By JOHN KIENER
“I’m planning on retiring from the Historic Zoning Commission,” Dr. William (Bill) Kennedy told the Herald & Tribune when he was interviewed about receiving the Preservation Leadership Award from the Tennessee Historical Commission. This was only the third time in the last 45 years that an individual has received that high honor.
Enactment of historic zoning in Tennessee’s oldest town celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020. For 40 years, Dr. Kennedy has been on the Town of Jonesborough’s Historic Zoning Commission. Kennedy’s term on the commission expires this year
“I will be available as a consultant and advisor to the commission,” said the doctor who is certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery and the American Board of Independent Medical Examiners. Despite his professional status, he prefers to be called “Bill” by the numerous people who know him from his civic endeavors. His office at 115 West Main Street keeps him busy not only with historic preservation and zoning activities but also with a medical practice involving physical impairment consulting.
“It makes sense for me to retire from the zoning commission,” Kennedy said. “I want to provide for a smooth transition in leadership. I am encouraged that we have young people in town that will carry on the important preservation work of the commission. I would accept Zoning Commission emeritus status without voting rights if the Town desires.”
“I appreciate the Preservation Leadership Award very much,” Kennedy said. “I take joy in it. It motivates me even more to see the work of preservation and historic zoning continue.”
In the future, he wants Jonesborough’s Historic Zoning Ordinances to be amended to include the entire recently expanded National Register Historic District as it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It took two or three years to get approval,” said Kennedy of the federal Historic District expansion. “My hope is that someday the local Jonesborough Historic Zone and National Register District will be the same size.”
Nomination for Kennedy’s Preservation Leadership Award was signed on December 16, 2019 by Kelly Wolfe, former Jonesborough Mayor and a member of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Bob Browning, Jonesborough’s Town Administrator, joined Wolfe in the nomination
The first paragraph of the application narrative attached to the submission reads: “Dr. William Kennedy moved to Jonesborough in early 1970 when he bought an old 1869 house on Main Street. He immediately realized his historic home needed special treatment, and he began educating himself on preservation and restoration techniques. At the time, Jonesborough was on a downward spiral with shops closing and buildings becoming ragged and in disrepair. To protect his investment in his home Dr. Kennedy supported Jonesborough’s efforts to establish one of the first historic districts and historic zoning commissions in Tennessee. He was appointed to the Historic Zoning Commission in 1980 and became Chairman in 1983. He has been chairman of that Commission ever since.”
There are seven paragraphs in the narrative. They include a discussion of the hours Kennedy has spent learning restoration guidelines and his willingness as a technical consultant to assist property owners in making appropriate decisions before they bring a request for a Certificate of Appropriateness to the Zoning Commission. In addition, he purchased the old Jonesborough High School Building which was turned into condominiums and a building that houses the Eureka Inn now referred to as “an outstanding model of the restoration of a building most people thought could not be saved.”
One paragraph provides: “In addition to his restoration projects, Bill Kennedy has spent time and money helping to establish sustainable preservation-based organizations in Jonesborough.” Several organizations are then mentioned: the Historic Jonesborough Foundation and the Jonesborough Civic Trust which became the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
“To see the impact of Dr. William Kennedy on Jonesborough, you just have to visit Tennessee’s oldest town,” reads the narrative. It then states, “The town has been transformed into one of the best-preserved towns in Tennessee.”
Proof of the statement is provided by the fact that Jonesborough has been named a Preserve American Community by the National Park Service, a Destination by the National Trust and one of the 200 best small towns in America by Pinnacle Magazine.
Kennedy’s wealth of knowledge about historic preservation and zoning is stored in one and a half rooms plus his office computer. He says he served on the Historic Zoning Commission in a role he feels has “benefited and supported” residents’ desires to improve their properties.
For example, Kennedy maintains a spreadsheet that contains the names of more than 200 companies and individuals who engage in preservation work. The list includes building contractors and artisans who have particular restoration skills and interests.
The doctor feels that “buildings” have individual personalities. He remembers comments that were made by Sam Thatcher at a Civic Trust “covered dish” dinner in Jonesborough. The conversation indicated that “Buildings are living entities. They are either improving or dying.” Kennedy said as he passes buildings in the historic district he sometimes notices details of the structures he had not recalled noticing before.
He added that the adaptive use of modern building materials remains a challenge in the restoration of older structures, especially ones constructed in the 19th Century. “If people appreciate the historic character of their property,” Kennedy said, “it often can be adapted to modern uses without harming its historic character.
Kennedy does not view downtown parking in the historic district as a problem. “I can see parking spaces available every day as I look out the windows of my office.” Kennedy feels the major difficulty in parking downtown comes from a false perception because many of the spaces are not readily visible in one view.
He is an advocate for the use of the town’s walking trails as a method by which to enjoy downtown. “It is wonderful to see people using the trails. They often stop at restaurants and shops. I’m glad to see the alley next to my office building being used for outdoor dining. It’s on one of the trails. The trails tie the historic district together.”
Kennedy looks forward to the future completion of the Jackson Theatre. “It will be a place for a variety of shows and gatherings, of celebrating the arts and history. The Stage Door on the second floor will provide space for the visual arts and gatherings. The theater can also be combined with events using the Eureka Inn’s garden, the storytelling park, and the storytelling center.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has presented challenges to the preservation of public spaces in Jonesborough. Kennedy explained that places like the Eureka garden, the plaza outside of the International Storytelling Center, and people’s gardens that are toured each year in the town’s Garden Gala could possibly suffer a lack of maintenance when not used. “We have been motivated to fix up our properties when they are on public display. I know that is true when my wife Virginia and I have prepared our home for the garden tours,” he said.
In recent issues of the Herald & Tribune, Kennedy has written about the community’s porches. “Porches are a prominent part of Jonesborough,” he explained. “They have been important socially. Before air conditioning and television, people spent a great deal of time on porches.”
The best summary of the doctor’s contributions to Washington County’s seat of government is contained in the final two sentences of the Preservation Leadership Award nomination: “Dr. William Kennedy has worked tirelessly over 40 years to make Jonesborough an outstanding example of how a community can look to the future by preserving its past. A town that was dying is now alive and well, and Dr. Kennedy has been a key figure in Jonesborough’s revitalization.”