John Shearer: An Architectural And Historical Look At 95-Year-Old Lookout Mountain Elementary

  • Monday, April 1, 2024
  • John Shearer

With its stone facing, the Lookout Mountain Elementary School at 321 N. Bragg Ave. blends in almost seamlessly with many of the other homes and churches on the mountain.

Or maybe it could be confused for an old-style mountain resort hotel of a medium size, or a college building at a place like Sewanee.

Different from most of the other Hamilton County schools that are brick or -- in the case of those from the mid-20th century, feature plenty of multi-paned glass windows – the school has also distinguished itself educationally. It has been named a Tennessee Reward School and a National Blue Ribbon School, among other top academic accomplishments.

It has also educated a number of successful future citizens over the years, many of whom have come from this area’s most prominent families.

As a look is taken at the history of this school praised architecturally outside and academically inside, it is not one of the threatened school buildings that I have highlighted in recent weeks or months as officials have prioritized county schools needing to be replaced or consolidated.

That is, even though it had been mentioned in a 2019 facilities report for possible closure, due in part to its small enrollment size compared to some other schools.

A glance at some old newspaper articles reveals that the building is not too far from being 100 years old. Actually, as the school states on its logo, a school on Lookout Mountain dates to 1878.

According to a pamphlet history written on the school and Lookout Mountain in 2003 by the late former student Dyer Butterfield Jr., a small red school building with two classrooms was used as the first school. It was at what is now the southwest corner of Forrest Avenue and Scenic Highway.

The Town of Lookout Mountain operated the school in those days, and in 1900, a nice structure using stone from the same quarry as that used for the Point Park entrance and for some homes by the top of the Incline Railway opened on Bragg Avenue. It was located just south of where the original part of the current school was built. It was torn down when the new school was built.

At the time, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church was located where the original part of the current school is. By the 1920s as the mountain and student populations were growing, a white house across Bragg Avenue was purchased and used for additional school space for a period. It was called the Annex.

But the school population continued to grow. After an unfortunate fire in January 1928 burned the Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church to the ground, all parties agreed to a swap of the church land and the school land. As a result, a new Lookout Mountain Presbyterian that is part of the current church campus was built across Bragg Avenue.

The old church land was given to the Hamilton County School Board, which had taken over the operation of Lookout Mountain Elementary in 1927 at a time when having seventh or eighth graders also attend the school was ending.

Plans were made for a new main school on the old church property, so the current stone school with an eye-catching vertical design in the front was opened for the 1929-30 school year. To help ensure a building of the highest quality, the Town of Lookout Mountain also agreed to pay any costs over the county’s pledge, with hopes of eventually getting refunded. In case you are wondering, the school was built in the late 1920s for between $50,000 and $100,000, which would probably not even get you a single classroom today.

The original 1929 school building featured eight rooms, an auditorium, a cafeteria, a library, and several auxiliary rooms.

The architect was Chattanoogan Clarence T. Jones. His other still-standing works include the former YWCA building by Lindsay and Eighth streets, the Industrial YMCA building off Mitchell Avenue and recently remodeled into Common House Chattanooga, the National Guard Armory off Holtzclaw Avenue, and the observatory now bearing his name by Brainerd Road and Tuxedo Avenue.

On Lookout Mountain, he also designed for newspaper publisher and hotel operator J.B. Pound the Mediterranean-style and now-razed Stonedge home, where some condominiums were later built.

Known for his direct manner in conversation before his untimely 1951 death of heart problems after a fall down some steps at the Warner Park Pool, the former Centenary Methodist Church member’s buildings were also known for their rather straightforward, but eye-pleasing, appeal.

Among later changes to the school plant, a memorial gymnasium addition was also made on the south end of the school in 1949, and these later amenities included uniquely a skating rink operated by the Town of Lookout Mountain.

A news article from 2019 when the school was at least initially threatened with possible closure said that with the help of the Lookout Mountain community and the Parent Teacher Association, it had also made other physical improvements in recent years. That included a new art studio, a science and computer writing lab, and modern kindergarten classrooms.

I had gone around the outside of the school to take a few pictures one Sunday a few weeks ago when it was still winter, and I realized how unique it looks compared to the other elementary schools In Hamilton County. I would love to see the inside of the school as well sometime and, like any building 95 years old in parts, I am sure it does not always run like it is brand new.

While the school continued to shine architecturally and educationally, it would later as well in terms of social conscience. While a school for black students in the days of segregation had been on Lookout Mountain for years, and one was built at Watauga Lane, Lincoln Street and Sprayner Terrace using the stone from the previous school, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County school systems were to desegregate grades 1-3 in 1962.

In what was a thoughtful and well-planned action that included encouragement for desegregation/integration by such business leaders as W.E. Brock Jr. and the placing of an armed policeman at every school to prevent potential protesters, the plan was successful. And Lookout Mountain Elementary was in the forefront, as it and the also-still-operating Hixson Elementary were the only two previously white only county schools that saw the enrollment of black students.

Some 14 black children attended both schools combined that first week, and an old newspaper photo shows two black male adults in business suits holding the hands of a daughter and son coming into the Lookout school amidst the backdrop of its familiar stone siding.

The old stone walls of Lookout Mountain Elementary have witnessed quite a bit of history, including in the more than 60 years since. And they continue to stand amid the community’s evolving history and the learning of core subjects inside the building in a way that continues to place the school high academically.

And so does the classic building architecturally draw salutes among historic preservationists and others who possess a nostalgic bent.

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