John Shearer: Examining Older Chattanooga Buildings That Look Like Twins

Saturday, February 16, 2019 - by John Shearer

They say everyone has a twin somewhere, and maybe that is true for buildings as well.


Located around the greater Chattanooga area are a number of mostly older buildings that are each almost identical to, or at least favor greatly, another building in a different part of town.


I am not talking about the fast-food restaurants that are identical, like all the new-look Wendy’s or older McDonald’s, or the Panera restaurants that all seem just slightly different from each other.


Nor am I talking about all the retirement and nursing care centers that have been built by the same corporations in recent years in different neighborhoods and even cities using similar blueprints.


I am primarily talking about buildings that were likely designed a half century or more ago, and are similar enough for a viewer to see a connection.

If the buildings are not identical twins, they are at least brothers or sisters of the same architectural parent.


I was aware of the connection between the round Ooltewah and Hixson high schools years ago, but in recent months I have found others. They include at least two Churches of Christ, a couple of Regions Banks built as part of a previous financial institution, two historic Chattanooga community centers, and a couple of original old school auditoriums.


There may be others, and anyone who knows of them, or is aware of additional structures that look like these five sets of fraternal or identical brick twins, is welcome to email me.


But for now, let us take a look at the ones of which I am currently aware. The first two I will mention are the old East Chattanooga and East Lake recreation facilities, or youth and family development centers, as the city of Chattanooga calls them.


Built years ago – probably around the 1920s or 1930s – when those two parts of Chattanooga were more middle class than the neighborhoods currently are, these two structures are still high class architecturally.


In short, they have immense charm. They are primarily made of brick with Tudor-inspired wood and possibly stucco trim.


They both also have a similar shape, with a large entrance area entered through a nice covered area supported by wooden posts. The original parts of the buildings also shoot off to the left in an asymmetrical manner when seen from the front.


A main difference is that a section to the left of the East Chattanooga one off Dodson Avenue has a small breezeway/porch with interesting wooden arches, while the same area of the East Lake center by Dodds Avenue is covered with a Tudor wall.


Away from the buildings, the setting is a little different. The East Lake one appears to have a newer gym by it, while the East Chattanooga center has an aesthetically pleasing and more expansive open field around it.


One other way they are similar is that a historic preservationist would say that they both likely deserve to be protected, even if upgrades were to be planned like is being done with the Avondale Center.


At least two old school auditorium-like wings in other parts of town also look very similar. They are the one at Tyner Academy and the one at what was the former Hixson High/Middle School, now the Hixson Community Center. The old former Red Bank High/Middle School also had a wing that looked a lot like those.


In fact, R.H. Hunt was believed to have designed a lot of these school structures around Chattanooga at a time when New Deal money and work could be used to construct them during the Great Depression. The old Soddy-Daisy school and possibly others also had similar looks.


While these structures do not look totally alike – perhaps the Red Bank one razed in 2013 looked more like the Tyner building – they do appear to have the same DNA in the blueprints. They are each rectangular shaped, have a front entrance with two windows on the sides, and have similarly shaped and positioned windows on a longer side.


But perhaps the real clue that they are connected is the gray brick trim on the front outer corners of the buildings. Here, the architect definitely left his mark, even if it is subtle.


At Hixson, much of the rest of the R.H. Hunt part of the school is gone and it is surrounded by the newer part that makes up the community center. Tyner, meanwhile, has a simply classic and peaceful look and ambience when seen from the grassy lawn in the front and when it is void of students, like on a weekend.


And for lovers of mid-century architecture, Tyner has a neat-looking, stand-alone newer auditorium down the hill. Besides “Auditorium” written in giant letters, the building also features on the front unique curved brick and tile work.


A few yards away from Tyner Academy is Tyner Church of Christ at the corner of Hickory Valley Road and Bonny Oaks Drive. It is obviously a building from the mid-century, but in a more modest and less creative way than some of the eye-catching mid-century architecture found elsewhere.


However, it has its own architectural adornment in the form of a uniquely shaped concrete block-like material that appears to serve as latticework.


It might be hard to find this building’s twin, or at least first cousin, but the North Hixson Church of Christ near the Gold Bond plant off Old Hixson Pike looks a lot like it. This can be found in the rectangular shape of the building, the horizontally shaped windows on the sides, a low-pitched roofline and, of course, the concrete-block type design. The only difference is that the Hixson church’s latticework is narrower in total width.


Two other similar buildings from this mid-century time frame, but done in the sleeker glass and polished brick look, are the Regions bank branches at 3894 Hixson Pike and 5515 Brainerd Road.


Apparently First Federal savings and loan facilities when they originally were built, the structures both have a lot of glass, slick gray brick and a similar shape with a flat roof. The only difference is that the Hixson Pike structure near Highland Plaza has more glass on the front, while the Brainerd structure has more brick.


But they are definitely similar, although maybe in more of a “him and her,” or yin and yang, way.


They are also both monuments to a bygone-but-respected era of unique architecture. Both also appear to have held up nicely over the last half century.


Speaking of unique architecture, the last two buildings – Ooltewah and Hixson high schools – are from that short-lived period of the 1960s, when schools were built in the round.


Constructed reportedly because that type of school was thought to be less expensive to build than traditional schools, they were also likely inspired by the 1960s era of flying saucers and space travel. Other round schools in Chattanooga built about that time include Brown Middle School and Central High.


The round scholastic wing at Hixson – opened in 1966 – looks identical to the one at Ooltewah. I did not realize until I went up to look at Ooltewah High closely, but it only has one round building, while Hixson’s gym on the right side was also built at the same time as a circular structure.


Both schools have had multiple additions in the years since initial construction, but the two round structures still look like identical twins literally separated at birth. Even the schools’ lettering on the buildings is done in the same shape and was placed at about the same locations on the outer walls.


As a result, a Hixson High alumnus or alumna walking outside or inside the circular part of Ooltewah High might feel déjà vu, and vice versa.


And Chattanoogans over the years have literally done double takes, too, over this experience of witnessing the same or similar architectural scenes in different places.


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Note: This is another in a series of stories looking at, analyzing and critiquing Chattanooga’s architectural, urban and pastoral landscape. To see the previous story in the series, read here.


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