July 1st , 2013 10:00 am Leave a comment

School building’s second act still a curtain-raiser for Mountain City

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A dormant school building was given a new role when a dedicated group of volunteers looking to enliven the culture of a sleepy Tennessee town transformed it into a community asset.

Photo by Brandon HicksWanda Payne, one of Heritage Hall Theatre's two paid employees, said the renovation of the dilapidated school building was noting short of 'a miracle.' The updated auditorium now serves as a gathering place for members of the Johnson County community.

Photo by Brandon Hicks
Wanda Payne, one of Heritage Hall Theatre’s two paid employees, said the renovation of the dilapidated school building was noting short of ‘a miracle.’ The updated auditorium now serves as a gathering place for members of the Johnson County community.

For 30 years, the former Johnson County High School building sat in forgotten silence in downtown Mountain City, its grand auditorium used as storage for dusty lockers and surplus desks.

But then Evelyn Cook, previously a drama and English teacher at the school before it closed in 1966, returned to town from working overseas and noticed a major omission from the community.

“There wasn’t a place to have real performances,” Cook said. “There was a stage in the gym of the new high school, but you couldn’t really hear anything in there. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.”

So with the backing of a group of like-minded volunteers, Cook proposed the Heritage Hall Theatre, a community venue built in the auditorium of the old school.

Part of a larger project to revitalize several crumbling downtown buildings into Heritage Square, a collection that includes the theater, a nursing home, a community center and the public library, the auditorium renovation took more than seven years from conception to completion.

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