John Shearer: Touring The Historic Flatiron Building

  • Sunday, June 16, 2024
  • John Shearer

“Everything about the Flatiron Building is up to the minute and sure to remain so for a long time.”

While these words could have been spoken by one of the realtors at the Flatiron Heights open house I attended on Thursday afternoon, they were actually spoken in a Chattanooga News article from Oct. 30, 1911, after the iconic building had been completed.

As has been documented in the news, investors Robert Fisher, Bo Ferger, Dan Levan, and Clint Dean have restored and remodeled in detail the Flatiron Building, as it has been historically called. Franklin Architects did the design work on the 113-year-old structure at 707 Georgia Ave., and Mr. Dean’s Modus Build the contracting work, with commercial and residential units being sold and moved into beginning in early 2024.

And based on the enthusiasm with which I was greeted when I identified myself as a member of the media, everyone seems pleased with the look of this building that is uniquely irregular both horizontally and, with two levels for entering, vertically, too.

“It’s an amazing historical building that they completely renovated to a very high energy efficiency,” said realtor Grace Frank of Grace Frank Group and REG/Zach Taylor, who is handling the selling of the commercial office space. “The charm, the history, and the location are amazing. You are close to everything.”

Added investment partner Mr. Levan as the two talked in the somewhat surprisingly spacious entrance hall off Georgia Avenue, “It’s a 1911 building that’s been totally renovated. The entire inside has been gutted. The entire outside was renovated, too. We had to deal with all the mortar between every brick and refastened it to the wall.”

They added that it is also the first building in Chattanooga and third in the state to meet Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) standards following the passage of some legislation, but they did it without taking away from the building’s classic vibe.

“We did not take the historic windows off because we wanted to keep the character, but all the normal, functional windows are high energy windows,” said Mr. Levan, adding that the building also has LED lighting.

The entrance hall features a large staircase, which Mr. Levan said is original and is made of mahogany from Brazil. Much of the original marble remains as well, although he said some of it had to be changed and replaced due to cracks and other issues. A classic tile floor also greets visitors.

Among the other historical discoveries they made, he said they learned a giant Coca-Cola sign had been on top of the building for a period. And they realized the building had been bumped into a few times from automobile accidents when McCallie Avenue was formerly straight and ran down in front of the old First United Methodist Church steeple.

Ms. Frank said the building still has eight to 10 commercial spaces for sale in the lower levels, depending on what a buyer wants or needs. An electronic brochure lists one 178-square-foot space as selling for $66,750, while a 2,236-square-foot office is for sale for $648,440. The spaces still appear to be waiting on finishing work by the buyer.

This building that once featured 36 apartments when it opened now has 15 condominiums on the top three floors, six of which are still for sale. According to the website of Pam Fisher of Keller Williams Realty, one 729-square-foot condo with one bedroom and one bath is for sale for $409,900, while a 1,210-square-foot residential unit with two bedrooms and two baths is listed at $599,900.

Yes, if you are used to having to lease or rent office or residential space in downtown Chattanooga, purchasing seems to be kind of a unique opportunity, at least to me.

Ms. Fisher greeted me when I went up to the third floor (the second off Georgia Avenue) after I heard a little soothing guitar music in the lobby by Adam Stone. She was also enthusiastic about the building when she told me people love the look of the residences.

“They absolutely love the finishes,” she said. “They are all very luxurious and unlike anything they are going to find anywhere else in Chattanooga. Also, they love that it’s all on one floor and one level. And, being right between the Memorial Auditorium and the Tivoli, the park (across Georgia Avenue) and the steeple, the Dome Building and the courthouse and downtown and Lookout Mountain, it’s absolutely beautiful from every angle.”

Ms. Fisher once worked in the building as a court reporter before entering the real estate field, and she remembers the building having a lot of small offices, which were gutted and removed when the current work began.

She kindly showed me two or three residential units still for sale, and one or two featured interesting rooms in corner spaces, including a neat bedroom in the small triangular corner. Also, one unit still for sale is one of three condos in the building featuring a small balcony overlooking Georgia Avenue.

I personally loved the spaces and told Ms. Fisher I would love to live there – except for the fact my wife, Laura, and I have two cats that have gotten spoiled going out in our backyard. I certainly liked the setting and the views in the building and would love to go to places like the Chattanooga Public Library, Memorial Auditorium, First-Centenary United Methodist where I attend and such events as Nightfall without having to find a place to park.

Secure parking is available for residents, she said, as is a fitness center.

While strolling through this building with irregular shapes and unfamiliar settings, I still found myself comforted by all the regular and soothing views with which I am familiar of other natural and manmade landmarks surrounding me. While not as spectacular as some views elsewhere around downtown Chattanooga, they were still nice and probably better than some views from other downtown buildings. I know that from staying in a few hotels in big cities over the years and having to look out over air-conditioning systems.

Ms. Fisher told me she likes a lot about the building, including all the windows that let in plenty of light, and she believes it has several other positives for would-be downtown dwellers. “The angles, the character, it’s amazing,” she said. “And the views that you get here (are nice). And it’s quieter. It’s a lot quieter than being on the Southside.”

As I walked around and left, I naturally thought of the past and the noted Chattanoogans and characters of yesteryear who frequented this building or passed nearby many decades earlier. I also thought of all the times I zipped past the building and down Georgia Avenue while on my way to work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press before 6 a.m. in the 1980s and ‘90s. That was when downtown was barren, and residential living there was basically both a part of the past and future, but not the present.

Also, after touring the old Flatiron Building, I refreshed my memory of past research and found some new material regarding its history. The building had been built in 1911 by hotelier Sam Read and designed by Chattanooga architect and Riverview resident Charles E. Bearden at a time when quality apartment living was returning to downtown. It had been named for and inspired by the famous and still-standing 20-story Flatiron Building built in 1902 in the lower part of Manhattan in New York.

The Elizabeth Apartments built by Coca-Cola bottler J.T. Lupton across Georgia Avenue and named for his wife had a short time earlier set the standard for quality downtown apartment living in Chattanooga, the 1911 article previously referenced stated.

The News article praised the Flatiron Building, too, saying, “In appearance, the Flatiron Building is particularly pleasing, its subdued coloring making it a restful change from the usual garish brick and marble. Its suggestion is less newness than stability.”

The article went on to say the building opened into an imposing reception hall finished in white Georgia marble, with a high ceiling beamed with Flemish oak and the marble floor covered with fine oriental rugs. It also said a sweeping staircase – the same one seen Thursday -- and a commodious elevator led to the three floors above, where the apartments were described as most clever in design.

The building, which was converted into only office space beginning in 1980, also featured the English Tea Room operated by Mrs. W.B. Royster, another café and restaurant or rathskeller, and the Little Shop for novelty items.

“The city is indebted to the enterprise of S.R. Read for the establishment of this latest up-to-date building and all the novel features it contains,” said the 1911 article in summing up the building.

And the officials trying to sell commercial and residential space in the building in 2024 seemed to echo those sentiments as well during Thursday’s open house.

As Mr. Levan said, adding that he hopes this whole area of downtown Chattanooga might get a new name called the Historic District, “It’s virtually a new building.”

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