Remembering the Medical Arts Building

Sunday, September 14, 2008 - by Harmon Jolley
Medical Arts building opened in 1929.  Click to enlarge.
Medical Arts building opened in 1929. Click to enlarge.
- photo by Courtesy of Chattanooga-Hamilton County Library

I recently came across a photograph of my first grade class. The photo was typical of many made in the Chattanooga area, with the photographer snapping the shot from a tall step ladder that almost reached the high classroom ceiling. As I looked over the picture of my former classmates, I saw that only two students wore glasses. By the fourth grade, I had joined the ranks of the bespectacled.

In the fourth grade, we participated in vision screening offered through the Chattanooga City Schools. I don’t recall having had any vision problems. I didn’t have to sit close to the blackboard, and did OK on the playground and ball field. Neither of my parents wore glasses. I thus didn’t expect the vision test to be a problem. However, when I looked into that machine with various images, such as an apple that fell from a tree onto a picnic table, I learned that I was slightly nearsighted.

I was referred to an ophthalmologist, Dr. I. Lee Arnold, for more thorough testing. Dr. Arnold’s office was located in the Medical Arts building on McCallie Avenue. The building was a bit intimidating with its ten floors and elevator. It wasn’t at all as inviting as the house in which my pediatricians, Dr. Minnie Vance and Dr. Eleanor Stafford, practiced. However, I remember that Dr. Arnold was very patient and carefully examined my eyes to determine what prescription I needed.

According to a March 31, 1929 Chattanooga Times article, the Medical Arts building where Dr. Arnold’s office was located was a skyscraper built especially for the healthcare community and its patients. Architect Reuben H. Hunt had met with many of the doctors to determine the design of the building. Nearly each of the providers was a stockholder of the building, and the person who sold the land for it, Adolph Ochs, was also an investor.

The Medical Arts building featured a design of practicality and elegance. The telephone system routed calls directly to the doctor’s office. Physicians checked in and out with an operator so that they could always be reached. By being a high-rise, the building didn’t have long corridors found in single-level buildings. Materials used in construction included alabaster, brass, marble, steel, and walnut.

Sponsors of the project were Dr. White Patten and Dr. Joe Johnson. The building was patterned after one in Baltimore, Maryland, and was designed to be fire-proof. Construction began in July, 1928 and was completed on April 1, 1929. Total cost was $500,000. The Medical Arts building was easily visible as one entered Chattanooga from Missionary Ridge, and joined the city’s list of skyscrapers.

Many patients and their families passed through the doors of the Medical Arts building in the ensuing years. A pharmacy operated by Moore and King allowed patients to leave the building with a filled prescription. A coffee shop and barber were also on the first floor.

The August 1, 1978 Chattanooga News-Free Press announced that the neighboring First Presbyterian Church was purchasing the Medical Arts building. A transition plan was worked out in which healthcare providers could continue to practice there until new locations were secured.

The concept pioneered by the Medical Arts building survives today in the many doctors’ office buildings which are located near our local hospitals.

To finish the story of my fourth grade revelation, we left Dr. Arnold’s office to get glasses at the office of Steven Adams, optician at the relatively new Eastgate Mall. I eventually graduated to contact lenses, and was thankful when soft contacts became available.. Thinking back on lo these many years, I’m grateful that the school system offered vision screening, and know that the early intervention kept many students from being misdiagnosed as being poor students simply because they couldn’t see the blackboard or read the books.

If you have memories of the Medical Arts building, or of your first eyeglasses, please send me an e-mail at

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