John Shearer: Hixson Pike Between Rivermont And DuPont Schools A Contrast

Friday, April 27, 2018 - by John Shearer

North Shore, North Chattanooga and Riverview are obviously quite trendy and popular, due in part to past and current architecture.

Their proximity to downtown does not hurt, either.

But if one drives a little farther up Hixson Pike away from the downtown area, the situation changes somewhat.  Some – but not all – of the architecture is interesting, and the area as a whole does not seem to be a destination place for living, shopping and dining like in North Chattanooga.

In the area near Lupton Drive and beyond, for example, the 1950s-era homes north of Stuart Heights are a little more modest and, as a result, not quite as in demand right now.
However, most do contain hardwood floors for those looking figuratively as well as literally down the road.

Because of the lack of large appeal right now, though, one cannot find much change or new development to Hixson Pike between the elementary schools of Rivermont and DuPont. About the only new structure is the Side Track restaurant just beyond Lupton Drive, where a Huddle House once was.

Although not featuring brick all the way around it, Side Track still looks like a quality building that might be constructed near somewhere like Cherokee Boulevard or North Market Street. So maybe it is a hint that the northward move of trendiness may be on the way soon, especially considering the grand residential development plans for the nearby Lupton City property.

About the only other new structures built in this stretch in recent decades, other than the Rivermont Shopping Center housing Food City, have been several examples of an architecture lover’s adversary – buildings made out of metal siding.

A few older buildings in this stretch of the street feature more glass, but some are currently empty. And the glass in a few of them has been broken, as if someone stood in the middle of Hixson Pike and hit golf balls toward the structures.

On a positive note, though, along that stretch are also some of the best stand-alone examples of mid-century commercial architecture found in Chattanooga. Several former banks, restaurants and even a healthcare office still stand out with their unique looks.

Their architecture has changed little – even though the businesses in them have – and they might also be the anchor buildings of interest if North Chattanooga gets too full and causes a developer’s best friend – demand – to start moving north.

As UTC art and architecture professor Gavin Townsend described these mid-century modern buildings recently, “The style is already coming back into fashion, so I have some hope that the buildings will be preserved, even in an era when we have lost so much. Some of the structures have already become eligible for consideration as historic properties.”

If the area does come back as a place of trendy appeal, it by then might take on a more urban feel than the suburban one it had when many of the 1960s-era structures were built.

Why don’t we head up the street and take a look at all these buildings. 

Starting near Lupton Drive is Rivermont Elementary on one side of the street and a vintage, mid-century service station and Rivermont Presbyterian Church on the other. Kudos to the little-changed former gas station and the church, both of which seem to have very eye-pleasing 1960s’ looks, especially the church.

A look at an old newspaper shows that the sanctuary/nave was actually built in the late 1960s, several years after the Sunday school wing to the south.

Praises also go to efforts by Rivermont School officials and volunteers to paint murals on the walls recently, although these were once nice-looking classroom exteriors with lots of glass facing Hixson Pike before the windows were removed. Whether the covering was done in more recent years to cut energy costs or solve some kind of problem with too much light would take some research to find out.

But from Hixson Pike, the school no longer has the beautiful mid-century design as originally intended by Harrison Gill & Associates when first built in 1954, other than the unique brick school sign with openings in it. But the murals definitely add an eye-catching artistic effect, even if the architectural appeal seems to have long vanished.

On the west side of Hixson Pike near Lupton Drive are several nice red brick buildings that are good examples of quality-but-simplistic construction from the time in which they were built. The Karen Horton dance facility – with a nice glass front -- is one example.  

Beyond the well-manicured Girls Preparatory School satellite fields, Side Track and the railroad overpass is the Food City Shopping Center. It is well kept visually, despite its not overly inspiring 1990s-era stucco style of building fronts.

Across the street and farther north are more interesting 1960s-era buildings. Despite being plain like those a short distance south, they do have a nice look collectively simply because they appear to be of quality construction and are made of brick.

One block of buildings where a traditional barbershop and other businesses once sat is the Asian Food and Gifts of Chattanooga business, showing that Chattanooga is more ethnically and internationally diverse than when the buildings were built.

Just north of those and on the same side of the street at 3723 Hixson Pike is the Northside Cleaners building. It is the first of several buildings heading up to Highland Plaza that show quite a bit of mid-century charm and go beyond being just basic good construction.

With its neat drive-through covering and large glass windows and sign, one could drop some clothes off and think he or she is in 1968 again. Perhaps some new paint on the metal places where the current paint is peeling is the only work this charming old brick and glass friend needs.

Above it at 3805 Hixson Pike is an abandoned oblong building covered in stucco from its days when it was the popular Padrino’s Mexican restaurant. Older Chattanoogans will remember when it was Herschel’s Oink-In barbecue restaurant.

Hopefully, this uniquely shaped restaurant can enjoy another bright future as a popular eatery.

Just north of it on the same side of the street at 3811 is the former Golden Gallon drive-through that shows virtually no sign of its original use due to various changes. As a result, it no longer has any mid-century modern charm that all the original Golden Gallon drive-through stores had before the firm developed the less-interesting convenience store and gas station concept.

Continuing on the left – beyond the still-well-kept-looking newer apartment complex – are several other older buildings featuring nice brick construction from the 1960s era.

The current Resale Store at 3829 (formerly a Jernigan’s furniture store) still has its nice glass fronts. Also, the Highland School of Hair, Skin, Nails building just north features a unique A-frame/chalet look that adds additional charm for a passerby.

Unfortunately for those who like visual aesthetics, within a few yards of these buildings in both directions are several made out of metal siding. The buildings may function well for the use of the operator and are all that are needed for the firms from an operations standpoint. And the operators inside may have great stories of business success and community altruism, but the metal structures add nothing to making Hixson Pike a more beautiful street visually.

Just north of Fairfax Drive, however, the street’s architecture gets another salute.  Located here are several great-looking buildings mostly from the 1960s that go beyond being ordinary.

Leading the list has to be the current Archer’s Choice building at 3889 Hixson Pike. Originally a Shap’s Drive-in and later a Shoney’s – complete with a Big Boy statue out front – its crazy rooflines and glass walls are a real charmer. It looks a little like the style of the also-beloved Longhorn restaurant off North Market Street.

Other nice buildings on that street include three buildings that have had pasts or presents as banks. At 3875 Hixson Pike is the Hitchcock Family Medicine building that was originally Chattanooga Federal Savings and Loan. It features a nice curved front made of stone.

At 3888 Hixson Pike is the hexagonal-like Euro Health Spa, which was formerly a Pioneer Bank, and at 3894 is the nice glass-covered Regions Bank, which was originally a First Federal Savings and Loan. The latter has plenty of glass walls to look out at the blue sky on nice days.

Another outstanding building is the former Elias ophthalmologist’s office and optical clinic at 3898 Hixson Pike. Originally the Maxwell Clinic dental offices, the building features a very nice horizontal look appearing to have been inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. It also has a covered courtyard area that could be converted into some kind of floral garden. Also unique is that the courtyard area is surrounded by walls of horizontal cement pipes, giving someone the feeling of going back into mid-century America.

That building is actually for sale for $745,900. According to listing agent Ron Renegar of Crye-Leike, the building has been updated greatly on the interior, and no longer has the 1960s look in that part.

But he still calls it quite nice. “It’s a great building,” he said. “It’s in great shape. Everything has been updated inside. It has a really nice location on a corner.”

Regarding whether the coveted mid-century architecture of such buildings can be a draw to bring that area back to its former popularity, Renegar added that three other factors are more important – location, location and location.

While he said that stretch of Hixson Pike is not as fashionable as other parts of town, he thinks it can still be viable. “There’s always a need for commercial properties, plus you’ve got the schools nearby. I think it will be OK,” he said.

Dr. Townsend believes the buildings like the Elias structures and others are real assets to that part of town. “It’s great to have several remaining examples of mid-20th century modern buildings in Hixson,” he said.

Other buildings around that stretch between Fairfax Drive and Ashland Terrace are remembered greatly for what they were. That includes the old Taco Bell (now Rafael’s) at 3877 Hixson Pike, the old Dairy Queen (now Total Health Chiropractic) at 3882 Hixson Pike, and the former Pizza Hut (now Rumors bar) at 3884 Hixson Pike. The King Smoking Que restaurant at 3874 Hixson Pike also looks charming – due to its brick and the fact no one would have any trouble figuring out it is a barbecue restaurant with the smoke pit on one end.

Moving farther north, Highland Plaza has done a good job of staying updated and current, although the most inspiring aspects of it visually might still be the old glass windows and heavy doors remaining from some of the old department stores. Too bad the center does not still have its Scottish Highland- and mid-century-inspired entrance signs that are long gone.

In the area near Hixson Pike and Ashland Terrace are about five former mid-century gas stations that still have appealing mid-century looks, although the businesses have varying appearances of neatness. Unfortunately, a few other buildings, including one of the gas stations, are empty along that stretch, making the street there look like a ghost town or rundown part of town.

An empty building at 4047 Hixson Pike is the former Backyard Burgers, which in the late 1970s was built as a Wuv’s, one of the hamburger chains that did not do as well as McDonald’s or Wendy’s.

Continuing north, beyond the nicely remodeled building – which still retains the old mid-century “One Hour Martinizing” cleaners sign – is the old K mart building. Unfortunately, it cannot be seen to give older Chattanoogans another dose of mid-century nostalgia due to all the storage buildings in front of it.

A number of office and retail strip centers on that side are also made of uninspiring metal siding. To loosely borrow the old line from the Wendy’s hamburger commercial, “Where’s the brick?”

But alas, across the street and at the bookend of this stretch of Hixson Pike is one of the more inspiring settings north of Riverview – the handsome old DuPont Elementary and its larger-than-typical wooded green space. Who has not felt better passing this stretch of Hixson Pike and glancing over at all the old trees while in busy traffic?

It was shaped during the mid-century, but appears to have a timeless appeal about it, as most natural areas do.

The DuPont School, on the other hand, takes one back straight to the 1950s or ‘60s.  It is a real charmer, combining traditional brick with large multi-pane windows surrounded by colorful opaque panes and glass bricks. It appears to have hardly been touched on the outside since it was built and opened in 1959.

Unusual features of the building if one examines it closely include some diamond, Native American-like patterns on the front brick face of the wing on the south end.

Also, it has six front classrooms on the south side of the center entrance and five on the north, even though it looks very symmetrical from the front. Also playing a trick on the eyes is the fact that the entire front gives the feeling of being curved, but actually only the small center entrance is.

And another visual trick, at least near the school, is the walkway bridge over Hixson Pike – which originally stood over Access Road until moved in 1979.

The DuPont School was built by T.U. Parks and designed by James G. Gauntt, who worked with TVA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. Gauntt also drew plans for some World War II homes built at Oak Ridge and the buildings at Bob Jones University after it relocated to Greenville, S.C., from Cleveland, Tenn., after World War II.

The DuPont Elementary building and surrounding woods – as well as a number of other buildings heading south – are praised structures of the past that seem to have a place in the present architecturally and aesthetically.

Whether they will be in the future remains to be seen due to a variety of factors at work.

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Note: This is one of a series of stories looking at, analyzing and critiquing Chattanooga’s architectural, urban and pastoral landscape.

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