Chester Martin Remembers The Belvoir Area Of Brainerd

Sunday, February 14, 2016 - by Chester Martin
- photo by Wes Schultz

Wikipedia has just confirmed for me what I have always thought: "Belvoir" means "beautiful view" in French. In  Britain, and here in the U.S. during earlier times, it was common to give a name to either an estate (land), or to a pretentious or even prominent house. And so it was with our "Belvoir". In other places the name has been pronounced, "Bel-vwa", but here it  was always pronounced "Bel-vor" - at least in my lifetime - and it referred to a large area between Belvoir Avenue on the west, and Moore Road on the east.

Brainerd Road was the northern boundary, and North Terrace the southern. In this article, however, I am including some territory on the western side of Belvoir - especially on the big hill.

Belvoir House, if we may call it that for the sake of this writing, stood on the east side of Belvoir Avenue at the corner of Brainerd Road (where Grace Episcopal Church stands today). It was a large, white wooden building of many ornamental parts that seemed to "ramble" instead of just sitting there sedately with four walls, a porch, and a roof. As I have described elsewhere, the old man who owned the place was of some means, and owned a pipe organ large enough that - if hollowed out - a small family could have lived inside!

His house was the "big house", doubtless the remainder of a large farming estate which included many out-buildings: barns, corn cribs, blacksmith's forges, etc. The greater part of his estate had already been sold off to developers, and a new area called "Belvoir Place" was laid out for residential use all around.

The Belvoir House was improperly named, however, as it sat on land which was flat as the proverbial pancake and afforded no  grand view in any direction. If it had been placed on the other side of Belvoir, to the west, however, the name would have been more fitting. On that side there is a very steep hill which we, as kids, used to call "Hogshead Hill", because a Doctor Hogshead reportedly lived at the top. I never knew him or saw him although I delivered papers all over it. Many years ago before the trees grew so tall, there would have been some great views from there. I knew a boy who lived on the top, and whose family had a small astronomical observatory in the place where their front and side yards met. It had a permanent mounting for a telescope - the main body of which was kept indoors - but could be quickly set up as desired for viewing the sky. The observatory area was beautified by attractive landscaping.

Near his house there was a street known to every kid in Brainerd, which I shall NOT name, but was the "original" thrill hill for bicyclists! It was one of the steepest streets in a residential area - except maybe for some in North Chattanooga. ("Our" thrill hill ran straight down into Belvoir Avenue, and even across it). Mission View Avenue is not far away with its old and interesting houses and huge canopy of trees - a fabulous sight on sunny  Spring mornings when everything is in bloom. The yards are spacious, well-kept, and the atmosphere quiet. I once took piano lessons from a lady who lived there. On the west side, where Mission View runs into Oriole Drive there once lived, (1),  a future Federal Judge; (2), a Chairman of our local Board of Education, and (3), a Mayor of the town! The popular Attorney, "Johnny" Morgan who died so young grew up not far away. Businessman I.L Bridgers, long-time furniture dealer in Chattanooga, lived next door to the Education Board Chairman.

East of Belvoir Avenue there was a standard grid layout of streets - square blocks. But a little further east some developer had gotten very creative and decided to break the grid layout. He put in gracefully curving streets so that there were few "four corners" to reckon with. The original residents kept their yards immaculately groomed at all times, and the ornamental trees and shrubbery pruned, as in Merrie Old England. Well, some did, and some didn't, but the idea and the effort were all there and very apparent. It is still kept up very well, although the original scheme has been lost. There used to be several stone and stucco "gateways" opening off Brainerd Road into the various new developments. One I remember was for "Conner Estates". Mrs. Conner's estates were in great demand by yet other developers, perhaps for the proposed new Barger School, and she was under high pressure to sell. She used to ride the city buses - often with a driver named Jimmy Steinman. He would listen to any new developments in her case and report them to interested parties as he drove along Brainerd Road. Some of the old gateways have disappeared, but I think at least the one for her "Conner Estates" is still standing. (There were other good drivers who worked for the former "Southern Coach Lines", but Steinman's outstanding personality made him a favorite of everyone. Isidore Sussman was another such driver, liked by all).

This area (east of Belvoir Avenue) was home to at least three very prominent Chattanooga businessmen whose names you would recognize instantly! (One made school-pictures nationwide; one made "Recovery" (wrecking) and towing equipment which was sold worldwide, and the third gave us a renovated old train station on South Market Street made into a virtual resort hotel). These men lived only about one block apart. Some strange chemistry must have been at work throughout this area to have produced such a concentration of American ingenuity. Couple those businessmen with the political names (Mayors Ralph Kelly and "Chunk" Bender, to name two), and all the school administrators and teachers who have lived in that vicinity, and you find the virtual heart of Chattanooga. NOT to neglect the ladies: there have been a number of influential ladies, like Madeline and Joan Barry who have contributed much to the cultural life of our city. Madeline Barry did fabulous promotions for Lovemans department store which benefited all Chattanooga. Daughter Joan became a "regular" on Channel 3 for years). Dorothy Hackett Ward, Head of the UTC Theater Department, was also from the Belvoir area. While I was in high school we rode the same inbound bus every morning and  had a nodding acquaintance.

One curiosity I want to mention before I go is "Tuxedo Circle" - laid out among those curving and swerving streets mentioned above. Except for inside a public park of some sort, I do not think I have ever seen such an innovation in city planning: a street forming a perfect circle! Some would say that it was a "waste of space", but I do not see it that way. Every resident of the dozen or so houses around it can look out their front windows of a morning into a garden area, and at the backs of their houses have some unusually spacious back yards. (True that other houses suffer correspondingly smaller spaces). The tall old trees add a real charm to the area, and a WPA ditch, dated 1925, cuts through the area to keep it well drained.

The Belvoir neighborhood was always safe, and still is. Yes, there are incidents of very occasional vandalism or break-ins. There have even been a (very) few serious crimes, but nothing that forms a threatening pattern. An issue of several decades ago was that city ordinances required sidewalks in all new sections of town, and that requirement had been neglected in the Belvoir Area. Sidewalks might have alleviated the problems currently being discussed regarding "bicycle lanes". Maybe. I can make no judgment on that. All I know for sure is that the Belvoir Area is still a good place to live! Jew, Gentile, Catholic and Protestant have all lived together here - for many decades -  in peace and harmony.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

- Photo2 by Wes Schultz


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