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State historian to assist restoration planning of dilapidated Rogersville building

Jeff Bobo • Feb 7, 2019 at 5:45 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Tennessee State Historian Dr. Carroll Van West visited Rogersville on March 4 to offer his insight and expertise into the proposed restoration of the city’s oldest log structure.

Van West will write a report on his findings and submit that to Rogersville for the purpose of including in a grant application.

Prior to his visit, however, Van West told the Times News the 220 year-old structure offers substantial historical significance and is worth saving.

"It is clearly a late eighteenth century or early nineteenth century house and its architecture is of the early Tennessee frontier type of a two-story log house--more substantial than many at that time," Van West said. "Also, its placement adjacent to the historic presbyterian cemetery is just interesting and raises other questions for me.”

Van West noted that it is historically significant because First Congressman Powell is buried there as is his daughter who married the famous Rogersville painter Samuel Shaver.

He added, "I know that another avenue that I wish to explore is its Civil War history. Rogersville, and Hawkins County for that matter, has a very important Civil War history but it needs more robust public interpretation. We know that the adjacent Hale Springs Inn served as a Union headquarters during occupation. Did the Powell house also serve as a billet for troops? Could the restoration of the house lead to first floor interpretations of the town's Civil War era history? Or is the house best interpreted as an important remnant of the state's frontier era when early settlers carved out towns, roads, etc. and built the first institutions for our state? Samuel Powell might have only been a one-term congressman in the Madison administration but his role in local and state history was significant for 4 decades. His story alone is worth consideration.”

Rogersville took over ownership of the Powell Law Office in November after the previous owner decided to gift the dilapidated historic structure to the city rather than make city-mandated repairs.

The building, which is believed to have been built between 1795 and 1805, is located on Washington Street just west of the Depot Street intersection and originally served as the law offices of attorney and one-term U.S. Congressman Samuel Powell (1776-1841).

Now the restoration of the structure is the city’s responsibility, and it has fallen onto the shoulders of Building Inspector Steve Nelson.

Nelson played a key role in coordinating the restoration of the 1824 Hale Springs Inn, which is located on Main Street a stone’s throw from the old law office. The Inn restoration was completed in 2009.

A long road to restoration

Nelson’s goal is to return the Powell Law Office to its original condition as a log structure.

The original log exterior is visible on the east side of the building where the siding has been removed at the bottom of the structure as well as at other spots where the siding is missing.

However, there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered before any work can begin. What exactly needs to be done? How much will it cost? And who is going to pay for it?

“We’ve had two restoration contractors look at it and give us an idea of what it’s going to take to put this thing back in its original condition,” Nelson told the Times News Tuesday. “The Tennessee state historian is supposed to meet me sometime this month to give me his recommendation. He is familiar with it. He was up here a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t ours then, so he could only look at it from the outside.”

Nelson added, “He’s going to give us some direction on how to get it from where it is to where it needs to be.”

How did the city acquire the property?

A 2018 Municipal Court citation declared the Powell Law Office a fire hazard and “unfit for human habitation” for a long list of reasons.

Rogersville’s Slum Ordinance adopted in 2017 states that the city can force property owners to repair dilapidated historic structures if the building inspector determines that a historic structure can be repaired and made fit for human habitation for less than 50 percent of the structure’s value.

On March 1 of last year, Rogersville Municipal Judge Kevin Keeton signed an order stating that the owner had six months to bring the building up to code, but no work was completed.

History of the property

The structure was named for Samuel Powell, who arrived in Rogersville in 1805. He practiced law, served as a judge and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 1815-17 term.

Powell chose not to seek a second term in Congress and resumed his law practice in that building in 1819. The exact date of construction of the structure isn’t known, but some sources say it dates to the late 1700s.

Powell died in 1841 and is buried next door to his office in the old Presbyterian Church Cemetery.

The building was most recently a locksmith shop, but it has been a vacant and slowly deteriorating eyesore for decades.

What we know right now

“We’re going to have to restore a bunch of logs, restore the foundation, put the windows in original configuration,” Nelson said. “This is where the historian can help me figure out where it was originally. There’s nothing in the town that’s totally 100 percent historically accurate from that time period. The Hale Springs Inn is pretty close, but it’s still not (original).”

Nelson said he doesn’t know what the property could be used for after it’s restored. He just wants to restore the building before it’s too late.

“The siding has to come off. It’s trapping moisture in between, and some of the logs are rotted pretty bad,” he noted. “The back is in bad shape. The foundation is pretty much nonexistent. It was originally build on piles of rock. That’s what they did, and it’s amazing how many houses I’ve been in around here that were built like that.”

The entire lot measures only 924 square feet, and the house takes up a little more than half of that. The county appraisal for 2018 lists its value at $17,800.

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