Chester Martin Remembers Eastgate Mall Shopping Center

Friday, August 12, 2016 - by Chester Martin

Once upon a time in the ever-modernizing city of Chattanooga - but in a much mellower day than the present, there was a wonderful new place called Eastgate Mall Shopping Center, and sometimes simply Eastgate Mall. Shopping malls were a totally new feature developing in America in those times - late 1960's and early '70's, and the word "Mall" had not yet achieved its present meaning on the American Scene. London, England, had a "Mall" of course, called "THE Mall", which was simply a long, wide, and elegant boulevard connecting two important royal sites, and devoid of commercialism. The District of Columbia in our country also had a "Mall" that was also non-commercial, and which connected some equally important government sites as the one in London. So the average American needed a while to let the new “shopping mall” concept sink in. Once everyone had figured out exactly what to expect from the new malls, they suddenly became highly popular, as they were friendly, inviting, and people flocked to them in droves. There is no longer a living soul in America who does not understand the meaning of that word today!

The introduction of malls into old communities usually denoted the impending obsolescence of, and ultimate destruction of, all the "downtowns" of the country. Suddenly shoppers were heading away from downtown, into the suburbs where the new malls were located. Here, parking was always free, whereas in town it was always a problem. It was certainly that way in Chattanooga, and people fell in love with Eastgate. Shops were close together, and there were no streets to cross, with traffic lights or vehicular traffic. Kids were safe there, and there was something for everyone. 

I remember many happy Saturday mornings when my family was young, and we could not wait to get out to the Mall! Our Eastgate Center was a big rectangular "O" of buildings which created a large un-roofed open space in the middle, ideally suited for most any kind of event. There were frequent happenings there, carefully organized by highly skilled planners, and I was especially keen on the many crafts shows - where you could watch expert furniture makers from the Smoky Mountains, for example, steam selected wooden boards into odd shapes to create amazing rustic furniture. You could sometimes watch an elderly lady, dressed in homespun attire, replete with sun bonnet, who would be spinning cotton or flax into coarse thread for her loom which stood nearby, and which she would also demonstrate.(That same elderly lady appeared there for quite a number of years despite her advancing years, and for all I know, she may still be doing her demos in places unknown!) Such demos were everywhere, however. Many times there would be German craftspeople from the Amana Colonies of Iowa who would display their wares - the women wearing colorful “Dirndl” dresses, and the men in traditional German Lederhosen pants. One of their number sat at a stool and played zither music - taking requests for either popular American or German songs. 

A place I especially liked there at Eastgate was a hobby shop, which carried all manner of equipment for people who liked to work on small models, and was the only place in town to find such miniature items. They sold me my first Dremel motor tool - now widely available everywhere, but then a rarity to find. One small restaurant which transitioned to Eastgate from downtown was the very popular "Orange Julius" where you could buy hot-dogs to go with your freshly squeezed orange drink. Hickory Farms of Ohio had a year-round store there, which my family liked and visited often. They had wide varieties of tempting meats and cheeses. Nearby was a cloth shop which sold every kind of sewing material under the sun, and which my wife always enjoyed visiting. Both Millers and Lovemans department stores had sizeable spaces there, plus an Eastgate Theater. At least one dime-store was on the east side of the mall. Absolutely NO "fast food" restaurants as known today were there, as they did not yet exist - at least here in our corner of the South!  THAT fact is even hard for ME to imagine today, thinking backward through the years! Our friend and neighbor, Capt. Mike Hammer of the U.S. Army Reserves worked there as head of an “invisible” Security force; no one was even remotely aware that such existed! 

Eastgate Center sponsored many, many seasonal events in the mall center, plus many, many "beauty pageants", especially for the youngest members of society. There were tiny ballerinas wearing glitter on their faces and twirling batons as they flitted lithely through the mall on certain occasions. There was always something going on there, and the attractive mall interior included a sizeable duck pond with several beautiful white swans, always present except for the colder months. In latter years, the mall was enclosed by roofing over, and about 15 years ago someone set up an ice-skating rink which lasted for several years. By this time, however, most of the original vendors had moved away to the greener fields of Hamilton Place. Sad to see the demise of the original Eastgate Center, but it was inevitable; the way of life in America, where Change is always present. The smaller, neighboring "satellite" mall, Brainerd Village, suffered much the same fate. Most of its original businesses either moved away or closed. It had contained a number of very popular businesses, which had included a grocery store, Lanham's Christian bookstore, Rone-Regency Jewelers, (where the amicable Frank Varallo was owner), Sid Varner's Garden Center, etc. Sid Varner was a very friendly and knowledgable salesman who would talk to you for hours about your garden, and who never lost an opportunity to get his hands dirty carrying a 100 pound bag of potting soil out to your car for you! These were "genuine" old mom and pop merchants, the likes of which we have all but lost. 

Before Eastgate Mall and Brainerd Village were built, only ONE business was located in that general area: the Skyway Drive-in Theater, built near the end of WW2. Its single powerful speaker blared out over the parking area, and, although directed away from Brainerd Road, could be heard every night throughout the area. Before the theater, there were only empty fields of tall sedge-grass bordering the east side of Brainerd Road – a truly lonely place – and a single lonely marker on US 11 (Brainerd Road) indicated that it was the former site of the David Brainerd Mission to the Cherokee Nation. The mission's cemetery - now visible, and enclosed by a wall and fencing, was completely hidden in my day by the tall grasses. It is fortunately now cared for, although has seen some vandalism in recent years. Eastgate Mall Shopping Center changed the entire landscape of that area - for the better, in my opinion, though I personally have been saddened to observe its decline as a dynamic shopping mall. I have watched its attempt to re-invent itself into an office complex, and I hope that its new objective will prove successful.

(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 )





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