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VOL. 123 | NO. 167 | Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Courthouse Renovation to Protect Genealogy Trove

By BRANDON LOWE | Knoxville News Sentinel

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KINGSTON, Tenn. (AP) - Tracing a family tree can be difficult in the South, where many court documents either were lost in the Civil War or to incidental fire at some point in their history.

Not so in Kingston, where the old Roane County Courthouse has gone unharmed since it was finished in 1854. The result is a large collection of documents attracting researchers and genealogists from as far as Alaska and Australia.

But it has been a struggle to preserve the old building, now owned by the Roane County Heritage Commission. Renovation of the building began in the 1980s, and the most recent round of improvements is expected to begin soon.

"Word has really spread about the archives," said Roane County archivist Darleen Trent. "They pull people in from all around."

Trent oversees the Roane County Archives Library that houses the documents, which range from marriage certificates to land records that date as far back as 1801.

A one-time hub for dances, picnics and courtroom trials, the building was finished in 1854 and is one of six pre-Civil War courthouses that remain in Tennessee.

Today, the courthouse serves as an all-around history center. Regular courthouse operations are a block away in the new building also called the Roane County Courthouse. Locals differentiate between the two by referring to the older courthouse as the "old" Roane County Courthouse and the newer facility as the "new" Roane County Courthouse.

In addition to the archives, the older building is home to the Roane County Heritage Commission office and the Roane County Museum of History and Art.

Current fire codes keep all courthouse operations on the ground floor now, leaving every spare room in the building doubling as a makeshift storage area. The upcoming renovations will include completing the sprinkler and alarm systems on the second and third floors so they can be used.

The abandoned courtroom on the second floor will soon be converted into a transportation museum. The transportation connection is historically sound in Roane County, which was first settled in 1794 because of westward expansion. A gateway to Memphis and Arkansas, Kingston was a crossroads of river and highway transportation for people who came through Tennessee to go West.

Much of the history of these temporary settlers has been preserved, thanks to the astonishing fact it's one of the few antebellum courthouses that has never experienced a fire. These records are at the heart of an ongoing struggle to preserve the living history of the courthouse.

"That is what really sets the courthouse apart," said Tom McMurray, vice president of the Heritage Commission.

McMurray and Trent are part of the Heritage Commission, a group of citizens who have fought to preserve the courthouse since 1974, when the structure was deeded to their organization. The first major renovations were done in the 1980s through smaller grants, but it was not until the summer of 1997 that the group realized the building was in trouble.

"We noticed the cracks in the walls were getting larger," said Trent.

At that time, the Heritage Commission contracted Knoxville-based architectural firm Sparkman and Associates to do an in-depth study on the building. The result of the study was more than $100,000 in stabilization work on the building, all of which was paid for by money raised by the Heritage Commission from businesses and individuals.

From there, the next important step in the renovation process came when Kingston developer Joe Caldwell learned of a Tennessee Department of Transportation grant that would enable them to build a transportation museum in the old courtroom. The Heritage Commission applied for the grant.

The team began receiving grant money on Dec. 17, 2002. The commission first had to raise 20 percent of the overall $300,000, and the state paid the rest. This first phase of renovation ended in the summer of 2007.

The second grant will be for $350,800, and more than $280,000 of it will be paid for by the state. "We are waiting on state approval any day now," said Trent.

Once the grant is approved, members of the Heritage Commission can begin scheduling the renovations, which include adding handicapped-accessible restrooms, in addition to installation of the sprinkler and security systems. Other renovation work will include the installation of an elevator, replacement of the building's suspended ceilings and the construction of a welcome center.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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