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Getting better acquainted with an old friend

By ANNE G’FELLERS-MASON

I am not a classically trained preservationist. Everything I’ve learned of the trade I’ve learned during my tenure at the Heritage Alliance. I have always had an appreciation for old buildings, though. 

One of my favorite buildings in town is the Chester Inn. I enjoyed it before we worked with the State of Tennessee to open a museum in the building. I was pleased to see that the logo for this column is the Chester Inn. In the logo, it looks like the windows are smiling. I’ve always thought the building was smiling.

The Chester Inn certainly has its fair share of stories. I explored a few of those stories in my play “Voices of the Chester” last summer. In writing the play, I tried to imagine the structure as it would have looked throughout its history. 

What would it have looked like when Dr. William Chester first built the inn in the late 1700s? It was a much simpler structure, only a third of the size it is today. 

We’re so used to seeing the building in its Victorian grandeur of the late 1800s that it’s hard to imagine anything else, but there is evidence of other times. You can find that evidence in the roof line and how the two halves of the building aren’t quite even. You can see it in the back room of the ground floor where the hand-cut beams are still visible amongst the concrete blocks of the 20th century.

One of my favorite places in the building is the back porch, the space between the main building and the 1830s extension. What is now the board room and offices were once the dining room, kitchen, and additional lodging rooms. I love taking museum guests out there because they’re always surprised out how big the building is. 

What is now Jimmy Neil Smith Park behind the Inn was also once a part of the building’s operations. As hard as it is to picture what the structure may have looked like 200 years ago, it is twice as hard to picture what the park once looked like. 

In trying to transport my audience to another time in “Voices of the Chester,” I relied heavily on primary sources. We don’t have pictures, but sometimes words work just as well, if not better. 

Here is a description of the Inn when it was for sale in 1885: “The Planter’s House in Jonesboro, one of the most conveniently arranged hotels in the country, with a  splendid barn and outhouses for meat, milk, coal, wood, poultry, etc. Store room in basement; newly painted and refurnished throughout; never failing well and cistern in yard; large fruit and vegetable garden; close to public square; rooms and beds for 50 guests; water tank for baths, street sprinkling and protection of property in case of fire.” 

I encourage you to read the description while standing outside the Inn and try to imagine what its entire complex used to look like. Don’t be surprised if the building gives you a smile.

Anne G-Fellers-Mason is the executive director of the Heritage Alliance.