The former Brass Register building, now Six18 restaurant and lounge
photo by John Shearer
The downtown Chattanooga and surrounding areas are now heavily populated with restaurant/bar combination places, and some even brew their own beer.
But this modern era of the downtown area housing establishments where food, spirits, fellowship and even music could all be enjoyed began with the opening of the Brass Register, and a short time later, Yesterday’s, 50 years ago this month.
These two places and a few others that followed helped more easily pave the way for the downtown riverfront development that was planned and mostly well received in the 1980s and carried out in detail beginning in the 1990s.
As a look is taken at the Brass Register in this story and in a future article planned for Yesterday’s on this golden anniversary of their beginnings, Paul Boehm recalled that the idea for the Brass Register – or BR as it would be called by its patrons – began when he was in Memphis.
The 1967 Baylor School graduate had just finished his schooling at the University of Virginia and was visiting a fraternity brother in Memphis around early 1972.
The friend was working as a manager at the original TGI Fridays there shortly after liquor by the drink had been approved, and something about the place and atmosphere caught his eye.
“I absolutely loved everything about it – the décor, the bar, the food,” Mr. Boehm recalled over the phone recently from his South Carolina home.
Suddenly, the restaurant’s theme of the nostalgic past gave him an idea for a future career for himself. He first inquired about possibly getting a TGI Fridays franchise but that was not successful. However, that did not deter his dream, and he continued to brainstorm, with a focus on the Scenic City.
“I came back to Chattanooga and realized there was no place to go to have a drink or a popular fun spot,” he said.
With liquor by the drink having been approved in a referendum in Chattanooga in December 1971 in a contentious and close vote that brought plenty of debate in this area called the buckle of the Bible Belt, the business community was ripe for such establishments. Bar-only places would also quickly become popular in places like Brainerd in the 1970s.
It was all part of a move taking place around the state. In Knoxville, Sandy Beall and some SAE friends opened the first Ruby Tuesday hamburger pub in a former house just off the Strip of Cumberland Avenue near the University of Tennessee campus in 1972.
As he inquired around, Mr. Boehm said he happened to talk to Tim Hennen, whose family would go on to start Yesterday’s.
“Tim Hennen and I had the same idea, and we talked about doing something together,” he said, adding that he knew the Notre Dame grad from going to Catholic schools before enrolling at Baylor in the ninth grade.
However, they decided not to go into business together, and since Mr. Boehm lived just north of the Tennessee River, he thought downtown was a good location as he continued to investigate. He happened to go into an older restaurant by Fountain Square and talked to the owner, who told him he was of age to retire and ready to retire. This would open up a site at 618 Georgia Ave. for the planned eatery bar.
A city directory from the early 1970s on file at the Chattanooga Public Library says that the 618 Georgia Ave. site housed the local Democratic Party headquarters and the Lighthouse Restaurant, with Miller’s Grill located at 616 Georgia Ave.
After securing a lease from the Robinson family that has long owned some buildings there, he began work. He also had as investment partners, according to a 1973 newspaper article, brother and attorney Jeff Boehm, attorney Robert Shockey, Mike Ramsey and fraternity brother Ted Moore.
An early newspaper article discussing his plan and the restaurant’s 1890s theme to complement the 1888 Fireman’s Fountain across Georgia Avenue brought as much aid as an estate sale would have at an intact Victorian home.
F. Coleman Kelley II, who had operated the Rathskeller Restaurant at 618 Cherry St. with his wife, Winifred, before it closed, got him a mahogany backdrop and apparatus that had once been used in a bar in the old Chattanooga Brewing Co. on Broad Street decades earlier.
And the owner of the City Lunch at 206 E. Main St. brought him an old brass cash register that had reportedly also been used in an old hotel. That item also brought him a name for the establishment – the Brass Register. It would be used in the bar for customers paying cash.
Some other items – including some brass doors from the old downtown American National Bank, some metal ship hatches for tables, and ceiling fans from old New Orleans homes – were also secured. Mr. Boehm remembers them getting some items from an antique specialty salvage business in Atlanta.
A few items were also made, including a BR arch that Mr. Boehm’s sister, Janet Horton, later got for him when a sale was held after the Brass Register was closing decades later.
Also, a vintage painted Coca-Cola sign on what had once been an outside brick wall was also discovered and restored early on.
The Brass Register restaurant/bar opened on June 2, 1973, with David Lyons the chef and kitchen manager. The restaurant served soups, salads, sandwiches, hamburgers, steaks, homemade potato chips and two items supposedly unique to Chattanooga at the time – steak pie and shepherd’s pie.
Mr. Boehm said the business, which expanded its size over the first couple of years, ended up being everything he hoped it would be. “I loved it for 11 years,” he said. “We had so many wonderful people who worked there who went on to become doctors and lawyers.”
He remembered such people early on as night-time manager Joe Cofer, waiter Dennis Plumlee, and Melody Thompson, among others. It was a popular hangout for everyone from downtown workers and professionals at lunch to college students from UTC and other young people at night. Students from other colleges would also be there during the summers, he said.
Bands also played there on the weekends, and Mr. Boehm remembers such future stars as Delbert McClinton and Widespread Panic playing there. Overland Express also played there, although it would become better known for its appearances at Yesterday’s.
And in contrast to today’s employment issues, finding workers was also not a problem, Mr. Boehm said, remembering that even one of noted Coca-Cola bottler Jack Lupton’s daughters worked there for a period. “People who didn’t need to work wanted to work at the Brass Register because of the social interaction and the fun it was,” he said.
Although Yesterday’s only a few hundred yards away in Patten Parkway was also a popular hangout, Mr. Boehm said he never worried about competing against them, as there seemed to be plenty of downtown business to go around. He recalled that one place might have more people on one weekend due to a certain band playing, but that was no big deal, and he knows a lot of people went to both places.
Mr. Boehm and his partners in 1976 also opened the Gazebo finer dining restaurant on the north side of the Brass Register, and it proved to be a hit, too. It was also stocked with antique adornments, including the old Marion County jail cell frames.
The businesses proved to be so successful that Mr. Boehm said he became emotionally and physically drained from having to work long hours every week.
“I left to do something different. I kind of got burned out on it,” he said. “It was just a killer schedule.”
So, he sold his interest and moved to South Carolina to do real estate-related work, first in the Charleston area at Wild Dunes and later in Isle of Palms, where he and his wife live today.
The Brass Register would continue as a popular spot for a number of years after he left, but like almost every eatery or pub, its day would finally come.
Old newspaper articles say it went into bankruptcy in 1991 before Dr. Shawn Gazaleh bought it. Dick, Maureen and Richard Waddell purchased it in 1993 before longtime employee and manager Marsha Moss, who had once been fired by Dr. Gazaleh in an incident highlighted in the newspaper, bought it in 1994 with Cookie Penland.
Mark Smith bought it in 1999 before it closed in late 1999.
The site opened as the Vineyard in 2002 before the old eatery and pub was reopened and resurrected to some degree by Sandra Ogle, Lee Escobar and Chris Scrivner in 2006.
In recent years the location has housed Jefferson’s and now is the home of Six18, a play on the Georgia Avenue address. The restaurant and lounge bills itself as “Southern soul food with a modern twist.”
Mr. Boehm said he still thinks about the Brass Register days and said a Facebook page devoted to the eatery/bar is active and popular.
“It was a phenomenal experience working with great people,” he said in summing up his time with the business.
He is also proud of the small role the business played in getting people to fall back in love with downtown Chattanooga after the urban flight of the 1960s. Parts of the rest of the block soon took off, too, with businesses like the Happy Baker and Highfield’s Antiques moving in, he said. St. Patrick’s Day pub crawls became popular with it and the other surrounding bars.
Like its centerpiece fixture, the Brass Register eatery called attention back to downtown Chattanooga, as if it were a figuratively clinking old cash register.
“Downtown had slowed down significantly,” he said. “That corner opened up, and that whole area became a very popular place to be.
“It was a wonderful thing to expose Chattanooga to something that didn’t really exist before.”
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Old newspaper clipping shows original Brass Register officials, including Paul Boehm, second from right