to expand academic programs and support services in response to the educational and workforce needs of Greene County and the surrounding area.
"Walters State students will have access to facilities that complement the quality academic programs in which they are enrolled.
"Up-to-date natural science and allied health labs, SMART classrooms, residential police and fire academies, a high-tech media library and other student support areas will greatly enhance the college's mission to increase local educational attainment rates and better prepare our students for jobs in the 21st-century economy."
Although a number of individuals have expressed strong concern about demolition of the mid-1800s house, support in a general sense for the WSCC expansion has been nearly universal.
The Greene County Heritage Trust was one of the voices which publicly supported the general expansion of Walters State but opposed the demolition of the house as part of that project.
George Blanks, president of the Heritage Trust, said Tuesday that the issue has been "discussed and discussed and discussed," and in the end, the college had to make the decision.
"I just think it's [the demolition] a sad event for the town," he said.
Orr, who also supported preservation of the Jones House although also supporting the Walters State expansion in a general sense, said Tuesday that he was "sorry to see the house go."
He added that he "disagreed with it [the demolition], but didn't see anything sensationally wrong with what they [WSCC] were doing."
In the end, Orr said, WSCC "had to do what they had to do."
Demolition of the home began on Monday, March 25, with asbestos abatement, which was also conducted at the neighboring Laughlin Square building.
Crews began razing the structure Tuesday.
WSCC hopes to complete the expansion project by fall 2014.