John Shearer: Unique Flatiron And Regions Center Buildings Recently In News

  • Tuesday, March 28, 2023
  • John Shearer

A couple of buildings in downtown Chattanooga look entirely different from each other, but they have similarly been in the spotlight recently.

However, the media coverage has been for completely different reasons.

The Flatiron Building at 707 Georgia Ave. has received some media attention due to its renovation back to a mostly residential facility, while the Regions Center bank at 601 Market St. was the unfortunate scene on March 20 of a morning bank robbery that is currently unsolved.

But they do have another commonality in that they are known for their unique appearances. The Flatiron Building is triangular shaped and from the early 20th century, while the Regions Center is a uniquely cantilevered building from the late 1970s -- at the very end of the mid-century modern era.

Regarding the Flatiron Building, I had noticed the scaffolding on it in recent months and figured some obvious renovation work was taking place there. As one website says, it is to be renamed as Flatiron Heights and become mostly residential space with 15 condominiums and some office/commercial space on the first floor and in the basement.

Investors include Robert Fisher, Bo Ferger and Dan Levan with Fisher Bay LLC and Clint Dean of Modus Build, while Pamela Fisher and Ali Ferger are making up the listing team, according to the Flatiron Heights website.

A look at the building’s full story shows that history kind of repeats itself, at least in downtown Chattanooga. The building was opened in 1911 by Sam Read, proprietor of the Read House, as an apartment building with lower-floor commercial space.

And one article from that time mentions that the Chattanooga of 1911, much like the city of 2023, had a demand for downtown apartment or multi-unit residential housing. The first one built with residences in mind was the now-razed Elizabeth Apartments across Georgia Avenue and a few feet north, the article said, while the Flatiron was trying to take advantage of this demand and was not far behind.

The Flatiron Building was designed by Charles E. Bearden, who lived in a still-standing home at the southeast corner of Riverview and Lawrence roads and whose other works included the Walker County Courthouse in Georgia and a co-commission of the Chattanooga Golf and Country club with W.T. Downing. Mr. Downing had designed the Elizabeth Apartments built by Coca-Cola bottler J.T. Lupton and named after his wife, Elizabeth.

Evidently, Mr. Read and Mr. Lupton both were interested in diversifying their business interests, as Mr. Read about three years later built a small office building across Georgia Avenue. He would not rebuild part of the Read House into the current look fronting M.L. King Boulevard until 1926.

The Flatiron Building was planned after the famous and still-standing Flatiron Building in New York, a 20-plus-floor structure opened in 1902 and which was bounded by Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 22nd and 23rdstreets in the lower third of Manhattan.

While the much-larger New York building has a different architectural façade, a January 1911 story in the Chattanooga News announcing the start of construction said the sharp corners of the buildings would be similar.

“A glass-covered addition will be situated at the apex, just as is the case with the Flatiron Building of New York,” the story said.

It also said the corner apex would likely be a cigar or news stand operated by a drug store scheduled to move into that end of the building. Other business tenants were to be an ice cream parlor in the basement and the store of milliner Mrs. Steele, whose women’s hat shop was at the site before the older structures were torn down to make way for the Flatiron Building.

Although I have not looked up all the information to know for sure, this building was evidently the first of three uniquely triangular structures fronting Georgia Avenue. The others are One Central Plaza (by M.L. King Boulevard and which later had its sharp front angle reconstructed) and the building housing Transcard and Pickle Barrel between 10th and 11th streets.

A look at a 1938 city directory on file at the Chattanooga Public Library shows that the commercial tenants of the Flatiron Building then included the Rose-Davis Realty Co., the office of physician Dr. O.M. Hayward, the Junior League of Chattanooga and its toy shop, the Caldwell Studio of Dance, the Hem Sew Shop, the Lurene Specialty Shop, Michel Helen Florist, and some offices likely for mining and metal industry brokers and a Christian Science practitioner.

Some 26 apartments were rented, with five of them having more than one resident.

The Flatiron over the years was converted into offices, including for lawyers near the courthouse, and featured the popular Flatiron Deli, now closed.

But now the building is coming back to more its original use of mostly residences.

When the current Regions Center bank building opened in January 1979, the downtown flight to the suburbs had largely already occurred, and more downtown residences were the last thoughts on developers’ minds. A few downtown department and clothing stores remained, and downtown was still the headquarters for many financial businesses and governmental firms, however. And it was amid that backdrop that the current Regions Center building was constructed.

Actually, it came about due to a hint that Chattanoogans still wanted downtown to be vibrant with the construction of Miller Park. When it was completed and opened in 1976, First Federal Savings and Loan on the north end fronting what became M.L. King Boulevard remained.

But officials made plans to build a new structure at Sixth and Market streets to let the entire block become a park, and the 1955 structure known for its nativity scene every Christmas was torn down. And so would some historic buildings from the era of the Flatiron Building and maybe earlier be razed to make way for the new First Federal Building. Those structures being torn down in 1976 had housed the Chow Hound, Rayless (formerly Effron’s) and the Save-A-Dollar.

What was put up in their place was a unique and very modern building for the times, with the upper floors wider than the first floor. Designed by the architectural firm of Derthick and Henley, with Carroll Henley apparently the lead architect, it was constructed by Raines Bros. and was to feature Travertine Italian-style marble and bronze Thermopane insulated glass. And like the other building by Miller Park, it was to feature time and temperature signage.

As Chattanooga Times journalist Alan Murray, who later worked in New York, wrote shortly before its Jan. 29, 1979, opening, “The building is an architectural monument of which the institution and city can be proud.”

He said the marble came from Georgia and said the stone also decorated the interior. Of the rest of the building, he said it also had a mezzanine level on the second floor, and its fifth floor had a terrace that offered a unique view of the city in each direction. Also on the latter floor, he said, were a panoramic painting of Chattanooga by artist George Little and the directors’ room covered with a parquet floor.

The whole building was three times larger than the First Federal building by Miller Park, although the third floor was unfinished space at the time of the opening and the fourth floor was used for computer operations.

The president of First Federal at the time was John Guerry, while the chairman was Harry R. White.

The building later became AmSouth before its current use as a Regions Bank and home to the law offices of the firm of Spears, Moore, Rebman & Williams.

Today, its unique architecture makes it among the most prized buildings from the 1970s and ‘80s era of Chattanooga structures in the eyes of many historic preservationists.

While authorities are still trying to find the robbery assailant who unfortunately entered the building, the unique and eye-catching building in contrast is very hard to miss, particularly as other styles of architecture have come more into vogue.

And who knows, maybe this building one day might be converted to housing as well, or maybe a hotel. The latter is apparently set to be done with another financial institution from another era – the Chattanooga Bank Building at Market and Eighth streets.

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