Historian says Kenner House a good candidate for renovation grant

Jeff Bobo • May 6, 2013 at 11:39 PM

ROGERSVILLE — One of the state’s leading historic preservation advocates said Monday that Rogers- ville’s 178-year-old Kenner House would be an ideal location for a “Heritage Center” providing tourists with the “story” of Hawkins County’s historic locations.

On Thursday evening, Dr. Carroll Van West and two colleagues spent several hours at the Kenner House, 403 E. Main Street, compiling information for a study that will outline architectural observations and recommendations and identify potential uses for the Rogersville landmark.

The Kenner House — also known as the Clay-Kenner House — is a very good candidate for state grant funding to pay for a proposed renovation, West said Monday.

That is due in part to its architectural style, which is rarely found in the region.

The Kenner House’s Civil War history during both the Union and Confederate occupations of Rogersville will also be a good selling point for grant funding.

West is director of the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University, where he is also a professor.

He brought with him Thursday an architectural expert and a historian to begin compiling the study, which will be a major component of a grant application seeking Kenner House renovation funds from the Tennessee Historic Commission.

West told the Times-News Monday the Kenner House is an important historic house because it “has an important story to tell.”

“Architecturally it’s really unique for upper East Tennessee,” West said. “There is nothing quite like it with the blending of what we call Federal style staircases — that central winding staircase — and then these very ornate formal rooms that flow off of that staircase. We found it architecturally very interesting. And of course, key families in Hawkins County history are associated with that house as well.”

Early Rogersville settler and attorney John A. McKinney, who built the Hale Springs Inn in 1824, was also responsible for building the Kenner House in 1835 as a wedding gift to his daughter, Susan.

Technically, the house is owned today by the Hawkins County Library Board, although Hawkins County and the City of Rogersville manage the building and split the costs of upkeep.

Most recently it served as offices for the Hawkins County Industrial Development Board and Habitat and for Humanity until 2009, when it was closed due to structural instability.

Since then, city and county officials have been formulating a renovation plan. But, a renovation likely won’t be completed without grant funding.

West said his preliminary study should be completed in about a month.

The Kenner House study will include its historical significance, architectural significance, architectural observations, recommendations for structural repairs, and potential uses for the building when it’s complete.

What to do with the building after it’s renovated has been one question nagging at city and county leaders.

“That house could really be a linchpin in heritage tourism in Rogersville,” West said. “One of the best bets for that facility is something we call a Heritage Center — a place to orient visitors to all of the different historic places in the county. There’s a lot in Hawkins County, but there’s really no place where you can go and get all of that story. There is a museum in Rogersville, but the museum emphasizes the railroad and the Pressman’s Home. I think that a lot of people would enjoy knowing more about the downtown and the historic homes.”

West added, “This is something that Franklin, Tenn., does really well, and as a result the downtown area becomes a lot more economically vibrant because of the interest of visitors.”

West is also co-chair of the Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission along with Tennessee Tourism Commissioner Susan Whitaker. He said Rogersville’s Civil War history, and specifically the Kenner House’s Civil War history, are huge checkmarks in favor of state grant funding for the Kenner House renovation.

“What happened there during the Civil War is part of the story we want to flesh out because that house was part of the occupation story of Rogersville,” West said. “Rogersville was occupied by Confederate forces and by Federal forces, and we know that was a headquarters house. It was owned by a Confederate sympathizer, and when you look at the ‘Sesquicentennial’ website, we’re really wanting to bring out those stories of divided communities and the impact of occupation in Tennessee. Occupation is one of the things that sets us apart from the other southern states. Occupation happened early here and it led to a lot of divisions across the state and within communities — and we know the Kenner House has an important story there.”

West attended a Sesquicentennial Commission meeting in Nashville Monday morning and reported to the commission that the Kenner House is one of the locations that should be recognized statewide for its Civil War significance.

West added, “One thing we do want to pursue is adding the Kenner House to the state’s official Civil War Trail, which right now is a list of 273 properties across the state. One of our goals for the (Sesquicentennial) Commission is to increase that number of places that visitors can go see to about 400.”

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