When Robert Kirk Walker used to visit Europe while on vacation from his law practice before beginning his term as mayor in the early 1970s, he noticed that nearly every town had a centrally located park.
For Burkett Miller, another Chattanooga attorney with another firm, all it took was a trip by his mind while looking out the window of his offices in the Volunteer Building. From there, he visualized a park in a nearby block amid some not overly inspiring buildings.
What eventually resulted was the opening in 1976 of Miller Park in the block across Georgia Avenue from the Federal Building.
It would be one of the showplaces and focal points of downtown, particularly for the first 15 years or so after it opened.
However, Miller Park’s time as a big draw for all Chattanoogans had evidently come to an end in its current state.
With all the changes to downtown Chattanooga, particularly in the last 25 years, city officials apparently decided it was time to hit the equivalent of the urban refresh button for Miller Park.
The park in recent years had become known as much for providing a daytime place of comfort and rest for the homeless and marginalized during warm weather as for where people went to eat their lunch or listen to a noontime concert like in the old days. That was due in part to the more easily accessible Miller Plaza’s opening across the street in 1988.
The newer Miller Park, which is scheduled to open in 2018, is supposed to be more on street level and feature green space and an amphitheater.
As a result, every last bit of the old park – including every surrounding tree – has been razed, and the dirt-covered landscape looks much as the park did in the mid-1970s when construction on it was beginning.
It has been a move that has been met with both support and disapproval.
A look back at the construction and opening of the park in the 1970s shows a park that was also not met with total approval, at least during the first few months of its planning.
The first public announcement regarding the planned Miller Park evidently came about in September 1973, when Mayor Walker announced plans for the small bit of green space.
About $1 million had been raised from the private sector, and $500,000 was coming from the city to acquire land.
The mayor said the project had been discussed since he took office in 1971.
Helping with the project was longtime American National Bank executive and civic leader Scott Probasco Jr. He headed a committee that also included Cranston Pearce, James Hitching, and Joseph Davenport. The group was also working with George McInturff of the Downtown Development Committee
In the announcement about the planned park, the always-enthusiastic Mr. Probasco tried to sell the community on the plans.
“We sincerely believe that such a park at this location will not only furnish rest and recreation to our people of the downtown area, but will be a great step in the beautification of our community,” he said.
However, not everyone was initially endorsing the project so enthusiastically. Steve Conrad, who was then commissioner of public utilities, grounds and buildings in the old City Commission form of government, had questions. They included whether it would be city run.
He also said he and the department had not been consulted on the project up until that time.
However, everything was apparently soon worked out positively, and any plans by the committee would be subject to the approval of the city.
As a result, the remaining buildings were to be razed, with the First Federal Savings and Loan building at the corner of Georgia Avenue and what was then East Ninth Street (now M.L. King Jr. Boulevard) to be acquired at a future date.
The demolition work began in March 1974. Besides First Federal, also in the block that was also bounded by 10th and Market streets were Peoples Studio, a liquor store, Handcraft Cleaners, D&W Engineering and Printing Co., Rutledge Beauty College, Alabama Furniture Co., Grand Loan Office, Mid-Town Twin Cinema, Central Loan Office, the Quickie Shoppes, the Post Office Grill and Glen-Gene sandwich shop.
During the razing and excavation work, two silver dollars, a pair of shoes, and some bottles were found.
James Franklin was selected as the architect and was to work with Betts Engineering Co., on the project that included a waterfalls and small reflection pond during that time when water was evidently an important part of a park.
R.A. Agnew was chosen to be the general contractor after a bid of $569,404, while Terrell Electric Co. was to install the acoustical shell and electric sound system for $32,972.
The stone for the reflecting pool came from Indiana, although a strike delayed its shipment.
In June 1976 – months after the demolition and construction work began – it was publicly announced what the park’s name would be Miller Park. Up until that time, it had mostly been called the downtown park.
It was actually to be named in honor of Burkett Miller’s parents, White B. and Mary Miller, although Mr. Miller had given some of the buildings he owned for the park and had also first envisioned a park there when he bought his first building in 1954.
The land had actually been first looked at as a World War II memorial park in 1944, when Col. and architect Harrison Gill was first asked to draw plans. A fire at some buildings there in 1964 also brought talk of a park there as well.
The park was completed and dedicated on a cold Dec. 8, 1976. The Hixson High band under Frank Hale played, and Mr. Walker, who by then had been succeeded by Pat Rose as mayor, spoke and sounded quite visionary.
“Miller Park should help spark our enthusiasm for fresher downtown development and remind us that no worthy goal is too great for us to consider,” he said.
Burkett Miller, who was just weeks from dying, was hospitalized in Miami and unable to attend the Chattanooga ceremony. However, in emotional prepared remarks read during the program, he said, “Nothing can ever deprive me of the heartfelt thanks of having been permitted to see the realization of a dream of more than a quarter century.”
He about this same time was leaving the University of Virginia money to create the now-familiar Miller Center for public policy at the school.
While former Mayor Walker helped develop Miller Park along with Mr. Miller, Mr. Walker’s wife, Joy, helped play a big role in keeping it going once it opened.
Named coordinator of programs months before it opened, she enthusiastically lined up quite a few forms of entertainment to play there during the mostly weekday lunch hours.
For a few years, no restaurant in town was more a happening place in downtown Chattanooga during lunchtime than Miller Park. A few eateries also started springing up across East Ninth Street from the park, including Yogurt Express
The first few weeks in the spring of 1977 at Miller Park included performances by school music groups and the Chattanooga Symphony and Orchestra, as well as a Lovemans style show.
A major milestone in the park’s opening months occurred on Friday, Sept. 29, 1978. On that day, the University of Tennessee’s Pride of the Southland Band made its first appearance there on its way to the Vols’ game against Auburn in Birmingham.
The park would continue to be a big draw and become a favorite site to take pictures of all sorts, whether of a family enjoying lunch or an all-city high school football team.
Plans continued to redevelop a Phase II of Miller Park as well. That occurred after First Federal built a new office building down near Sixth and Broad streets, and the former land was razed to create a plaza with benches.
The small, elevated corner of the park was dedicated on Nov. 7. 1979. The Tyner High band played, and architect Jim Franklin was the featured speaker, pointing to how the project was not always met as enthusiastically as it was on that day.
“There was a lot of opposition before we started this park, but after Phase I was completed, we never heard a word of opposition again,” he said.
The guest of honor at the 1979 dedication was Burkett Miller’s widow, Willie D. Miller, for whom the eye center at Erlanger Medical Center had already been named.
Three bronze plaques, including a bas relief sculpture done by Julian Harris of Atlanta, were dedicated that day. And, as Chattanooga Times reporter Pat Wilcox noted with a careful eye, Ms. Miller was spotted running her hands across the sculpture after the ceremony. By then, she had very limited sight and was confined to a wheelchair.
But Ms. Miller and many other Chattanoogans by then also had a pretty good collective vision of wanting downtown Chattanooga to be a nice place and a place people would want to embrace.
They had not given up on it despite the urban flight from the city’s core that had begun in earnest in recent years.
The mid-1980s would begin a more organized effort to make people realize how special downtown Chattanooga was with its amenities and surrounding beauty. And now that effort seems to be compounding almost on its own.
But for a few almost desperate days in the 1970s, the Millers and Walkers and a few others tried to save downtown and make the community at large want to fall in love all over again with it.