In Walden, On Anderson Pike, Volunteers Transform Historic Bachman School Into Thriving Community Center

Monday, January 20, 2014 - by Judy Frank
The latest project at stately Bachman Community Center was a complete renovation of the historic building's cafeteria which, in its refurbished state, boasts a photo of BCC founding father Leo Brown Sr. (bottom photo) -- selected by his widow, Bea, as her favorite although it was taken so long ago his family cannot recall the name of the photographer.
The latest project at stately Bachman Community Center was a complete renovation of the historic building's cafeteria which, in its refurbished state, boasts a photo of BCC founding father Leo Brown Sr. (bottom photo) -- selected by his widow, Bea, as her favorite although it was taken so long ago his family cannot recall the name of the photographer.

For Bachman Elementary School, 1937 was momentous.

It’s the year popular Signal Mountain attorney Nathan L. Bachman – by then a US Senator – was felled by a massive heart attack just months after winning reelection. It’s the year that renowned Chattanooga architect Reuben Harrison Hunter, whose firm designed the school – also died.

And it’s the year that the new school, by then carrying Sen. Bachman’s name as well as Mr. Hunt’s colonial revival-style stamp, opened to students.

More than six decades later – a year after the Hamilton County Department of Education officially gave up on the by-then-creaky school and closed it – Bachman had another momentous year.

In 2000, the fledgling Bachman Center Council, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, leased the building to create a community center in the Town of Walden. The effort was spearheaded, pretty much everybody agrees, by popular Walden businessman Leo Brown Sr., longtime owner/operator of the first – and for a long time the only – hardware store on Signal Mountain.

Brown’s commitment to the project came as no surprise, according to Bachman Board member Jean Smith, and his motivation was obvious: he wanted to help the community he loved.

" ‘I know everyone can't live on the mountain,’ Leo has been known to say,” she recalled with a smile. “ ‘But for those who can and choose not to, I just do not understand.’ "  

Bachman Philosophy

Today, 14 years after the board took over, Bachman is once again playing an integral role in the lives of Walden residents.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, the thriving community center houses a popular library, a farmers’ market and a thrift shop that draws customers from far and wide. Don’t believe it? Check the license plates on the cars that line up there during Bargain Barn hours every Saturday morning – not to mention the throngs that arrive every summer during the World’s Longest Yard Sale.

Even more remarkable, the center’s determined stand-on-your-own-two-feet attitude has won a bevy of admirers, including Signal Mountain Council member Annette Allen who – during a recent discussion of possible funding sources for that town’s Mountain Arts Community Center – remarked “I think we could learn a lot from Bachman.”

The secrets to Bachman’s success, according to board member Barbara Womack, are hard work, dedicated volunteers and a willingness to try to new things.

“The 2014 (Bachman Community Center) BCC budget is $85,000,” Ms. Womack noted recently. “BCC self-funds all but $7,000, (which is) provided by the town of Walden.  

“Over the years,” she continued, “the BCC Board has funded or has obtained grants to fund a new roof on the main building and the cafeteria, renovated the cafeteria, replaced all the gutters, repainted the exterior and interior, replaced flooring, renovated the windows and provided the salary of a part-time director.”

None of that just happened, according to Ms. Womack. “BCC has a broad mission statement which has also proved to be a success business model.”

For example, she wrote, Bachman “hosts the popular farmers’ market and the 30-plot community garden. It has provided space for public service programs rent-free or at a reduced rent.  These programs include Save Walden’s Ridge Hemlocks, Defensive Divas, Senior Citizen Tuesdays and the AARP Defensive Driving Program.  The Mountain Arts Guild calls BCC home.  Artists rent rooms to use as studios. The Guild offers art classes and holds an exhibition during the annual Garden and Arts Expo.  Summer camps provide income as well as serve the community.”  

Transformation, the Bachman Way

The old school building that Bachman Community Center organizers took over in 2000 was, in many ways, an architectural gem.

It was the height of the Depression, but Works Progress Administration (WPA) planners didn’t skimp when they decided in the mid-1930s to construct a new school in Walden as part of an ambitious campaign to improve educational opportunities throughout Hamilton County.

The resulting single story brick colonial revival-style structure – one of the last designed by the firm of renowned Chattanooga architect Reuben Harrison Hunt before his death –cost what must have seemed at the time a whopping $56,000.

Built to replace Fairmount Academy, the first state-authorized public school in Hamilton County, Bachman was intended from the beginning to serve the community as well as students.

Toward that end, its designers incorporated an impressive school auditorium, big enough to hold 400 people, complete with a stage flanked by large classical pilasters.

Over the decades, the school was periodically modernized and upgraded. Improvements included additional classrooms, a cafeteria and – in 1950 – indoor bathrooms.

Nevertheless, by the time education officials closed it in 1999, age, poor maintenance and a badly leaking roof had left it needing extensive, and expensive, repairs.

Undeterred, Leo Brown and other board members got busy.

“With the aid of Signal Mountain Bible Church and two Eagle Scouts, building repairs began,” according to the community center’s website.

“In 2002, they received a matching grant from the Community Foundation of Chattanooga, as well as contributions from civic organizations and private donors, to replace the badly leaking roof,” it recalled. 

“In 2007, new gutters replaced the old leaky ones. Work continues on the restoration of the historic building, supported by donations and fundraising.”

Bachman’s latest project, a complete renovation of the building’s long-suffering cafeteria, was just as ambitious as earlier ones.

“New windows, flooring, ceiling, lighting fixtures and energy efficient HVAC units have transformed the old cafeteria into a comfortable and inviting room, thanks to a successful fundraising campaign (and) contributions from the Mountain Artists Guild Inc. (MAGI),” according to another longtime board member, Linda Collins.

“However,” she continued, “most of the renovation was pure volunteer labor . . . Volunteers including Earl Hereford, John Behrman, Alan Voss, Ken Abel and the Joe Robbins father and son team replaced windows, and installed lighting and a new ceiling.”

Once the workmen were finished, one last step remained to make the transformation complete: Dedicating the room to the memory of the center’s only honorary lifetime board member, Leo Brown Sr., who remained an enthusiastic supporter until November 2011, when he was killed by a fatal car crash.

Toward that end, more than 100 Bachman supporters gathered recently in the refurbished room, which now features a large photo of Mr. Brown – his wife’s favorite, according to Mrs. Smith – copied from the original taken by an unknown professional photographer so long ago the family cannot remember his name.

Mr. Brown’s widow, Bea, was a guest of honor at the ceremony, as were his son and daughter and other members of his family.

His father “was not a person who sought recognition . . . (but)  I believe he would be very pleased with the results of his efforts and the efforts of so many that are resulting in a genuine resource for the betterment of the entire community,” Leo Brown Jr. said after the ceremony. 

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