When visiting Chattanooga, I always like to walk through the Bluff View Art District and have a coffee at Rembrandt's. The urban energy and artsy appeal draw me in, and coming back to this neighborhood rekindles my childhood memories. Near Rembrandt's entrance, I duck through an obscure passage to visit an old hideout and stare a few moments into the ceramic-tiled fountain pond. But alas, my grandmother's goldfish and water lilies are long gone; yet, around the corner at the arched entrance of the River Gallery, the heavy wooden door with metal detailing is just the same.
Fifty-some years ago, if anyone knocked on that door, my grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Ed Newell Sr., would invite them into their dark, Victorian-clad living room for a Coke or a glass of sherry. They lived in the large stucco building facing 2nd Street, which they built in the 1920s and later expanded along the backside. My grandmother, Georgie Willson Newell, created the unique design of French stucco with New Orleans accents including wrought iron gates, winding stairways and a cozy courtyard. During the 60s when I visited there as a child, they occupied only the first floor, what is now River Gallery, and rented out the other levels as apartment units. Their fascinating stories and those of others who were part of the historic neighborhood pique my interest now, many years later.
The front corner room of River Gallery, where artisan crafts and hand-blown glass are now displayed, was my grandmother’s bedroom. With all the windows, her room was bright and cheery, which seemed to fit her persona more than the dreary décor. She liked to hunt and fish, and as a young woman ahead of her time, she was featured in the May 1903 issue of Field and Stream magazine. In the article she was extolled for besting the men on a Mississippi dove shoot near Natchez, where she was born. (The story of her hunting adventure on horseback can be found at Southern Girl Afield www.bluetoad.com/publication/?i=51124&pre=1&p=27.) Georgie also liked gardening at their Signal Mountain summer home, and her love of the outdoors led her to organize the first Girl Scouts program in Chattanooga.
Dr. Ed, as my grandfather was known, had a short commute from Bluff View to the old Newell Hospital on Walnut Street, which he founded with his cousin Dr. Dunbar Newell. Originally from Louisiana, the two came to Chattanooga in 1908 and established the Newell Sanitarium, which after several expansions became Newell Clinic Hospital. They practiced general medicine and surgery, and were later joined by Drs. Cecil Newell and Ed Newell Jr., as well as other physician associates. (More on Newell Hospital in a later article)
Both Newells were civic leaders and pioneers in the field of medicine. In the days when doctors often provided their own medicinal remedies for patients, Dr. Ed raised guinea pigs on the roof of their Bluff View home to be able to create serum and vaccines with antibodies against certain illnesses. His young daughter (my Aunt Lolly Newell Allison) was tasked with feeding and caring for the guinea pigs, which to her dismay, were not kept as pets.
Dr. Ed owned and operated the first X-ray machine in Chattanooga, which left his hands blotchy and darkened from exposure to radiation. From traveling the back roads of Chattanooga to make house calls, to being called upon to provide expert testimony with regard to levels of cocaine and caffeine in Coca-Cola syrup, he had many remarkable stories of his era.
Reflecting on the lives of my grandparents and my early memories of Bluff View, back when the old Hunter Museum was the only piece of the arts district, I am continually awed by the revitalization that began when Dr. Charles and Mary Portera purchased the Newell home in 1991. Bluff View today is far more charming as a European-inspired complex with its terrace views, artisanal foods, galleries and sculpture garden. What's amazing is the vision that the Porteras had in developing the area, and how they masterfully blended a mix of architectural styles while highlighting the beauty of the setting.
From Rembrandt’s patio, I try to picture my Aunt Lolly feeding guinea pigs on the roof and my father as a teenager, who was said to have scaled the balcony of his second floor bedroom to sneak out. With each guest room of Bluff View Inn named for original neighborhood residents and prominent Chattanoogans, many more stories can be told of those who left a footprint. Coming back to sleep in the “Newell” room, I always find more to discover while exploring some of Chattanooga’s best downtown venues.
(Editor’s note: The mahogany dining table from the Newell home is currently on display at the Hunter Museum on the second level of the mansion. The double-pedestal banquet table, circa 1810, was acquired by Georgie Newell in 1920 from the antebellum plantation home, Auburn, in Natchez, Miss. It features carved motifs decorated with cornucopias and acanthus leaves terminating in lion’s paw feet, typical of the Empire period.)
Newell mahogany pedestal table at Hunter Museum
- Photo2 by Ann Newell Yungmeyer