The end of an era has come for the Hixson community, as most of the historic Hixson Middle School will be torn down in the near future.
After a new middle school was built and opened near Hixson High School in 2009, the city of Chattanooga purchased the old school and now plans to clear most of the site. The newer gymnasium and a small number of newer classrooms will be preserved, however, and converted into a city recreation center.
While the closing of the facility brought the end of human reminders of its long run as a school, the razing will also bring to a conclusion several of the reminders of the work of the highly praised architectural firm, the R.H.
The expansive Southern sections of the school – which sit behind mature trees like a typical school setting of old – were constructed by the Mark Wilson Co. in 1937 from plans drawn by the Hunt firm.
At least one local preservationist likes the old school building and hates to see it go, in part because of its connection to R.H. Hunt.
“It will be a shame to lose this building,” said Dr. Gavin Townsend, an art and architecture professor at UTC, who has done much research into Mr. Hunt’s work. “Architecturally, it is a fine example of a PWA (Public Works Administration)-sponsored art deco school. It is also the product of one of Chattanooga’s most significant architectural firms.”
Larry Zehnder, administrator of the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department, said the city and project architect Bob Franklin of Franklin Associates do hope to save the auditorium, which is also part of the 1937 section designed by Mr. Hunt.
“We are going to try to preserve that if we can,” said Mr. Zehnder. “It’s going to need a lot of work. But we hope we can make use of that because there’s a real need” for such a gathering place.
R.H. Hunt’s firm had also designed such landmark Chattanooga buildings as the Hamilton County courthouse, City Hall, the Federal Building, the James Building, the Maclellan Building, Memorial Auditorium, Second Presbyterian Church and the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, which opened as Chattanooga “City” High.
Mr. Hunt died in 1937, so whether he or his associates did the design work on the Hixson school is not clear.
Dr. Townsend said the Hixson school is much different from other Hunt-designed schools from that time period, such as the neoclassical Bachman Elementary on Signal Mountain and Ganns Middle Valley Elementary, both of which may have been inspired by the well-publicized renovation at Colonial Williamsburg at the time.
Hixson Middle School, on the other hand, definitely hints of art deco, which was considered cutting edge at that time.
“It is intended to read as progressive and contemporary, marked with a flat roof, machine-like detailing, and groups of metal-framed windows” Dr. Townsend said, adding that he wonders if the New Deal-era Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works that helped fund the project insisted on such a style.
Dr. Townsend said he likes such features as the black brick detailing placed among the more traditional red brick, the ornamentation that looks like a 1930s’ automobile radiator grill, and the lack of molding around the windows, except on the auditorium.
Other Chattanoogans also like the older Hixson Middle School building, but also for intrinsic reasons.
“I hate to see any of it torn down,” said William Smith, who went to junior high and high school in the Hunt-designed section in the 1940s and early 1950s. “But it will be useful to the community (as a recreation center), I certainly hope.”
Mr. Smith, who went on to serve as a principal at several area schools, had actually gone to elementary school -- and later taught -- at the adjacent older facility, which was built in 1908 and was located where the newer gym is now.
As a result, he remembered that the 1937 addition seemed much different when he started junior high.
“The building had tile hallways,” he said. “It was laid out nicely. It was not a building with wooden floors like in the older building. It was neat and clean.”
A highlight of going to school there, he said, was getting to take agriculture classes at the then-county rural school.
“You could major in it and I did,” he said, adding that the agriculture teacher was a well-liked man named Glen Card.
“He lived in a white house on the north end of the school,” he said. “The house on the other end was the Methodist parsonage (for Hixson Methodist). This was right in the middle of the community back then.”
While the students were getting such basic courses as agriculture, the school also offered such niceties as music, and Mr. Smith remembers taking a bus at night back to watch some operettas in the auditorium.
“We actually had lots of culture in school but we were still called hicks,” he said with a laugh.
When Mr. Smith taught in an annex of the 1908 building before a newer Hixson Elementary opened, he also remembered an old house behind the school, where a school system nurse would periodically come to give shots. As a result, that structure was called the shot house.
Hixson High administrative assistant Nina East, who has become sort of an unofficial historian for the history of Hixson High, said the 1908 building -- which featured an expansive porch and arches -- was considered attractive.
“It was a beautiful building,” she said. “Architecturally it was really gorgeous.”
Mr. Smith said he believes that building, which a plaque at the old middle school says was designed by Adams and Alsup, was similar to one also built at Sale Creek.
Hixson community advocate Linda Hixon remembers the old 1908 building fondly when she was going to junior high there in the late 1960s before it was torn down.
“I thought the old building was so neat, because when I would get there (to school in the morning), we would hang out on the porch and you could climb up and sit under the arches.”
She also remembers well the 1937 auditorium, where she and a friend once competed in a talent show.
“It had wooden seats without cushions,” she said. “I graduated from junior high in the auditorium.”
“And gym classes were held in the old gym” (on the south end), she said. “I looked at it recently and it looked a lot smaller than I remember it. It had a regulation-style basketball court and the bleachers were all built into the side.”
She also remembered that the junior high cafeteria had good sloppy Joe sandwiches and chocolate cakes.
Another Hixson High alumnus, Jim Ashley, said his sixth-grade class in 1960 was one of the last to finish elementary school in the 1908 building before a new grammar school opened on Winding Lane in 1961.
And his 1966 high school class of 129 students was the last to graduate at the old 1937 middle school building before the new circular structure opened the next fall off Middle Valley Road.
He particularly remembers a good friend trying to observe the historical change appropriately the following year.
“My good friend, Bronce Atchley, was a neighbor of mine in that class,” Mr. Ashley said. “He drove his stepfather’s (Tommy Hinch’s) tractor to school on the last day of classes because his class was the first to graduate and he wanted to be remembered as part of that historic event.”
After the new high school opened and Hixson was blossoming as a very popular Chattanooga suburb in the 1960s and 1970s, Hixson Junior High was a school of choice for the late baby boomers under the direction of principal and future school board member Everett Fairchild.
For several years in the 1970s, the school was also known for its outstanding junior high football teams.
Hixson High School actually did not have its own football stadium until it dedicated its current one by Middle Valley Road against Red Etter-coached Baylor in September 1977. As a result, it continued to play its varsity games across School Drive from the junior high. The game against then-arch rival Red Bank always drew a big crowd there.
One standout Hixson High player who played on the junior high field in the early 1970s was current county mayor Jim Coppinger.
In the 1980s, junior highs (grades 7-9) became middle schools (6-8) locally, and schools started beginning the academic year in mid-August instead of after Labor Day.
However, the old middle school facility had remained seemingly unchanged. But it too will change, although some of the historic structure will remain to serve the community in a new way while continuing to take graduates back to the good days of yesteryear.