John Shearer: Examining Chattanooga’s Unique 1970s Brutalist Buildings

  • Saturday, February 19, 2022
  • John Shearer

This decade marks the 50th anniversary of a unique era in Chattanooga building construction – brutalist architecture.


At least from my perspective as a layman who appreciates the aesthetics of architecture simply as an observer rather than as a trained academician, it is primarily the building style highlighted by buildings covered mostly in exposed or reinforced concrete.


Still-standing downtown buildings that fit that style in Chattanooga are the first major addition to the Hunter Museum of American Art, First-Centenary United Methodist Church, the Hamilton County Justice Building fronting on Walnut Street, the former Lupton Library and Student Center at UTC, and my personal favorite – the Chattanooga Public Library.


And outside downtown Chattanooga, another one that has caught my eye simply due to the part of town I frequent is Big Ridge Elementary off now-busy Cassandra Smith Road in Hixson.


And there are likely others as well of this style that, like certain classic books or movies, took a little more time to accept than the more eye-catching mid-century modernist style of a decade or so earlier.


The brutalist buildings also don’t look anything like the classic buildings that preceded them, nor do they look much like newer structures.

But they are noticeable, and the term, “variety is the spice of life,” certainly fits them. They are like the architectural seasoning that maybe offers a noticeable taste.


The style also seems to have aged well and still looks quite presentable nearly 50 years later, despite, or perhaps because of, its uniqueness. 


The brutalist style was also likely an influence on the earlier Truist Building (former American National Bank Building) and even the 1980s-era TVA downtown complex built after the style waned.


Other local buildings that could fall under the brutalist style but are not detailed here include the former J.C. Penney department store at Northgate Mall completed in 1972, and the local B’nai Zion congregation in Brainerd/East Ridge, the planned razing of which was announced last summer.


The brutalist style was characterized by more minimalist construction methods that showcased bare and raw building materials like reinforced concrete, and maybe smoothed stone, steel and glass. Architects wanted to show off the quality of construction materials by exposing them.


The style, according to some information found online, developed in England and Europe in the 1950s and was also inspired in part by a need to construct low-cost housing after World War II. It was known for its lack of ornamentation like that found on more classically styled buildings


Once it arrived in Chattanooga, it apparently did so with a vengeance, based on the fact the Chattanooga buildings I am highlighting were designed by varying architects.


My goal initially with this story was to maybe find a local architect or historian to offer some insight into these buildings like I used to receive from the late Dr. Gavin Townsend of UTC with past architectural stories. And, although I frequent the public library and First-Centenary UMC as a church member, I also wanted to visit some of the other structures, which have varying degrees of public access.


Time and other constraints have prevented all of that, though, and while that might be an interesting additional story for a future date, here is some basic historical information I found on each one:


First-Centenary United Methodist Church – This was actually the first main building of the 1970s-era brutalist style to open in downtown Chattanooga. Despite its outside materials and modernistic look, it still has the somewhat classic look of a traditional church with a steeple and bell.


The new sanctuary/nave came about following the late 1960s merger of First and Centenary churches. First was located at the corner of McCallie and Georgia avenues, and all that remains of the R.H. Hunt-designed building is the steeple. 


The also-razed Centenary church sat across Lindsay Street from Memorial Auditorium, and it was uniquely designed in the early 1920s by a Methodist minister.


While old stories say the building was constructed on the exterior of large sheets of white Alabama limestone, it has a brutalist general look to it, despite some detail, including a large chancel stained-glass window depicting the Biblical Story of Redemption. 


The church was designed by architect Harold Wagoner of Philadelphia, Pa., who at the time was considered the dean of American church architects. The 14 stained-glass windows were done by Willet Studios, also of Philadelphia.


Ground-breaking ceremonies for the building were held on Sunday, June 13, 1971. The old Centenary bell dating to 1879 was moved to the new tower on March 26, 1972, while the new facility was dedicated on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1973. The senior pastor, Dr. Ralph Mohney, led the service.


Lupton Library/Hall – This building was said to be one of the first buildings constructed with state of Tennessee funds after the formerly private University of Chattanooga became part of the UT system in 1969 and was renamed UTC. It was designed by Derthick and Henley, led by Alan Derthick and Carroll Henley.


While the charge was reportedly to conform to the Collegiate Gothic style then popular on the UTC campus, the library building did so very loosely, with perhaps a little brick added to all the exposed concrete the main link.


While a library is considered a quiet place, construction on it started quite loudly with a dynamite explosion featuring smoke in the UTC colors of blue and gold during groundbreaking ceremonies on Sept. 30, 1971. UT system President Dr. Ed Boling was even on hand. H.E. Collins Co. was the general contractor.


The university part of Fletcher Library closed on Dec. 15, 1973, and the new library – which featured almost a cantilevered upper floor, a large and covered entrance plaza and continuous windows around much of it -- was opened on Jan. 17, 1974. The opening festivities included a lunch hosted by UTC Chancellor Dr. James Drinnon and a tour of the new building.


Needless to say, it looked nothing like the old early 20th century buildings in the quadrangle area, or even the nearby Cadek and Guerry buildings, but it still had its own appeal in the eyes of some.


The building was renamed the Lupton Library in memory of Cartter and Margaret Rawlings Lupton in 1986 in recognition of a gift from the family of Coca-Cola bottler Jack Lupton, their son.


In 2014, a new library opened at UTC, and plans were announced to turn the old Lupton Library into an academic building called Lupton Hall.


UTC Student Center – When this building was planned, it was to be designed by Bianculli and Tyler, but by the time the project got going, Jack Tyler and Associates was the architectural firm of record. Ground was broken during a ceremony on Sept. 28, 1972, for this building that was to include a cafeteria, recreation rooms, a 600-seat lecture/film hall, student meeting rooms and an eye-catching interior stairway.


The building constructed by contractors Wilson and Street was dedicated on Aug. 29, 1974, with Gov. Winfield Dunn along with Dr. Boling in attendance.


This building has grown along with the campus, as it was expanded in 1984, the contract for a patio and stage expansion was let in 1989, and another expansion was completed in 2004. It has changed over the years while mostly keeping its unique style.


Initial Hunter Art Museum Expansion – Nowhere in Chattanooga did classic architecture meet a more modern style head-on than with the brutalist addition that was built onto the colonnaded Hunter Museum building. It was like space age meets ancient Greece or early 1900s Chattanooga, or at least like putting an apple next to an orange.


And the unique addition was built not only onto the Hunter Museum, but also under it and in front of it, using the bluff location in a rather unique way. 


The architects Derthick and Henley admitted in a 1976 interview with Emily McDonald of the Chattanooga Times that quite a few people had reacted to the building with strong opinions on both sides. In fact, they said it was the most-commented-on building they had designed, which they added was good.


“Part of the success of the museum is that it does evoke a response from the person who sees it,” said Mr. Henley.


Expanded at a time when visits to cities’ cultural facilities were beginning to expand nationwide, the museum announced plans for the new wing in the fall of 1972. Chattanoogans followed with much interest the numerous newspaper articles highlighting such phases as the removal of the porch in 1973, and one photo showed hanging columns.


The home part of the museum had been formerly lived in by such noted Chattanoogans as Ross Faxon and Coca-Cola bottler George T. Hunter.


During construction, the museum had offices at 26 Bluff View and used exhibit space in the former Lookout Sporting Goods store at 719 Cherry St.


After the expansion was completed, the museum reopened on Sept. 21, 1975. The opening exhibit featured 100 paintings on loan from other Southern museums. Included was a painting done by the noted Andrew Wyeth.


The old part of the museum was to house the permanent collection, while the new part was to house changing exhibits and educational programs.


A wing reflective of an even more contemporary style was years later constructed on the other side, so one can get a thorough education of American architecture just be standing outside and looking at the entire complex.


Hamilton County Justice Building – Featuring unique-and-modernistic long columns in the front perhaps as an ode to classic architecture, this building also seems to have handled the issue of looking attractive with window placement, despite being a prison.


Like the UTC Student Center, it was also designed by Jack Tyler and Associates, with Mr. Tyler’s wife, Lynda, the interior decorator. The building was built to replace the aging county jail, which dated to the 1800s and was located next door and would eventually be torn down.


Groundbreaking for the Justice Building, which was being built by Robins Engineering, was held on Feb. 8, 1973. It was to feature the latest security equipment, including motion-detection surveillance and television-monitoring cameras.


The detention part of the facility was also to be separate from the courts and public access areas that were initially part of the building before the later courts building was constructed on Market Street. 


The Justice Building was dedicated on Jan. 15, 1976. County Judge Don Moore, whose position later morphed into county mayor, was the speaker and he said he hoped the building would be the cornerstone for a local and modern governmental complex. 


Also on hand was Victor Manuel Contreras of Mexico, who had been commissioned to create the unique “Good and Evil” sculpture on display in the building’s lobby.


The prisoners were moved from the old County Jail on Feb. 18, 1976, in what was no doubt an unusual photo op, and the antiquated old jail was open for public tours on March 14, 1976, before its demolition.


Chattanooga Public Library – This building for years was known as the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library before its funding formula changed, so its year of opening at 10th and Broad streets is not hard to figure out. 


It opened for patrons on Monday, Oct. 18, 1976, after a Sunday open house and dedication in which Dr. Joe Johnson of Interstate life was the featured speaker. 


It was replacing the classic Fletcher Library at UTC, which the university had also used, and which later became part of the business school and was expanded.


The Bicentennial Library building was also designed by Derthick and Henley (now known as Derthick, Henley and Wilkerson, or DH&W) and built by Robins Engineering of reinforced concrete. 


It was known for its open floor plan with plenty of light coming in from all the window space, its entrance plaza and fountain, and its three metal art pieces that were done by Jeff Naylor. He was a British-born sculptor who at the time was on the faculty at the University of Florida. Two of his pieces remain, but the tall one was later replaced by a metal sculpture depicting a book and bookend.


Perhaps because of the style of these buildings, they were also calling out for artwork to be part of them to enhance them.


The library also had an interesting gazebo in the children’s section that has since been removed as well.


But even as the library is trying to reinvent itself and offer new services like passport help and a coffee bar in addition to books and local history research in this changing digital age, it remains quite a showplace for passersby to that part of downtown.


It might have originally looked rather different and unusual or maybe just modern, but today it is almost like a vintage landmark.


Big Ridge Elementary – The unusual-looking gray school building was welcomed in the late 1970s not so much for its look, but for its function of being able to house more city school students in the fast-growing area of Hixson. It was to pull some 600 students from DuPont and Hixson elementaries.


The architect for the school was Edwin E. Howard. In contrast to all those local schools built around 1960 and full of windows, the Big Ridge one had much fewer windows, but each room was still given natural light. It also had covered entrance areas with two features more representative of the mid-century modernist style -- zig-zag roofs over covered entrances and a privacy wall made of open concrete bricks.


Principal Amanda Cate, who had formerly served at Barger Elementary, said during an initial tour of the building that she liked the fact that you could stand behind the office and see all the way down both hallways. “It’s a principal’s dream,” she said with a smile.


The name of the new school that sits at the foot of Big Ridge across from Bethel Bible Village was announced in May 1979. As school was getting ready to start later that summer, officials stated that it would open a little later than expected due to construction delays, but that the students would go a little longer each day for a period to make up for the slow start.


It was to be the first new city school since Clifton Hills Elementary opened in 1968.


An official dedication and open house were held on Nov. 18, 1979.


Buildings like it and the other brutalist structures might look different from the styles used today, but they have definitely made their mark on Chattanooga in their own ways.


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