Saying So Long to Johnson City’s Old Recreation Center

The week of Oct. 18, 2015 was melancholic for many residents of Johnson City; a demolition crew felled the Legion Street Recreation Center, joining the ranks of numerous other historical structures. Recently, area folks shared their fond memories of the facility with the Johnson City Press. Today's column provides a brief history of the Center.

Charter members of an effort to build the center were J.M. Carter (president), Robert F. Smith (vice-president), Howard Johnson (secretary-treasurer), Ted Jilton, Roy Feathers, Lawrence Owens, William Whittimore, Kent Neufer, J.J. Jilton, Eric Herrin, Mrs. and Mrs. Jimmy Smyth, Edna Frances, J.R. Jilton, Sells Blevins, Sam Cooper, William Jenkins, Bill Billings, Kathleen Goodin, Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Cowell, Nelson Burris, Roy Well, Joe Walker, Ted Burton and Nathan Thorp.

Inspection of New Recreation Center While Still Under Construction

The group approved a 3-phase campaign to raise funds for the construction of a new sports facility by selling memberships in a recreation club; sponsoring athletic events, carnivals and other money-raising activities; and soliciting financial contributions.

On Jan. 28, 1947, the organizers met with the Park and Recreation Board comprised of C. Howard McCorkle, chairman; P.W. Alexander; W.J. “Dub” Smith; Mrs. H.C. Black; and M.U. Snodderly. They received a “thumbs up” to proceed with the project.

Phase 1 began by netting $5,191 from 919 memberships, several sizable donations and numerous contributions resulting in part from the promotional efforts of Jimmy Smyth of the Press-Chronicle and Eddie Cowell, host of  WJHL radio’s “Sports Parade.”

The New Recreation Center As It Appeared Nearing Completion

Phase 2 was launched with a dance by popular bandleader Tony Pastor on Friday, Mar. 28, 1947. The Junior Chamber of Commerce raffled off an automobile, held a “Buy-A-Brick for One Dollar” campaign and awarded an automobile at a 4-Star Motorcycle Race at Memorial Stadium. As a result, the fund rose to $6,336.

When the endowment reached $15,000, the club decided to break ground for the new building. The plan, drawn up by Bob Woods, called for a 160’ by 80’ building on Legion Street. The Park and Recreation Board maintenance crew, headed by Dewey Stout and supervised by Howard Jenkins, began construction on July 8, 1948.

After footings were poured for the walls, Southern Welding Company erected structural steel. General Shale Corporation graciously donated 10,000 cinderblocks and several suppliers of materials offered substantial discounts. The walls went up block-by-block and work proceeded on installing the roof until funds were exhausted, bringing a temporary halt to the project.

The Junior Service Auxiliary (Mr. William G. Preas, general chairperson) came to the rescue by donating funds from their 1949 “First Annual Johnson City Horse Show.” With $2,663 added to the fund, work quickly resumed.

Phase 3 endeavors to solicit financial contributions to the building were not as promising because three other significant money-raising efforts were already underway.

A Recreation Center Club Meeting Being Held at the Newly Opened Facility

Fortunately, two organizations stepped forward – the National Federation of Employees (through the efforts of Vic Larmer and Charles Roller) and the Model Maniacs (Charles Hawkins and Caroline Muse). Both groups, along with former contributors of the Recreation Club, backed a successful Halloween Festival on Oct. 29-31, generating $991. City Commission hurriedly approved a $10,000 loan to finish the recreation project.

Final work on the building proceeded with pouring of a four-inch concrete floor, laying four by four creosote boards as sub-flooring and installing 16,000 square feet of hardwood flooring attached with 1000 pounds of nails. Allen Harris, Jr., local flooring businessman, commented, “This is one of the most beautiful floors I have ever seen.”

The long-awaited Recreation Building opened to an expectant public on January 5, 1950 with a basketball game by the City Basketball League. In early 1952, balconies to the building were completed bringing total floor space to 24,000 square feet. Early 1953 saw a modern entrance to the building, a skate room, installation of 2,000 seats, glass backboards and steel steps.

The new complex helped this writer graduate from crude roller skating on rough streets to smooth, effortless gliding on a well-maintained wooden floor. The Johnson City Recreation Center, which served our city well, has now faded into yesteryear.