John Shearer: Getting To Tour National Register-Listed Christ Church Episcopal

Friday, May 14, 2021 - by John Shearer

When parishioner Nancy Poston first visited Christ Church Episcopal on McCallie Avenue a few years ago, it was after walking from her nearby Fort Wood home. 


While trying to experience some spiritual rejuvenation from the service after enjoying the physical rejuvenation that comes from exercise, she noticed some peeling plaster and that the church probably needed a historically sensitive renovation and restoration.


It needed its own rejuvenation of sorts!


But to almost anyone who has an appreciation for significant architecture where the historic look is maintained, it was obviously another gem among the several handsome and older church buildings still dotting the downtown area.


And now this mostly restored building has joined many of these other ones as well by recently being named to the National Register of Historic Places.

With Ms. Poston’s initiation after joining the church and becoming junior warden, or physical property trustee, and with help from local historic preservation official Melissa Mortimer, who did the written nomination work, the church was approved for the select list.


The Register list, which does not prevent changes to a building but does allow for tax credits and other incentives, is decided upon by the National Park Service after a recommendation by a state review board.


After seeing the announcement about the honor recently in the media, I realized it might have been the only downtown Chattanooga place of worship where I had not seen the inside. And while obviously possessing a nice architectural look, it has also always seemed a little more inconspicuous physically to me, perhaps because it sits right across from the larger, Stanford White-designed First Presbyterian Church. Its darker brick perhaps also makes it a little more of a discreet landmark.


But with the help of new priest in charge the Rev. Dr. William Levanway, I was kindly granted a tour on May 6. 


Greeting me in a full robe, the amicable and pleasant Dr. Levanway, who grew up in Jackson, Ms., and just moved to Christ Church last October after eight years in the London/Oxford area of England, walked me through most of the interior of the building.


The highlights included the row of arches and columns on either side of the interior walls, the wooden support beams in the ceiling area, the eagle-shaped lectern found in other Episcopal churches, the nice wooden staircases with balusters, all the woodwork in the altar and chancel areas, the crucifix, the wooden pews, the vintage radiators, the terrazzo and hardwood floors, and the raised pulpit area framed in shiny metal.   


Other features included all the wooden paneling in the back part of the nave leading into the narthex, the stained-glass windows updated and beautified in more recent years, the nice rose window behind the altar, and the attractive metal incense burners hanging in the sacristy.


Upstairs in the back is an interesting and cozy choir practice room near the balcony tracker organ installed by what is now Richards Fowkes and Co. of Ooltewah in 1987.


Like many particular older churches of a medium or large size I have entered, the interior perhaps looked a little different from what I expected after seeing the exterior countless times, but in a pleasantly surprising sort of way.


There is also a small chapel called the Lady Chapel, and outside is a cloister garden with a small columbarium where some parishioners have had their cremated ashes interred. One person there whose name caught my eye was Ralph H. Kelley, the former Chattanooga mayor from the 1960s, who focused partly on good race relations and later became a federal bankruptcy judge before his death in 2004.


Melissa Mortimer, who is currently a historic preservation planner with the city of Chattanooga, was with the Southeast Tennessee Development District when she was first asked about two years ago by Ms. Poston to put together a nomination form using grant funds.


While doing the work, a couple of observations jumped out at her that made her realize the building would probably be worthy of being on the National Register list. Those factors included the Gothic Revival architecture and the architect who did some interior renovation work – noted Boston building designer Ralph Adams Cram, whose resume included a number of churches in large cities and some buildings at West Point.


“The connection to the Boston area is really interesting and unique for Chattanooga,” she said. “And it has so many high-style Gothic Revival architectural features – the interior specifically. The interior is unlike any other one in the city.”


According to some historical information on the nomination form done by Ms. Mortimer, plans for the church started in 1900, when some members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Chattanooga began planning for a new parish on the east side of town.


The two churches now seem only a mile or less apart, but this was in the pre-automobile days. Their organizing was led by Baylor School founder John Roy Baylor, a proud Episcopalian whose school was then located off Palmetto Street where the UTC Fine Arts Center now is.


After they met in temporary spaces, the current building was completed and opened in 1908. The architect was Mason Maury from Louisville, Ky., who designed and built over 700 residential and commercial structures, mostly in Louisville, his Wikipedia entry says.


Christ Church – which historically has had a higher style of worship, even among Episcopal churches -- was originally to be made of stone, but brick laid in the Flemish bond style of alternately placing short and long ends side by side was selected.


Sitting on the immediate west side of the church at the time was the large Victorian C.A. Lyerly home, which the church later took over and used before eventually razing it.


While the church had a good foundation both spiritually and physically with its structure at the corner of Douglas Street and McCallie Avenue, by the 1920s it still did not have many amenities, particularly on the interior of its structure.


Plans had been made when the building opened to eventually install them, and by the 1920s the church was ready. After a large offering for the work was collected, the church’s first rector, Father William Robertson, contacted the noted architect Cram. 


The architect agreed to do the work as a good Catholic and because his wife was from the South, he said. His design included adding the columns and arches, the rose window, the detailed woodwork and paneling throughout the nave and altar areas, and small chapel areas dedicated to St. Joseph and St. Mary.


Eventually, local architect Louis Bull was also involved with architect Cram and partner Frank Ferguson as the resident architect. It was completed and opened in 1930.


Some apparent misunderstandings brought some confusion regarding whether the work was to be free or not, the nomination account says, and that was compounded by the stress of the Great Depression. Eventually, the church paid architect Cram a determined fee and, despite financial struggles, slowly paid off the construction debt.


And this church that had an addition built on the north side in 1957 and its stained-glass windows updated in 2011 is now considered priceless, at least as an architectural treasure of Chattanooga.


The National Park Service apparently agrees, and so does Rev. Levanway, who is admittedly enjoying his new architectural surroundings, including what he calls the great acoustics of the building.


“It’s a real lovely place to be,” he said. “I definitely feel lucky to be here.”

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