John Shearer: An Architectural and Historical Look At Threatened Health Department Building – And Its Unique Tile Murals

  • Monday, February 12, 2024
  • John Shearer

To say it has been a bad last few months for mid-20th century Chattanooga public buildings – and for lovers of that era of architecture -- might be an understatement.

Besides the numerous county schools from that era that have been on priority lists for replacement or closing or being altered, plans have also been made to replace Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute.

And this past week, most Chattanoogans learned for the first time that the Hamilton County Health Department facility on Third Street – which opened in early 1961 -- might be replaced or greatly remodeled.

County Mayor Weston Wamp announced during a Regional Health Council meeting last Monday that a new health department facility is planned and will be announced in detail in the near future. He cited to the media in attendance needed upgrades with the current facility and maybe a location or site that can better reach families and children.

Health Department administrator Sabrina Novak, meanwhile, said that a rebuild or renovation is needed because public health needs have changed, and the layout and connectivity of the building does not work as well anymore.

In connection with all that, I decided to go to the Chattanooga Public Library and find some old newspaper clippings on when the building first opened. It was apparently finalized about 1956, and ground-breaking ceremonies were held on Aug. 24, 1959, at 921 E. Third St. by Hampton Street.

Prior to that, the health department overseen by both the city and county at that time had been in cramped quarters on the third floor of City Hall since 1941 – when polio was a main focus. In the 1930s, a City-County Clinic was located in the Hamilton County Courthouse.

About the time of the 1959 groundbreaking, nearly 2,400 local residents had recently received the polio vaccines that would basically eliminate the dreaded disease, although two did die from polio that month.

On hand for the groundbreaking were County Judge Wilkes T. Thrasher Sr. – who was the equivalent of today’s county mayor – and Chattanooga Mayor P.R. Olgiati. Others among the crowd of 75 included News-Free Press publisher and Erlanger Hospital board chairman Roy McDonald, who welcomed the facility as an enhancement for the nearby hospitals.

The building committee chairman at a time when community volunteers were involved in public projects perhaps more than today was local civic leader States R. Finley, whose middle name was uniquely Rights, as in states rights.

Funded through the help of the Hill-Burton Hospital Act, the building was to cost just over $1 million in circa 1960 money. That included about $500,000 from the federal government, $100,000 from the state of Tennessee, and just over $200,000 each from the city and county.

Also on the building committee with other elected officials was Mrs. Carrie Thank Wells. Her name has been little mentioned in recent years, but she must have been a pioneering local female elected office holder of yesteryear as a county councilwoman, or what is now a county commissioner.

The building was designed by Bianculli and Palm architects and constructed by John T. Martin Co. It was to feature almost 40,000 square feet of floor space on two levels, with a third to house elevator mechanical equipment. It was to have a concrete frame but with a modern look featuring brick, marble, aluminum and glass on the outside, and terrazzo floors, decorative wall tile and acoustically friendly ceilings.

And, of course, it also had a somewhat unique feature on the front – a collection of four panels of abstract mosaic designs.

The building was to have 77 rooms for such departments as administration, statistical, children’s clinic, a blood clinic, a tuberculosis Center, a venereal disease clinic, an educational department, a sanitation department, and office facilities for 70 nurses in what was to be the biggest room.

It also included an auditorium and a state-run laboratory, as well as a parking garage for 165 cars – and a mobile x-ray unit.

About the time the building was being built, also under construction or being completed were the West Wing at nearby Erlanger (apparently for black patients in those waning days of segregation), the Moccasin Bend mental hospital, and a Guidance Clinic. Evidently Mario Bianculli was involved in the design of all of them, and colleague Harvey A. Camp assisted him with the health department design.

The first director of the mental health facility was to be Dr. Nat Winston, who many remember as a serious Republican candidate for governor in 1974 before he lost to a young and up-and-coming politician named Lamar Alexander in the primary.

The health department administrator was Dr. Paul Golley, who had been in consultation with the architecture firm about the needs along with assistant director Dr. A.J. von Werssowitz, nurse official Mary Tom Peacock and possibly others.

Without a doubt, the most talked about features of the new building – almost as much as its expanded services to be offered – were the tile mosaic displays fronting Third Street. Thanks to a detailed story in September 1960 by Chattanooga Times reporter Marion Peck while construction was well underway, the motivation and inspiration behind those are as preserved as the murals themselves.

As reporter Peck wrote in the lead, “A bold, new look has come to Chattanooga. In terms of dynamic color and content, there is nothing else in the city quite like the four ceramic tile murals on the outside of the south wall of the new Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Center.”

The writer also said they were proving to be traffic stoppers.

Mr. Bianculli – whose other works included the current Center for Creative Arts school on Dallas Road -- said in the interview that they were not costing the citizens any more than regular tiles because his firm had covered any extra costs with the special designs. He added, “I wanted something different, something out of the ordinary for Chattanooga. I don’t know how to say it any other way, so I’ll say it is a work of love donated to this city I love.”

They were chosen in part because his firm decided not to have any windows on that side because that wall faces the bright sun most of the day and for patient privacy on the busy street. He did, however, have plenty of glass on the other sides.

He said he chose the murals to integrate art with the function of the building itself and to educate passersby as to what was taking place in there.

The first 9.5-foot-by-12.5-foot panel on the right as one looks from the road was to bear the name “Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Center,” although, of course, the county several years later took over sole operation of the health department. On the top left of this panel was the old General-inspired seal of the city of Chattanooga, while on the top right was the county’s seal featuring an eagle. Both seals were later changed by the governments to highlight the view from Point Park on Lookout Mountain.

The second panel moving to the left was an abstract interpretation of laboratory work, since the facility was to house a state chemical lab looking at water and milk purity, sewage testing, rabies control, and other health issues. The orange tiles were to symbolize contamination.

Within this panel are the unexplained initials – M.B. That had to stand for Mario Bianculli and was apparently his signature to his artwork.

The third panel focused on interpreting x-rays, with a nod to German Dr. Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of the first x-ray lamp in 1895 and American Dr. William Coolidge’s refinement of the equipment and processes in 1913. The tones of the colors also symbolized electric impulses, Mr. Bianculli said.

In the bottom left corner of this mural is about the only place in the four frames that has been damaged or is in a declining state, as a small number of yellow tiles appear to be missing.

The fourth panel focused on life on Earth, with orange tiles representing red Tennessee clay, a giant tree with roots in cream-colored tiles, two red fish with black bones swimming in blue water, and three birds flying near two clouds that symbolized water vapor important to life.

The tile work was being done by subcontractor George Wallace of the Wallace Tile Co., and some workmen were shown in old newspaper clippings working more like artists or craftsmen than simply laborers.

Mr. Bianculli said he had first made color sketches or cartoons of the panels and then tried to find appropriate sample tile stocks among those easily available. He then remade the drawings in straight line form and labeled them with color numbers corresponding to the tile manufacturer number.

Although he originally wanted the tiles to be of specific colors he envisioned, he instead simply picked the tiles in stock at the Cincinnati tile manufacturer (possibly Ohio Tile & Marble) that was used.

Mr. Bianculli would later come up with some similar tile designs when the Chattanooga Airport, then known primarily as Lovell Field, was enlarged in 1964. Those tiles were not incorporated into the airport expansion with the dome about 30 years later, and I am not sure if they were destroyed or hauled off to the dump or what.

Architect Harrison Gill Sr. had also used some similar-style brick designs on the old Red Bank High School and a building at Tennessee Temple in Highland Park. The Red Bank tiles of two students were saved and placed at the current Red Bank High off Morrison Springs Road when the Dayton Boulevard school was torn down. The Tennessee Temple building was torn down just in recent years.

Mr. Bianculli’s Health Department building tiles must not have been universally loved because another reporter referred to them as “controversial” without offering further explanation. I once interviewed an older architect, and he joked that Mr. Bianculli was perhaps a little sensitive and did not want his mosaic murals referred to simply as tiles. They were artwork to him!

After making what was termed a historic, weeklong move from City Hall to the new facility, the department opened in its fancy and spacious new quarters on Feb. 13, 1961.

Administrator Dr. Golley told a reporter at the time that everyone was excited about the new facility. “Morale is very high among the members of the staff,” he said. “They are highly pleased with the building. Its arrangement is working out as we hoped it would.”

The facility, which also featured a dental clinic, was officially dedicated on Sunday, April 16, 1961. Dr. R.H. Hutcheson, the state commissioner of public health, was to speak, but he became ill and could not attend. Representing him was Assistant Tennessee Commissioner Dr. C.V. Tucker.

Dr. Tucker pointed out that Chattanooga was the first major city in the state to consolidate its health departments under Mayor Ed Bass and Judge Will Cummings 20 years earlier, and Memphis and Nashville had done the same since then.

Also taking part were Vice Mayor George McInturff, filling in for Mayor Olgiati, who was traveling on city business; Judge Chester Frost; city chaplain Dr. James Fowle; Dr. Golley; and others.

Evidently several hundred people attended the ceremonies and/or the open house and the public inspection that followed.

Chattanoogans began to make good use of the facility as the months followed, and the city’s and county’s collective health likely improved. Unfortunately, the health of some department administrators did not.

Director Dr. Golley had to retire due to illness only a year or so after the building opened, and assistant director Dr. A.J. von Werssowitz died in June 1962. Dr. Golley’s wife, Dr. Dean Golley, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration, took a leave to help in administration, as did apparently Dr. von Werssowitz’ widow, Muriel, who was also a doctor.

Although I did not get a chance to research further, perhaps some of the building – including perhaps the larger part with tan brick on the left -- was added over the years. One plaque in that area says Dr. Paul Golley Auditorium with the date 1974.

The local Health Department itself would also evolve over the years, as such diseases as tuberculosis were mostly eliminated in the United States, but other diseases or health complications such as HIV/AIDs came to the forefront. And supplemental food programs and programs involving women, infants and children are also a big focus, as are outreach efforts to the Hispanic community, which basically did not exist in Chattanooga in the early 1960s.

And Chattanoogans will never forget that the Health Department became front and center as it probably never has before – other than during one or two brief polio scares -- when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Chattanooga and everywhere in the region beginning in March 2020.

The steadying voices of longtime administrator Becky Barnes and County Mayor Jim Coppinger aided the city at the time, many believe, with almost daily updates for a period. Ms. Barnes retired in 2021 after 41 years with the department and was replaced by 15-year veteran Ms. Novak, who had also been involved heavily in the COVID-19 emergency.

Now, the health and even livelihood of this building are being questioned, causing maybe satisfaction among those wanting the best facilities possible to combat community health problems and encourage good hygienic practices.

But those who like the old mid-century modern look are hoping at least a good part of the building’s exterior can be saved and refitted to better meet today’s needs in a health department facility.

And whether the four mosaic tile frames can be retained or safely moved in any building demolition like was successfully done with the Red Bank brick children is unknown. But such a move would also likely be encouraged by historic preservationists in this era when historic buildings in Chattanooga or other artistic reminders of the past continue to be lost.

Most on either side would likely agree that the mosaic tiles have not only educated people about the building’s function or simply made them more greatly realize it is there, but they have also entertained or stimulated passersby. That has included those having to enter Erlanger and the various other Third Street buildings over health concerns or issues.

For the latter or any others experiencing even temporary emotional dimness over their health, the murals have added some light and been a pleasant distraction for 63 years.

* * *

After this story was initially published, a followup visit to the library revealed that the Health Department building did have a major addition completed in 1974. It is the multi-story building with tannish brown brick on the west side and the Golley Auditorium. Selmon T. Franklin Associates was the architect for that section, with involvement from staff architect Rufus Holt, while C&I Specialty was the general contractor.

After a May 23, 1972, groundbreaking and a two-month strike against the ready-mix concrete subcontractor in 1973, the building was dedicated with a ceremony and open house on Aug. 18, 1974. As mentioned, the auditorium was named after former director Dr. Paul Golley, who had served from the end of World War II until his retirement in 1962. He had died just months before the 1974 dedication, and his widow was on hand for the ceremony.

The older part of the facility was also remodeled for different uses at that time.

* * *

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