Nandini Makrandi, chief curator at the ℹ️ Hunter Museum, strolls down the East Wing entry hall, stopping to point out some highlights of a new exhibit called Evolution of a Museum.
“We are always getting questions about the history of the museum,” she says. “Why do the three buildings look so different? Who lived in the mansion? Is it still a house? Did the owner start the art collection? Where did it come from? Visitors are always curious about those things, so we thought it might be good to try something semi-permanent and see how people receive it.”
Evolution, which opened August 17, answers these queries and more. Culled from archives dating back to 1952, when the museum opened as the George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art, the exhibit showcases photos, architectural renderings, illustrations, written descriptions, even a diorama.
One side of the walk-through exhibit features memorabilia from the concrete East Wing, built in 1975. The other side depicts highlights from the post-modern West Wing, including a thin slab of zinc like those applied to the exterior when it was constructed in 2005.
Answering one of the most frequent questions, Makrandi explains that George Hunter, a Coca-Cola Bottling Co. co-founder who inherited the original 1905 neoclassical mansion from his aunt Anne Thomas, did not collect art. He never married and didn’t have any heirs, so when he passed away, the house and the rest of its assets went to the nonprofit ℹ️Benwood Foundation, which he’d started and named for his Uncle Ben. Partly because tourism was picking up in the city, the Chattanooga Art Association talked the Benwood board of directors into letting them open a museum in the mansion with about 30 American paintings.
When the collection outgrew the space, the Chattanooga architectural firm of Derthick and Henley designed the solid, reinforced concrete section. So why didn’t they copy the opulent style of the original residence?
“When the mansion was built in 1905, people were building things that looked like ancient Greek temples. Neoclassical structures were the way you showed wealth,” says Makrandi. “In the ‘70s, they had the option to either mimic that structure, which didn’t fit the times, or go with this concrete building. They decided to embrace the times.”
For the “curvilinear” shape of the West Wing addition 13 years ago, Los Angeles architect Randall Stout used the Tennessee landscape as his inspiration. By then, the idea of extending the concrete structure “seemed old-fashioned,” says Makrandi. “So they went completely in a new direction,” modeling it after the striking contemporary style of Spain’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Architectural Digest recently named the Hunter the best-designed museum in Tennessee.
Evolution continues on the top floor of the mansion with another new exhibit, The Legacy of George Thomas Hunter, where a former bedroom has been transformed into a tribute to the home’s eccentric owner. Lining the walls are, among other things, photographs, vintage and reproduction Coca-Cola bottles filled with the popular beverage, and a portrait of Hunter. One “little glimpse into who he was and what he left behind,” notes Makrandi, is a replica of a leather-bound keepsake book Hunter had made for each guest at one of his over-the-top birthday parties.
Evolution of a Museum is expected to run for about a year, while Legacy will likely remain indefinitely. Both feature QR codes for guests to access supporting audio on their cell phones.
Although the exhibit focuses more on the sometimes-puzzling architecture and the mansion’s philanthropic owner, Makrandi jokes, “I think the more important question that we [often] answer is: Is the Hunter mansion haunted? Well, I don’t know. It’s up for debate.”