This story was originally published in the April/May 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
When you drive east on MLK Boulevard toward the beautiful Chattanooga National Cemetery, just before you get to Central Avenue, Park Place Condominiums loom on the right—the highest point in the MLK neighborhood. As the sun gets low in the sky, the windows of the west side of the brick building are bathed in gold. And inside, what was once the school auditorium fills with light.
The contemporary interior design was a natural expression of the space says architect, Thomas Johnson, whose passionate defense of historic buildings in Chattanooga has drawn guarded admiration from many—and from a few—the “I don’t get it” stare.
Johnson’s projects are challenging, it’s true, and he does much of the back-breaking preparation and cleanup work himself, sometimes with a worker or two. But when he talks about the irreplaceable treasures unique to these vintage buildings, he does it with the utmost admiration for craftsmen of the past. A savvy craftsman himself, Johnson often has to replace missing pieces of woodwork or decorative masonry. He recreates period baseboards and moldings by copying the originals in his studio.
The Park Place school was built in 1924, closed in 1963 and was used by various community groups for several years after that. It had been vacant since the 1980s and was on the Cornerstones, Inc. endangered list. Johnson bought the property and began developing it for condominiums in 2004. Ann Gray, Cornerstones’ executive director was pleased when Johnson obtained the old school. “We call Thomas an urban pioneer.”
“It’s an interesting use of the property. These old schools have a dignity and a presence about them that cannot be taken lightly,” continues Gray. “And, when he started the project, city planners were just beginning discussions about the need for more housing.”
The spacious open-floor plans Johnson created from the former classrooms and refined into light-filled condominiums have been sold, except for two of the ground-floor units. The tile floors are heated by solar energy and the contemporary kitchens have sleek appliances and solid surface countertops. The condominiums are within walking distance of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The auditorium of the school was sold as a shell to a couple from New York who had Johnson redesign the space, creating a large four-bedroom four-bath luxury condominium. They completely understood the adaptive re-use of historic properties.
The vaulted ceiling of the main living area provides a sense of drama while the wrought-iron staircase draws the eye upwards. The children’s bedrooms are on the second level and the master suite is on the third. The rooftop terrace offers a place for reflection with a classic postcard view of Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain in the background.
Matt Brown of Raines Brothers spearheaded the buildout. “This was the first time for us to convert an auditorium into a beautiful condo,” Brown says. “Thomas did a great job with this space.”
Raines Brothers, Inc.- General Contractor
Tile/Countertops- Tile Store, David Hulse
Cabinets by Raines Brothers, Inc.
SmartHomes of Chattanooga
Current Electric Company
Plumbing Fixtures and some lighting by Ferguson
Kalenborn Technologies- Metal work for staircase
Rheaco Service- Mechanical contractor
Almost There: the Historic Block
This renovation of commercial properties begins to pull the Market and Main Street Historic District together—almost. Two properties on Market Street are drawing the curious, says Johnson, who would like to see the entire block completed.
“We preserved this section of Market Street back in 1989 after getting the area designated as the Market & Main Street Historic District,” says Johnson. “We purchased the 1437 building in 2013 where the Hot Chocolatier and Tennessee Stillhouse are located.” Unfortunately, a couple of property owners have not followed through with their plans.
While owners may not have the resources for the development of their dreams, the properties could be earning income for them and the city, say some. Ann Gray thinks the two owners would do the city and the other merchants a favor if they just took advantage of façade easements, repaired the roofs and got the property in shape.
“Incentive money for restoration hinges on owners keeping up the façade,” says Gray. “And because the buildings are already on the historic register they have access to tax credits for 20 percent of the total amount they spend on restoration.” Officials are looking at setting a timeline for the completion of restoration in order to get the tax credits.
Johnson believes completing the shell is the most important part and supports letting renters do the interiors—creatively expressing their brands.
“I got the shells ready and the tenants did the rest. It’s turned out so well,” says Johnson of The Hot Chocolatier and Tennessee Stillhouse. “These properties are back on the tax roles.”
Wendy and Brian Buckner’s Hot Chocolatier has been in this new location for just over a year and they are pleased with the increase in business the store has experienced. The location is directly across from the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, a Historic Hotels of America property.
“We get more business from people staying there than I had ever expected,” says Wendy. “And, I love the landlord.” Although always a partner, Wendy’s husband Brian has recently joined the business full time. He and friend Bryan Dyer did the interior buildout. The shop is growing in popularity and its owners are pleased.
“Making confections is artistic and it’s the best thing to see people sitting back there, enjoying what you’ve created,” says Brian. Being on the same block with businesses that draw similar customers can’t be bad, either.
Tennessee Stillhouse owner, Tim Piersant, is delighted to have opened in the new location. “This is the home of the first legal still in Chattanooga for exactly 100 years,” he says. It is also the official tasting room for the Chattanooga Whiskey brand. The store opened in March. Piersant engaged a number of local craftsmen to refine the vintage look and enhance the customer experience. His team of John Carr, distillery experience manager, Mike Robinson, director of operations and Grant McCracken, head distiller, assure that customers keep coming back. Mia Littlefoot handles public relations and social media campaigns.
Matt Sears of Haskell Sears Design did the interior buildout. Salvaged siding and cabinetry line the brick walls, where gift items, souvenirs, tee shirts and ball caps are displayed. A copper-plated counter stands in front of a curtain of woven barrel stays, framing the interior window of the boutique distillery. Through the window one sees the 100-gallon Vendome still, made by Vendome Copper and Brassworks of Louisville, Kentucky. The long bar area in the back accommodates about 75-100 people. Tennessee Stillhouse Creative Director, Rich Abercrombie painted a mural from vintage archived material depicting Repeal Prohibition Day held in NYC on the back wall of the store.
Both stores are 50-feet wide by 100-feet deep with glass walls at the back to allow for a generous amount of light. They both open onto a 100-foot by 50-foot common courtyard. Both have dining areas, and below street level, there is a basement for storage. Johnson hauled massive amounts of dirt and sludge up from the depths of the basements to make them useful once more.
Collectively the storefronts once housed J.M. Sander’s Pawn Shop, the Ellis Restaurant and the St. George Hotel, a prime example of Art Deco design and architecture. The businesses along Market Street served train travel that actually peaked in the period from the 1920s-1940s. These buildings have been on Cornerstones’ endangered list for a long time. The owners of the remaining properties—the green frog building and the St. George Hotel—are working to get their facades restored, says Gray. “It’s been a long arduous journey,” she says. “We’re trying to help.”
Haskel Sears Design- interior buildout
Vendome Copper and Brassworks-still
Graphics Works –lettering
Victory Signs-TN Stillhouse signage
Story by Deborah Petticord
Photography by David Andrews