A number of Chattanooga buildings – from Bright School to Red Bank Baptist Church to Guerry Hall at UTC – have columns or other traditional features that make them look as though they are from a classic period of American architecture.
But they were actually built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the modernism movement of architecture was at its peak.
The architect behind them was Gordon Laidlaw Smith. An admitted traditionalist, he once said the modernist architectural movement was simply an advertising campaign by the glass manufacturers to get people to use more glass in construction.
Among Mr. Smith’s other structures are First Christian Church on McCallie Avenue, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, the additions to the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, and several buildings at McCallie School, including Davenport gym.
He also designed the original, small Krystal restaurant buildings, as well as a number of homes, including those for the Chapin and Caldwell families on Lookout Mountain and the Thatcher family on Missionary Ridge.
Gordon Smith was born just outside Cincinnati in 1893 and was trained in architecture at Ohio State University. He later worked at some firms in Cincinnati when the classical revival style of architecture was in vogue.
He then went off to World War I to serve in the Army engineering corps. Even the war apparently had an impact on him architecturally, as he spent some time afterward touring all the classical buildings of France.
Mr. Smith ended up in Chattanooga after being hired by noted neo-classical architect R.H. Hunt to finish the sketches on Mr. Hunt’s acclaimed Chattanooga High on Third Street, which became Riverside and later the previously mentioned CSAS.
He said in later years that he did not plan to stay in Chattanooga and that he thought parts of the city were unsightly, despite his appreciation for its natural beauty. He would stay, however, and go on to attempt to make the man-made aspects more appealing through his designs.
He was mostly in private practice, but was affiliated with William Crutchfield for a period. While on his own, Mr. Smith hired a young draftsman named Leland Ashby, sent him to Carnegie Tech and eventually made him a partner in the firm of Smith and Ashby.
Mr. Smith’s only child, Gordon Smith Jr., remembered that when he was younger, he would often go with his father to check on his under-construction buildings.
“If I didn’t have a summer job, he started wanting me to go with him to the construction sites of the buildings first thing in the morning,” said Mr. Smith,, who went on to become an executive with Wheland Co. “I went with him and then he’d drop me off at home before he would go to his office.”
His office for years was on the 10th floor of the Volunteer Building, where he found perfect natural light for drawing, his son recalled
While Mr. Smith focused on the classical style in his work, he was certainly not the typical classic father, who was sometimes detached emotionally. His son remembers that he was like a second father to a number of neighborhood children, taking them all on camping trips. He even designed the family home at 1501 Sunset Road in Riverview with a recreation room in the basement for children to play ping-pong.
“Everybody in the neighborhood enjoyed him so much they called him Pops,” remembered Mr. Smith.
The elder Mr. Smith’s first wife, the former Sara Elizabeth Simmons, had died in 1942, and he later married Helen Becking Godfrey. They lived at 116 Wilder Drive on Signal Mountain for a number of years before his death in 1967 at the age of 73.
During the last 10 years of his life, Mr. Smith actually produced some of his most acclaimed designs.
And even though he designed in the style of old, he had some forward-thinking ideas. He told Chattanooga Times reporter Springer Gibson of the need for some green space around Market Street, as well as a cultural center in downtown Chattanooga. He also said his son had sold him on the idea of a bridge linking Barton Avenue, which, of course, eventually developed into the Veterans Bridge.
UTC art and architecture professor Dr. Gavin Townsend said that Mr. Smith’s style was also somewhat contemporary behind the classic features that jump out to a viewer on first impression.
“While Smith was architecturally conservative, his work is clearly a product of the mid-20th century,” Dr. Townsend said. “He might use classical architectural ornamentation like pediments and columns, as he does on First Christian, but these are handled in a restrained manner. There's no fluting (vertical grooves) on his pilasters, for instance. He wants the church to evoke its 18th century Colonial-era antecedents while presenting itself as a contemporary edifice.”
Mr. Smith admitted in later years that he embraced modern building materials and that they were evident in his structures.
Bright School is perhaps Mr. Smith’s best example of combining classic and modern design, as it features a classic colonnaded entrance, but a four-sided, glass-covered wing that looks very early 1960s.
“By the 1960s Smith was ready to at least tentatively embrace modernism, as he does with Bright School,” Dr. Townsend said. “Here too, though, he is restrained. He doesn't just design with steel and glass. The building is sheathed in brick, the preferred building material of the Old South.“
Bright School’s main entrance building very much resembles the front of Red Bank Baptist Church, and many of Mr. Smith’s buildings appear to be brick-and-mortar cousins.
Perhaps Mr. Smith’s most-praised structure is Guerry Hall at UTC, which was originally built as a student center in 1958. Dr. Townsend calls its large oak-paneled reading room/former lounge the finest indoor space on the entire UTC campus.
“In style you might call it collegiate Gothic or ‘Jacobethan’ -- a sort of fusion of late medieval and Baroque architecture seen in early 17th century British manors,” he said. “The style was commonly used, of course, on campuses across the USA, as it evoked images of such distinguished institutions of higher education as Oxford and Cambridge.”