John Shearer: The Rich History Of Red Bank Middle School

Friday, February 1, 2013 - by John Shearer

I recently received a rare treat, but somewhat of a bittersweet one for someone who likes old buildings.

Knowing that Red Bank Middle School on Dayton Boulevard is getting ready to be torn down after the new middle school opens off Morrison Springs Road this August, I emailed principal John Pierce and asked if I could come by one day after school let out and take some pictures.

I simply wanted to document for historical posterity the physical plant of the old school, part of which dates to 1937.

A Red Bank High graduate himself, he amicably allowed me to come, so I spent a fun hour walking around and snapping pictures.

I passed a number of teachers still working diligently in their classrooms on the next day’s lessons, but for me, my mind was strictly on the past.

In fact, in many ways I still think of that old building as Red Bank High School, which is what it was until 1982. As a result, I started imagining high school students from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s shutting lockers and drinking out of water fountains that had fewer dents in them than today.

Although I never went to Red Bank High, I did become quite familiar with it over the years. My father, Dr. C. Wayne Shearer, was an optometrist in Red Bank for 42 years, and I became friends with a number of Red Bank students while attending Red Bank United Methodist Church across the street.

Also, while attending Baylor School in the 1970s and driving home some afternoons when I did not have to stay for athletics, I would often pass the school about the time classes were being dismissed for the day. Numerous students would be walking across Dayton Boulevard to their cars in the Methodist church parking lot and other places, and I would no doubt be looking for people I knew, specifically one or two cute girls.

So my visit to Red Bank Middle School earlier this week helped me become much better acquainted with the inside of a facility I knew very well from the outside.

And it was a fascinating walk through. The old building obviously needs a little tender loving care, even though the current staff seems to be making the best use of the facility, including by using decorative banners of teachers’ and staff members’ names outside rooms. And I could also tell just from brief conversations with some of the instructors that they still have a sense of respect for the grand old structure.

To me, all the nicks, rusted metal window frames, warped floors, and old-school radiators just add character. The wear and tear actually helped me visualize better the thousands of classic high school and middle school scenes that have been acted out at nearly every spot in the building.

Even more tangible signs of history are also apparent, and they are likely to delight an antique auctioneer. These include at least one old black chalkboard, a very large wooden and glass cabinet in a science room, and countless other vintage tables, desks and doors.

The old building, which is in an L-shaped pattern, looks very much like the R.H. Hunt-designed Hixson Middle School that was mostly torn down last year. That school had also been built in 1937 and was also constructed with New Deal-era Works Progress Administration aid.

The Red Bank school had been built after a fire in early 1937 destroyed the previous Red Bank Junior High in the area where Red Bank Elementary was and where the Bi-Lo center sits today.

The current Red Bank school does not seem to have any grand entrance area as does Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Third Street, but it has probably one of the unique old gymnasiums remaining in Chattanooga, with elevated, fixed wooden grandstands on either side.

A newer gym was later built, but the older gym has continued to be used for wrestling and other activities. That is actually the one part of the school building with which I was previously familiar, as I had many a fun night there practicing church basketball in high school under coach and Red Bank High alumnus Zack Coley.

As Red Bank grew, a grade was added to the junior high each year beginning in the fall of 1938, with the first high school senior class of 50 students graduating there in 1941. Prior to that, Red Bank residents usually attended Central High.

Various additions were made to the building over the years, including in 1939, after a fire in 1944, and in 1955.

The latter included a new auditorium designed by Harrison Gill and Associates and featuring the familiar light-colored brickwork of a boy and girl student, similar to one also found on a Gill-designed building later used by Tennessee Temple in Highland Park. At that time, the original Red Bank auditorium was to be used as an expansion of the library and study hall areas.

I loved walking into the 1955 auditorium during my visit. Although I had remembered being fascinated with the brickwork pattern outside ever since I was a child in the 1960s, this was my first time inside the structure.

I thought I had walked back into the Eisenhower era and I loved the feeling. I felt as though I could have stayed there for a while enjoying some mid- 20th century vibes.

A small number of the chairs and chair frames were worn or even bent, and they all looked old. But I still had a new and fresh sense of enjoyment.

Among the other changes to the school after the auditorium was built, a new Red Bank Junior High opened in 1960 in the Morrison Springs Road building currently used as the high school. As a result, the Dayton Boulevard building began housing only students in grades 10-12.

During the 1970-71 school year, a new cafeteria, study hall, and a free-standing gymnasium on the south end of the Dayton Boulevard campus were added, and the old cafeteria began being used for ROTC.

Red Bank High School had added Army Jr. ROTC a short time earlier, and by the 1970s was boasting of having the largest program in the country.

The school also had countless teachers who gave decades of their lives to teaching Red Bank students.

The old stadium behind the school was once known as Rankin Field, and it saw some great football, including in 1978, when the Lions under coach Tom Weathers made a story-book run before losing on that field to Gallatin in the state championship game in front of about 10,000 people. Dayton Boulevard has likely never had as much excitement as it did prior to that game.

Other Red Bank football coaches included former Tennessee player Marion Perkins, future Tennessee swim coach Ray Bussard, and Frank Cofer, whose team lost a memorable-but-one-sided state semifinal game on Rankin Field to Tennessee High of Bristol in 1971.

I remember standing along the fence in 1974 as a Baylor ninth-grader and watching my Red Etter-coached school beat Red Bank and coach Weathers in five overtimes.

While some of these memorable games were taking place in the 1970s, I believe the Red Bank principal was W.G. Eldridge.

This was near the end of the high school’s days on Dayton Boulevard, as the junior high and high school switched campuses in 1982. In 1986, the school took on its current Red Bank Middle School name after grades 6-8 began being educated there.

I thought about many of these happenings and people while I walked the halls and snapped away at seemingly any piece of tangible history I could find.

I wanted to hold on to the moments and scenes as long as I could, as the Red Bank Commission, which will take over ownership of the building, voted last fall to tear down the entire campus.

Although numerous examples can be found of similarly old school buildings being renovated into appealing housing facilities, their auditoriums becoming community-gathering places for programs, or their gyms – even ancient ones -- becoming recreational facilities, such will apparently not be the case here.

That is, unless some late preservation push is made by school alumni or community residents and advocates.

Local architect Vance Travis has encouraged the preservation of the auditorium and gym, but it has been to no avail as of yet.

Red Bank city officials apparently believe it is wiser to think economically instead of sentimentally about the school facility, and they are eyeing new construction on the site.

But the memories of the school will always likely remain in some form, and I was thankful to witness briefly and in a more up-close manner one of the last chapters of the expansive structure’s long story.

I could have found plenty of words in books and old articles about the school’s rich history, but the various dents, worn marks and chipped paint told me in a more colorful and vivid way.


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