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Rogersville seeking state grant for Phase 1 of Powel Law Office restoration

Jeff Bobo • Jan 15, 2020 at 5:19 PM

ROGERSVILLE — City leaders are hoping a positive recommendation from the Tennessee state historian will help earn the first of three state grants that will be needed to restore one of Rogersville’s oldest and most dilapidated buildings: the Powel Law Office.

On Tuesday evening, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 6-0 in favor of applying for a Tennessee Historic Commission grant to complete Phase 1 of the Powel Law Office restoration.

The building, which was acquired by the city in 2018, is located on Washington Street near the Depot Street intersection and, according to local legend, was constructed in the 1790s.

Rogersville Building Inspector Steve Nelson, who oversees the city’s historic restoration projects, told the BMA Tuesday that the project will be completed in three phases, the first of which involves foundation repair and a new roof. 

Phase 1 has been estimated to cost roughly $50,000, and the grant would cover 60% of that cost.

Historic significance of the building

Last year, Tennessee State Historian Dr. Carroll Van West from Middle Tennessee State University completed a study on the Powel Law Office, stating that the building is historically important because it represents a family that significantly impacted Hawkins County and Tennessee history.

“As the only surviving building directly associated with the significant Powel family, the Powel Law Office has many important stories to tell,” West stated in his report. “Certainly, a 200-plus-year-old log building that housed two generations of important attorneys and jurists is worthy of preservation. It is a rarity. But the stories associated with this building are so much deeper.”

Although local legend puts construction of the building at some time in the mid-1790s, there is no official date on record.

West is setting the date of construction at 1806 based on the year when its original owner, former U.S. congressman, judge, and attorney Samuel Powel (1776-1841) began his law practice in Rogersville.

The building has connections to the Revolutionary War and the founding of Tennessee through Powel’s father-in-law, Gen. George Rutledge.

Powel also had two sons who served in the Tennessee legislature, two sons who fought in the war with Mexico, and two sons who fought in the Civil War — including one who was killed and another who was severely wounded.

Powel’s son-in-law was East Tennessee’s leading portrait painter, whose list of subjects included President Andrew Johnson.

One of the Powels’ slaves who was sold to a Mississippi family became famous for escaping captivity during a visit to Syracuse, N.Y., in 1839.

There is a link to an article with more detail about each of these stories in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net.

Restoration won’t happen overnight

The goal of the project is to return the Powel Law Office to its original appearance, which includes no electrical wiring and plumbing. 

Phase 2 of the project entails restoring the exterior logs and replacing the windows and the doors with vintage replicas.

Phase 3 would involve restoration of the interior, which is going to be another massive undertaking.

Nelson said there’s no cost estimated for Phases 2 and 3. It’s going to be a complicated process to find contractors capable of completing the various aspects of each phase.

“You’ve got to be able to find somebody who can do the stone work,” Nelson said. “Gotta find somebody who can shape roofs. Then I’ve got to find somebody who can restore logs — who can do windows that match a 1790 building. It’s not just calling up three contractors and getting three prices (for each phase).”

Cities can receive only one State Historic Commission grant per year, so Rogersville officials have to tackle the project one step at a time.

Nelson said he is working with the First Tennessee Development District to get that grant, the application for which is due Jan. 31, but won’t be awarded until July.

The state historian’s study on the Powel Law office will be a “huge help,” and that report will be included with the grant application, Nelson added.