“History pops up when you aren’t looking for it, in Chattanooga,” says Ann Gray, Cornerstones Inc. executive director. Gray is alluding to what one might learn on a ℹ️Chattanooga Trolley Hop excursion’s 17-stop route—beginning at ℹ️ Chattanooga Choo-Choo, looping up to Bluff View and back down along Reggie White Boulevard—ending in St. Elmo. Historic places, vintage buildings and half-buried cable car tracks seen along the way are the clues to a complex story. History aside, it doesn’t take a keen observer to notice a rash of building projects in the vicinity of ℹ️ Finley Stadium, also known as the Foundry District.
“The development happening around Finley Stadium is a result of the natural progression of development and revitalization efforts for Downtown Chattanooga,” says Amy Donahue, spokesperson for River City Company. “Around the stadium, there have been and still are, available properties for development projects.”
Donahue says in the early 2000s, there was thoughtful attention given to the core of Main Street. Now, Chattanoogans are seeing the effect spill out from the main corridor on its route to Riverfront Parkway. In terms of players, Wise Properties, Inc. has made a large investment directly adjacent to Finley Stadium with a new music venue, ℹ️The Signal, that will fill the former Jump Park’s space. Add to that the ℹ️ Southside Social, a new apartment development at 1920 Chestnut Street and the old Ross Meehan foundry building, recently acquired from Cornerstones’ historic preservation nonprofit, and there is rapid change on the horizon.
The foundry building next to the ℹ️ First Tennessee Pavilion is believed to be one of the oldest buildings in Chattanooga, built around 1875 by the Wasson Car Works, a manufacturing company that built railway cars in Chattanooga from 1873-1885. The company employed 250 workers and could manufacture eight freight cars and 64 car wheels per day. Wasson built open trolley cars for the first Incline to Point Park. The site was purchased by the Ross Meehan Foundry in 1889, and operated continuously until 1986.
The Ross Meehan Foundry is an interesting story, too. It was first opened by a confederate veteran and it produced a variety of metal products. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Frank Robbins was the president. He managed to save the company by shipping metal to help build an oil refinery in the Ural Mountains of Russia. By the time the United States entered WWII, production from Ross Meehan was extremely significant, according to UTC’s Chattanooga history collections. The foundry made castings for Sherman tanks, 90 mm artillery pieces and other armaments. The factory hired both white and black employees and Robbin’s motto was ‘get the job done.’ In fact, that was the attitude the Cornerstones board took when the city donated the property. Their mission was to save the building.
The brick, one-story structure has a gable roof, supported by wooden 12” x 12” trusses that are 62 feet wide. It once had an interior partition wall and a floor of concrete. The building is approximately 8,928 square feet. Last summer, the roof collapsed and Cornerstones was compelled to work urgently to save it.
Bob McNutt, president of the board at Cornerstones is excited about the project. The nonprofit chose the Wise Properties bid from a field of nine serious contenders, because the company was poised to move quickly—“ready with plans, permits and cash,” says McNutt. Additional criteria required that the building have a clerestory roof for interior light, along with a few other architectural details.
Working with the planning commission came next. “Donna Williams and Gail Hart were helpful and focused on saving the building,” says McNutt. “Their work made everything go smoothly. It’s actually in pretty good condition for having been neglected for 20 years,” he says. “But, it’s a foundry, not a cathedral.” Soon it will become the ℹ️Naked River Brewing Company, adding to the burgeoning entertainment district.
Residential development will support restaurants and entertainment venues. KORE Development at 1400 Chestnut Street has 210 apartment units under construction, in addition to Knoxville’s J.A. Murphy Group’s 139-apartment development at 1701 Broad Street.
Locally, Matt Hullander has a mixed-use project at 1413 Chestnut Street. And, builder/developer John Straussberger has created Garage Lofts at 1700 Broad Street with 16 apartments and 20,000 square-feet of retail space.
“I love the area, with the Coker and Turnbull buildings nearby,” says Matt Hullander, Hullco owner and Scenic Land Company partner. Most of the property is on a former foundry site, so builders are following state guidelines for the revitalization work. The project’s architect is Craig Peavy, PV Design and the builder is GenTec Construction. The four-story structure has available ground-floor retail space and office space on the second floor. Hullco and Frost CPAs will occupy the third and fourth floors of the 35,000-square-foot building.
“It will be interesting to see how downtown evolves, once more residents move into neighborhoods like those surrounding Finley Stadium. Although we think of it as the Southside, it may develop a unique sense of place separate from the Southside organically, and we look forward to seeing how the area develops,” says Donahue. “If you take the projects these projects and others in the immediate vicinity of Finley stadium, you’re looking at $78,350,000 of investment in the last three-to-five years of projects completed, currently under construction or in pre-development. We don’t see the momentum in that area slowing, in the near future.” This does not even include investment in projects further down Broad Street, south of West 20th Street.
Both Interstate 24 and Highway 27 create physical barriers through Chattanooga’s urban core, and those barriers will not change, according to Donahue. To counteract this barrier effect that the highway system generates, River City Company planners say there will need to be a focus on creating safe pedestrian connections underneath the overpasses that include sidewalks, lighting and sculpture that promote safety and form an inviting experience.
Seventh District City Councilman, Erskine Oglesby, is excited about all the activity. Seeing old buildings being brought back to life and generating tax revenue once again, is just as exhilarating as the new construction. He has worked closely with Cornerstones to articulate his interest and support.
ℹ️ The Turnbull Company, where some of the first ice cream cones were baked commercially using machinery developed by the Turnbull family, is another revitalization story in the Foundry District. The Turnbull Building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Recently, entrepreneur Kathy Sok, bought the building and has created an event venue and office space there. She used tax credits allowed for historic buildings to help make the renovation more affordable. The new neon Turnbull sign is visible from the Interstate.
What started almost 20 years ago, when ℹ️ The Chattanoogan hotel was built to resemble a foundry building, now makes sense, as the vision is nearing fulfillment. The city gambled on the success of the hotel and the area, and was rewarded recently when Schulte Hospitality Group of Louisville, Kentucky, bought the property.
“When The Chattanoogan first opened in April 2001, we were on the forefront of development in the district and it’s terrific to see how it has grown,” says Tom Cupo, regional managing director of the Chattanoogan. “I’m so pleased with the positive changes and how the area is now a destination for visitors, and locals, too.”