John Shearer: Examining The Old Brainerd Junior High Building

Saturday, June 15, 2019 - by John Shearer

One of the more classic-looking school settings in Chattanooga is the old former Brainerd Junior High School/21st Century Academy.


From a distance off Brainerd Road down Tuxedo Avenue, it looks quite inviting seemingly set off with a nice grassy lawn in the front.

And from up close, it is an attention catcher, too, with its well-done architectural detail.


In fact, the ornamentation is detailed enough in one or two places to look like something found on the biggest old bank building in town or an important government building. But the trim still seems to look appropriate and is not too ostentatious sitting on a public school building.


In short, the structure would probably get a few votes among historic preservationists or architectural enthusiasts for being one of the prettier pre-World War II school buildings in Chattanooga.


It is also simply another strong piece of evidence showing the artistic skills of its architect – the prolific R.H. Hunt. Before his death in 1937, he designed dozens of public buildings not only in Chattanooga, but also in several other states in the South.


Of course, a praised description of the classic architecture is not the full story with this building. It has also been only slightly used in 10 years, since the 21st Century Academy closed, and is showing the typical signs of neglect or limited use.


I must admit that I have not looked at the building up close in a number of years. I live in the Hixson area and don’t frequent Brainerd that much, although I love some of the architecture along Brainerd Road here. And I have always admired the old school building when glancing down Tuxedo Avenue in my car toward this intersection with the looping Cherryton Drive.


About 10 days ago, I had to drop something off at nearby Brainerd United Methodist Church and, since I was planning on taking a jog afterward, decided to stop here.


Although I went to Baylor School in the 1970s at the time when this building was Brainerd Junior High, I have a sentimental attachment to it for reasons other than architectural ones.


We played Brainerd Junior High in a football game on the field in the rear in the seventh grade under coach Bob Polk. I was fortunate to score a touchdown in it, I recall, and, more importantly, we won.


I think we also had a pre-season scrimmage on that field during my ninth-grade year under rookie Baylor coach Bill McMahan, who is still working at Baylor 45 years later.


I tried to think about that when I went jogging that day recently on the field and in front of the school. I even went up the nearby wooded hill to the UTC-operated Jones Observatory, which was closed off with a locked gate.


The expansive field seemed a little different from when I played there, although it may have been just because it now has a playground on one end due to its later use for elementary students.


The front part of the school dates to 1930 when it opened as Brainerd Junior High at a time when Brainerd was starting to grow east of Missionary Ridge. But on the back are some additions that I understand were built in 1956 and 1959.


A gym or recreation facility obviously built in the last two or three decades also stands up by the southeast corner of the field, and I also noticed the old grill pavilion on the southwest corner of the field. I remember going by this place with my parents as a child, probably in the late 1960s, to eat at the Brainerd Kiwanis Club barbecue that was held there.


The revamped East Brainerd Kiwanis Club still has a summertime barbecue, but now at the East Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home grounds off Lee Highway.


Although I would love to maybe get a tour of the inside of the school building at some point in the future, I did not get a chance to do that or find out a lot of detail on the use of the building at present.


I did see two men who looked like coaches or recreation workers standing and talking outside the newer gym facility when I was there jogging that day. And then on Friday, when I went back to take some pictures of the iconic front of the structure, the old school sign was advertising for the Midtown Summer Camp. Also, small American flags had been placed by the front entrance since my previous visit.


So the building is apparently being used some.


If the apparent owner, Hamilton County Schools, ever decides to sell it, it appears as if it would be ideal for some reuse ranging from a residential complex to a school or church plant. That is, provided its interior infrastructure workings do not have serious problems due to lack of much use in recent years.


That grass setting in the front is one of the best for a school in Chattanooga. And, in contrast to some other classic school buildings -- like the current Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Third Street and the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts on East Brainerd Road – it is far enough away from passing motorists.


Here one can stand and feel as if he or she has slipped back in time decades. Whatever year an alumnus or alumna attended this school, he or she could easily have it come back to life more vividly on a visit with the unchanged setting.


The only drawback is that the lawn area has probably a few too many pine trees for a landscaped Chattanooga school lawn, even though it does have several very nice mature hardwoods.


The front face of the school, on the other hand, is seemingly perfect architecturally. The precast stone ornamentation at the front entrance has to be one of the most awe inspiring in Chattanooga on a school building, even without any porch columns or front steps, as is usually the case when trying to show grandeur.


It is also nicely done how the older gym on the east end closer to the Jones Observatory is slanted inward toward the front lawn, while the similar-looking front of the auditorium wing on the west end runs along with the main center part.


This seems to give the school a more aesthetically pleasing look than if the whole front of the school were in a straight line.


An old newspaper article said the gym and auditorium wings were built detached to allow one to visit after hours, in case an event might be taking place at night at the auditorium, for example.


According to some old newspaper clippings at the Chattanooga Public Library, the Von Trapp family singers – the inspiration for the movie, “The Sound of Music” – performed at the auditorium in the 1940s.


Some scrapbook pages in the Brainerd Junior High file also talk about former U.S. Rep Ruth Bryan Owen, the daughter of noted orator and politician William Jennings Bryan, speaking in Chattanooga for an education event. But it is not clear if it was at Brainerd Junior High.


Among the school’s other history, one of its earlier teachers and coaches was E.B. “Red” Etter before he went on to distinguish himself as the football coach at Central High and Baylor.


Strangely, the most expansive information about the school in the library files is the collection of clippings of numerous newspaper articles from 1968 regarding the slapping of student Michael Martin at the school by science teacher John Sullivan.


The situation was complicated due to the fact the young Martin student was the son of city schools Supt. Dr. Charles Martin. Articles ran on for days – with support and viewpoints from both sides – before Mr. Sullivan was apparently permanently placed in another school.


The school also had two fires in the early 1970s. The second one in March 1973 forced the school to have to use Dalewood Junior High for several weeks, with the two schools operating on different shifts.


In 1990, in a precursor of the problems and concerns to come for all schools, a young student had to be apprehended at the school after brandishing a box cutter in front of a principal and assistant principal.


In 1991, the school – by then known as Brainerd Middle School – became the second local school behind Howard High to require uniforms. The thinking was that young students were trying to outdo each other by having the latest – and most expensive -- fashions like Michael Jordan Nike shoes, etc.


In 1994, the school became a technology-focused “ecological, futures and global” school known as 21st Century Academy.


Unfortunately, the school did not last long into the 21st century, as it closed in 2009, 12 years after the city schools and Hamilton County schools merged.


In 2012, a Maryville, Tenn., developer looked at buying it and converting it into a business incubator center, but those plans did not materialize.


If any other plans are imminent, they have not been publicly announced.


While the building’s future is apparently up in the air, its past is mostly rich through all the experiences of the students.


And its past, present and immediate future have all been linked positively due to this handsome building sitting nicely down a side road in Brainerd.

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