His thoughts and visions for Tennessee’s oldest town have always centered on preservation. And while it may seem impossible, Kennedy’s success lies in his ability to always look forward while simultaneously looking back.
“The buildings are our tangible link to the past and what it tells about where we are today and what our future outlook is,” he said. “The buildings incorporate creativity, art, design and technology that is very different from our own today and cannot be reproduced.”
Kennedy is currently serving his seventh five-year term on the Jonesborough Historic Zoning Commission and has been its chairman since 1983. Throughout that time he has completed 18 color analyses on historical buildings, meticulously researching to discover their original color schemes. One of his most visible and influential color studies was the Chester Inn, which has returned to its original look.
Along the way, Kennedy has also learned how to match 19th century brick and mortar as well as how to preserve and treat metal roofing.
“When a building is in good condition and brought up to date, it’s just as comfortable to live in an old building as a modern building,” he said.
Since Jonesborough is such a small town with a historic district about a mile long and half a mile wide, Kennedy is not only chairman of the historic zoning commission, but also acts as a quasi-Town of Jonesborough staffer. He provides technical advice for properly repairing and maintaining the historical buildings. Kennedy meets with property owners and discusses the guidelines for buildings in the historic district.
“I help people appreciate the characteristics of the historical buildings and why they’re important to preserve,” he said.
Kennedy advises building owners before they bring proposals before the historic zoning commission. The group must approve any proposals for exterior changes to buildings within the historical district. Once the commission approves a proposal, a certificate of appropriateness is issued so that the owner may request a building permit.
It is this work that’s brought Kennedy even closer to fellow townsfolk. He’s toured every 19th and early 20th century building in the historic district. His office and home are downtown, too.
“Sometimes it takes me an hour to walk the two and half blocks home,” Kennedy said with a laugh. “Just because I see so many friends along the way.”
Kennedy is not a historical preservationist by trade. As a matter of fact, he didn’t come to Jonesborough in 1972 to do the type of work townsfolk know him for. The Pensacola, Fla., native stumbled upon the small historical town after accepting a position as an orthopedic surgeon with Watauga Orthopedics in Johnson City.
A longstanding curiosity in old buildings gave Kennedy and wife Virginia a desire to purchase a historic home. A realtor brought Kennedy to Jonesborough in hopes that he’d find the perfect investment for his young family, and, of course, Kennedy immediately fell in love with the town and saw its potential.
“At that time the town was a bit shabby,” he said. “It appeared to be hanging on even though it wasn’t particularly attractive. Despite all of that, I could see in my mind’s eye the beauty of the town and the historic significance of the buildings.”
The couple bought a historic home on 400 West Main Street that was constructed in 1869. They raised two sons in the home and still reside there today.
“As I got into repairing our house for our family’s needs, I realized that the historic house needed very different treatment from a modern house,” Kennedy said. “I began to educate myself and had a great contractor who taught me a lot. After we got settled, I become very interested in historic preservation.”
Following the successful restoration of his own home, Kennedy took on a much larger project - the adaptive reuse of Jonesborough High School as a 13-unit condominium association known as Academy Hill. He was also instrumental in the restoration of the Historic Eureka Inn.
More recently, Kennedy joined the Jonesborough Traffic Advisor Committee and became chairman of the board of governors for the International Storytelling Center.
As Kennedy’s involvement in planning for the future of Jonesborough has diversified, he has come to realize that the preservation effort in the town is only as strong as the community itself.
This month, the Johnson City/Jonesborough/Washington County Chamber of Commerce presented Kennedy with the “RX for Success” recognition. He’s also been called the “father of preservation” in Jonesborough.
“That’s probably giving me more credit than I think I deserve,” he said. “What I have contributed to the community has been in order to preserve its historic character. It’s been very interesting that in return, the community has unexpectantly given me a much better quality of life than I ever expected.”