We live in a school and we work from home. That is what Amy and I say when asked about where we live and what we do for a living. Two years ago after our two daughters graduated from college, Amy and I decided to downsize. We had spent the previous 23 years in Fort Mill, South Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. We both wanted to live closer to the mountains, loved history, and wanted simpler lifestyle with less traffic and a spirit of community. I remembered a place I had visited 20 years prior with my work and suggested to Amy that we take a look. Once we arrived in Jonesborough, Amy and I fell in love with the town.
Fortunately for us, a two-bedroom condo was available at Academy Hill. Academy Hill is the large school building with four tall columns and a cupula on West Main Street. The building was erected in 1926 and served as the Jonesborough High School from 1926 to 1951. In 1951 when a new High School was built at Forest Drive and Jackson Boulevard, the building on West Main Street was repurposed to serve grades 3 to 6.
During the Summer of 1972 a new Elementary School was built on Jackson Boulevard and the building on West Main Street was closed.
In 1973, Washington County sold the building at auction for $25,000 to a local developer. The developer wanted to tear down the building and erect a hotel. Three times the developer went before the Historic Zoning Commission to propose erecting a hotel in this residential area. The third time the developer became frustrated and said “It’s for sale”. Dr. William Kennedy who had recently moved to the area and was attending the meeting said “How much?” The developer said $30,000 and Dr. Kennedy said “Sold”. Dr. Kennedy did that intentionally to put the acceptance of the offer on record in front of a room of witnesses. Being a young man in 1973, Dr. Kennedy did not have $30,000. To raise funds he contacted friends and neighbors in Jonesborough and Johnson City and put together a group of fifteen people willing to invest $2,000 each to purchase the old building. The group was incorporated as the Jonesborough Preservation Corporation.
In early 1975 a group of artists leased the building and formed the Sourwood Regional Art Center. In 1976, the Appalachian Theatre Ensemble joined the Art Center, renovated the auditorium, and performed a full season of plays. Sourwood failed in December 1976 when their tax exempt status was denied by the IRS and their doors soon closed.
In late 1977, the Jonesborough Preservation Corporation proposed to convert the building into condominiums. The proposal was accepted and construction continued for 2 ½ years. The first of the thirteen condos were occupied in 1980.
The Academy Hill property has a long history dating back to 1816. Photos, history, and more information about Academy Hill can be found at www.academyhill.us. If you have a yearbook, photo, or story you would like to share about the old building on West Main Street, please contact Frank Collins at [email protected]
Frank Collins is a contributor to the Watching Building column that appears in the H&T twice a month.