Multi-Year Restoration Project at Chester Inn State Historic Site Complete

Image of Chester Inn State Historic Site

By Dan Brown, THC Historic Sites Program

The THC State Historic Sites Program recently marked the completion of a $710,000 historic rehabilitation project with major maintenance upgrades at its Chester Inn State Historic Site in Jonesborough. The multi-year effort reconstructed historic elements, repaired damaged and deteriorated historic fabric, and improved mechanical systems in the structures. In addition, an innovative solution has reopened the long-closed front porch, and one of the most iconic historic buildings in Tennessee’s oldest town is now safer and more accessible to the public.

The Chester Inn’s earliest section (to the right when facing the building) was built by Dr. William P Chester in 1797 and is one of the oldest frame houses in Tennessee. It was considered the finest inn on the frontier and in its early history hosted Tennessee’s three US presidents- Jackson, Polk, and Andrew Johnson-- as well as numerous other luminaries and dignitaries. Successive owners expanded the original Federal style structure and in the 1880s constructed the current ornate Italianate façade with porches and ornate balustrade railing. The property continued to operate as an inn and boarding house well into the 20th century. The interpretation of the site focuses on the 1880s period. The half-acre site has two multistory structures (approx. 5,000 sf each) facing their main street, one behind the other. The rear structure (often referred to as the “Annex”) is a modern historic reconstruction that supports the original historic structure on Main Street.

The day-to-day operations at the Chester Inn State Historic Site are managed by the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia with a yearly grant from THC. Anne G’Fellers-Mason is the Executive Director and liaison with THC. THC performs all maintenance and repairs and develops capital projects to address major repairs and rehabilitations. The Heritage Alliance also manages additional local historic sites and promotes preservation in the NE Tennessee and SW Virginia region. They staff a professionally designed museum on the ground floor with an interpreted dining room and parlor on the upper floors. The museum hosts over 10,000 visitors annually with Heritage Alliance staff and docents guiding tours. The remainder of this building and the Annex structure are the administrative offices for the International Storytelling Center with their own adjacent modern performance hall, storytelling park, and gift shop. Chester Inn State Historic Site is an excellent example of the synergistic public/private partnerships that are the basis for the successful administration, operations, and development of the THC State Historic Sites. This property is one of several that are centers of community as well as state and local heritage tourism resources. The Heritage Alliance and Storytelling Center are natural partners with THC and our Historic Sites program goals and objectives, resulting in a unique cultural resource for the state and local community.

THC Commission member Dr. William Kennedy is a founding member and officer of the Heritage Alliance and founder as well as the longtime former chair of the Jonesborough Historic Zoning Commission, which oversees the local historic district. Jonesborough is one of 50 Certified Local Governments (CLG) enrolled in the THC CLG Program. All aspects of this project were submitted to and approved by the Jonesborough Historic Zoning Commission prior to construction. Dr. Kennedy’s extraordinary leadership has served as a foundation for the decades of successful preservation and redevelopment in the community. Jonesborough has been recognized as one of the best examples of small community preservation in Tennessee and the US, and Dr. Kennedy is largely responsible for these developments with his support.

In working with the Heritage Alliance and Dr. Kennedy, THC developed a multi-year approach to rehabilitating and professionalizing the site and its presentation for historical accuracy. The professional museum in the basement level was added by THC under a prior capital project and opened in 2011. The interior of the historic Inn was rehabilitated with period wallpaper, and professional paint analysis established the original colors that were identified with Munsell color charts for accurate repainting both interior and exterior.

Over time, the original upper-level windows throughout the structure and the c. 1880s open lounging porch with its decorative balustrade (note historic photo) deteriorated and were replaced in 1990 with a design by the firm Bullock Smith. Those replacements, based on historic fabric, were constructed of ponderosa pine, which deteriorated within only 10-15 years. The five HVAC systems from the 1990 project were low efficiency systems that had become obsolete, requiring monthly repairs. THC approached the needed rehabilitations approximately seven years ago, as the author began directing the Historic Sites Program. The upper-level windows and their casings, jambs, sashes, and sills were deteriorated and falling out of the building openings, exposing the wall structural elements and the interior to water intrusion. The upper-level ornate balustrade had collapsed and been removed. The rear porch was failing, guttering, and building drainage was malfunctioning, exterior paint was peeling and faded, and numerous exterior wood elements were missing and/or deteriorated. And critically, the second-floor main porch railing did not meet code requirements. As a result, this historically important community-use area, which had also been a favorite spot for tourists and locals to enjoy rocking chair respites had been closed off to the public for all access and uses for decades.

The first recent project began in 2016 with a high quality historically accurate replacement of the non-original upper windows. James Thompson with Centric Architecture was the designer. Thompson has been THC’s State of Tennessee Real Estate Asset Management (STREAM) designated consulting architect for many years and through numerous projects. Spanish Cedar- a commercially available mahogany - was the wood used for the new windows. The entire window assembly was reconstructed with historically accurate mortise and tenon construction and reproduction blown glass panes that were imported from Germany. Carefully matched muntin profiles and dimensions ensured a museum quality rehabilitation. Paint priming on all six sides for the entire window assembly was completed. Utilizing mahogany combined with this thorough priming provides multiple generations of stable windows and exceptional protection for all exterior wood elements.

The final project started in 2020, focusing on reestablishing the ornate balustrade. Members of the project team included Ned Stacy, Tim Haggard, and Pete Lamon. Stacy was the designer for the firm Thompson and Litton. Haggard was the STREAM designated construction project officer. Lamon, owner of RG Lamon Construction was the low bid contractor for the project and had also completed the 2016 window project.

The reconstruction of the ornate balustrade was the visual centerpiece of the project and the most significant historic element to be reconstructed. THC was fortunate to have historic measured drawings in the State Historic Site files from the 1990 Bullock Smith project and have had Dr. Kennedy involved with the project back then as well. With the documentation THC was confident that a historically accurate reconstruction could be completed. Utilizing the same mahogany, priming standards, and detailed mockup; the balustrade was successfully reconstructed. In addition to reestablishing the balustrade, THC decided to reconstruct the two original access doors to what was the original balustrade porch. Again, mahogany was utilized for the doors and screen doors (with bronze screens) along with our priming standards, and these unique historic elements were reestablished in the building. The reconstructed doors have glass panes as the upper panels in these four panel historically reconstructed doors which function as windows. It is the only known historically accurate reconstruction of its kind in the state.

The rear porch was a non-historic addition to the historic building that was completed when the annex was added, it was deteriorated and failing. A complex guttering and drainage system was integrated into the porch and the stairs and attachments between the buildings, all of which were not properly diverting water from the buildings with moisture intrusion into the lower level of the historic main building. The porch flooring was replaced and upgraded to Douglas Fir with appropriate six-sided priming. The removal of the porch exposed a complex “Rube Goldberg” assembly of guttering and water collection basins that were corrected and with additional re-scaping of the adjacent grounds (all coordinated with the TN Division of Archaeology). A long-desired correction to the water diversion issues between the buildings was achieved.

Other repairs to the buildings included general window repairs and reglazing; repair/replacement of deteriorated soffit, fascia, and clapboard siding; interior and exterior stair repairs; interior door repairs; replacement of all missing historic exterior decorative elements; a replacement of all five HVAC systems with high efficiency upgrades; a complete repainting of the exterior of both structures with Munsell matched historically verified colors; and finally a solution to the non-code compliant handrail on the historic front porch of the main building.

If one looks carefully at the photo of the recently completed building, you will notice a thin line within the porch dimensions at approximately 42”. During the author’s tenure as Deputy Director of the Vieux Carre (French Quarter) Commission in New Orleans, there were numerous issues with non-code compliant handrails on balconies throughout the Quarter. The VCC had developed a 42” metal handrail design guideline which canted an additional rail approximately 45 degrees from the historic handrail that met life safety requirements. The canting and proper painting of the added railing minimized any visual intrusion. THC adapted this design guideline to the Chester Inn porch railing and covered it with a black powder coating that helped it visually disappear and it meets life safety, and the historic porch is now able to be reopened to the public. This is the first know application of this solution in the state.

The latest restoration project is the capstone to many years of planning and efforts to return Chester Inn State Historic Site to premier historic condition - utilizing the best of historically appropriate materials applied to the Secretary of the Interior Standards. A number of unique challenges were creatively addressed and successfully resolved decades of efforts to protect and preserve this important historic site. The stewardship of this historic site has been maintained and remains in the capable oversight of THC and our committed public and private partners in the Jonesborough community - one more successful chapter in the storied history and care of this historic landmark.