Tennessee – Chattanooga: Tow Trucks, Art and Antiques

As we tell people, Don and I collect a lot of things but collecting museums is our passion, and Chattanooga has some fun and interesting ones to offer.  Having just done research on the Whiteside family and their contributions to early Chattanooga history, it seems like a good time to write about a few of our discoveries in that same city.

The homes and gardens in the Fort Wood Historic District make it a lovely place to stay and relax after a day of driving and exploring.   We love to walk its streets at a leisurely pace, enjoying the variety of architectural styles with most of the homes having been built in the early 1900s. 

We enjoyed our stay at the Mayor’s Manor because it put us in the heart of the Fort Wood neighborhood.  This elegant home was built in 1889 by Edmund G. Watkins for his family.  The rooms are beautifully appointed and the B&B is well situated with a variety of restaurants in easy walking distance.  It is adjacent to the UT Chattanooga campus so you might want to wander some of this area as well and see what they have on exhibit in their art museum.

The Hunter Museum is a favorite of ours, in part because of its fascinating architecture.  The original stately mansion was built in 1904 on what was a Confederate battery.  The neoclassical-style brick building is set like a gemstone between two expansive modern wings.  Built high on an 80-foot bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, the views from the windows, balcony and pavilion provide a dramatic natural counterpoint to the original architecture.

The mansion itself is a joy to tour with its original fireplaces, hardwood floors, and beautiful hand-carved woodwork.  The chandeliers and sconces are elegant, but my favorite features are the grand staircase and the almost equally tall magnificent gilt-framed mirror that reflects the length of the stairs.

In the 1970s an east wing was added to the museum.  The addition was much-needed to keep up with the growth of the collections, which had evolved to reflect changing artistic expression.  In spite of the addition’s severe style, the contrast between the strict lines and surfaces of Brutalism architecture seem to counterpoint and enhance the elegance of the historic mansion.  

A second addition that was completed in 2005 added significantly to the west side of the museum.  This dramatic zinc-clad wing gives fluidity to the previously earth-bound structures. The new space became the entrance to the museum and its sweeping curves draw attention to the surprising combinations of wood, metal and glass used in its construction.   The space is welcoming and the two modern additions are dramatic companions that showcase the beauty of the historic home. 

The Hunter Museum’s collections focus on American Art and spans a broad range with pieces from early Colonial days all the way up to contemporary works, including an exciting collection of modern glass pieces.  Both the art and the architecture are effective reminders of the changes in our culture and history as they have evolved over the generations and the years. 

When you leave the museum, you may want to take a look at the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, which is right across the street from the Hunter.  Anna Safley Houston was an antiques dealer who arrived in Chattanooga in the early 1900s.  In addition to collecting antiques she also collected at least nine husbands.  When she died in 1951, she was living in poverty In a structure she had built herself and surrounded by her collection.  She left behind a massive world-class collection of antique glass and ceramics as well as furniture, music boxes and more.  Looking at these unique and beautiful pieces my imagination spun, making up stories as to how she had managed to amass so many items of such high quality having never married a wealthy man nor having made much of a mark or fortune as an antiques dealer.   

The neighborhood surrounding these museums is known as the Buff View Art District, and it is the home to some interesting galleries, gardens, cafes, restaurants, inns and an expansive view of the Tennessee River.  If the weather is good, I would encourage you to take a short stroll to enjoy this special little pocket of art and culture.

For yet another change of pace, we walked across the Walnut Street Bridge, a long pedestrian-only bridge that spans the Tennessee River.  This neighborhood, known as the North Shore District, offers a different face of Chattanooga.  It streets are lined with kicky small shops and cafes, and dancing in the streets is strongly encouraged.

 But we didn’t have time for dancing.  We were hungry and headed for a hot dog at Good Dog.  What a difficult decision it is to pick from all the exciting options on their menu that starts with breakfast dogs and spans the culinary globe.  Our meal was delayed only because we had such a hard time deciding what to order.  We enjoyed our savory, creative and well-dressed meals.  The interior is fun and comfortable, and I love their use of picture frame pieces on the front of the service counter.  Without doubt, our next visit to Chattanooga will include another stop at the Good Dog.

With our appetites well sated, we paused before walking back across the bridge.  The view from this other side of the river included the Market Street Bridge with the paddle wheeler tied up at the nearby landing and a different face of the Hunter Museum.

I am not inclined to visit aquariums, possibly because I am not a swimmer or water sports enthusiast, but our visit to the Tennessee Aquarium has adjusted my attitude.  Sunlight pours into the aquarium through six glass peaks atop the roofs of its two buildings.  The natural light floods into their cavernous interiors.  In the “River Journey” the light is absorbed and filtered by the lush and diverse plants of the Appalachian Cove Forest and the Mississippi Delta.  The museum path follows the course rain drops take on their journey to replenish our waterways, so we begin down a plant-lined course of streams, swamps, lakes and rivers.  Along the way we met river otters, turtles, alligators and thousands of freshwater fish from all around the world. 

Not to be outdone, the “Ocean Journey” took us through tropical forests where we saw colorful macaws in the trees and brilliant butterflies touching down on exotic flowers.  Looking closely, we spotted bark-textured lizards and suction-toed geckos before coming eye to eye with their larger cousins, the alligators. 

In a seriously cooler climate, we spent time enjoying the antics of the macaroni and gentoo penguins.  As it turned out we arrived just before feeding time and were amused to watch them waddling in penguin fashion through their lunch line.  After the bucket was empty they dove into the icy water and swam with speed and grace.

Leaving shore behind, we began moving down to explore life just below the surface of the water.  Initially, we watched brilliantly decorated small fish flitting in and out of the crevices of their reef.  Colorful rays swept the sandy bottom, and we saw some larger predator fish swimming ominously close by.    As we continued to descend, we were surrounded by enormous tanks of fish that inhabit different depths of oceans in various parts of the world.  Eventually the sunlight faded and we found ourselves in darker, murky depths, eventually reaching a dimly lit world inhabited by creatures never seen on the surface. 

From there we moved into an area of softly lit tanks filled with exotic floating jellyfish that came in an amazing range of form and color.  These invertebrates with their apparently effortless movement and surprising shapes almost hypnotized us.

It took the lure of an equally amazing collection of seahorses to move us into the next realm of tanks.  The variety and number of seahorses was stunning.  I encourage you to try to count all the sea horses in the first picture. 

The aquarium gave us a broad view of the diverse natural world in which we live and it also is a powerful reminder to look more closely into the outdoor spaces around us.  We found ourselves reluctant to leave this watery world, but there was a lot more we had to see in Chattanooga.    

For those of you who can’t get enough of penguins, otters and reefs, the Tennessee Aquarium website has camera trained on their exhibits so you can relax and enjoy these creatures from the comfort of your armchair.

If your visit to Chattanooga is on a hot summer day, you might like to pause for a moment to watch the cooling water flowing down steps into a pool at The Passages, as the installation is named.  This is a memorial tribute to the Cherokee who were removed from their homelands in what was to become Chattanooga and the surrounding areas.  The Cherokee were forced on a march called the “Trail of Tears” that began in the 1830s when the U.S. Government forced about 60,000 men, women and children to walk to Oklahoma, the hot, dusty place assigned to them as their new home.   

The Passages is only one of the features to be seen along Chattanooga’s twelve-mile Riverwalk, which extends from downtown to the Chickamauga Dam.   Residents and visitors are encouraged to walk or bicycle the city’s river front and to explore the parks and other areas of interest.  The meandering river itself is inviting and you may consider enjoying it from a different vantage point by trying a stand-up paddle board, paddling a kayak or a canoe, or taking a scenic day trip or romantic evening ride on the Southern Belle or another excursion boat.  Coolidge Park is a great place to refresh with its carousel, green spaces and fountains that invite the young and young at heart to play and enjoy the bubbling water.  The city has an active public art program with more than fifty sculptures on display outdoors so remember to bring good walking shoes because Chattanooga is a great place to walk and explore…and if you get tired of walking the city provides two routes of free shuttle service to help get you to the places you want to visit.

With our love of eclectic museums, we simply could not resist the lure of the International Towing Museum and Hall of Fame.  The museum houses a large collection of tow trucks, towing equipment and gas station memorabilia, dating back to the early 1900s.  This collection starts in the days of the Model T Fords and other horseless carriages. 

Back in 1913, after struggling to pull a Model T Ford out of a creek, Ernest Holmes went home and began working out a device to do that work.  He installed a hand-crank system on the back of his Cadillac and so the story begins.  In 1917 he filed his first patent and by 1919 the Ernest Holmes Company was in operation building and selling tow trucks.  The Towing Museum houses a collection of trucks that date back to those early days when rigs like Scotty’s (the black truck with the wooden sides in the back) was hauling “horseless carriages” out of ditches.  Demand kept up even through the Depression and by the 1950s, the trucks were much bigger and beefier. 

The variety of trucks on display reflects one hundred years of towing history.  We were amused by the little yellow Rogner’s truck that looks like it could handle a golf cart, Smart Car, or at best maybe a Mini Cooper. In contrast there is the WWII Army truck that saw plenty of action as it made its way across Europe, and there are even more massive trucks that are used in all types of emergencies today. 

A unique model is the “World’s Fastest Wrecker” that set the record at the Alabama Speedway in Talladega with an average speed of 109.330 mile per hour.  As my father would say, “That driver was really hauling a**.”    

Outdoors the Memorial Wall and grounds honor the men and women whose lives have been lost in the towing and recovery industry.  Tow truck operators frequently work in extremely dangerous settings with high-speed traffic just inches away.  They are there to assist in an emergency that could involve a single disabled vehicle on up to a multi-vehicle crash of disastrous proportion with injured people, potential loss of life, and the possibility of fire and explosions.   A heroic sculpture reminds visitors of the hazards these men and women face and the essential work they do every day to assist people and save lives.

As promised in the title, Chattanooga has a large and diverse number of Antique Shops so it is a fun place to poke about for pieces to add to your home or your collections.  Because they are scattered around the metro area, you will be doing a little driving but it is worth it because it takes you across the city and into trendy emerging neighborhoods.  I’ve highlighted a few of the shops we visit every time we are in Chattanooga. 

Refindery on McCallie Ave (1300 McCallie Ave.) offers a fun and funky range of antiques that are especially well suited for those who want to add a dash of mid-century flair to their home or apartment.  Its inventory seems especially well suited to go with the exciting rebirth that is going on in the 100-300 blocks of nearby Main Street.

Dirty Jane’s Market (1910 Dayton Blvd.) is a former grocery store that is NOT dirty.  It is filled with a good cross-section of well-displayed antiques…and while you are in the area you might want to drive a little further and pop into Vintage & More (3874 Dayton Blvd.).

Southside Antiques (2423 Broad Street) is a newer shop that offers a beautiful variety of furniture and accessories for the home…and is a visual delight. 

Across town, East Ridge Antique District (just off I-75 at exit 1) is a favorite destination because of the myriad of shops surrounding one large parking lot.  We like the convenience of parking and having so many shops and so much variety in one location.

On the other side of I-75, a former flea market has reinvented itself as Chattanooga Merchantile.  Don’t miss seeing this wonderful addition to the Chattanooga antique scene.  By this time you may need a pause to refresh.  Their tea room, Mammie Carlotta’s, is a great place to sip a cup of tea or have a meal in a lovely setting.  They also have a bakery café where you might want to grab a cookie to help you recharge.

This visit represents only a slice of what is to be found in Chattanooga.  The city and surrounding hills, ridges and mountains are filled with Civil War history, a time when soldiers from the thirty-six states fought in skirmishes and full-scale battles.  For both the Confederate and Union Armies control of the railroad lines and the Tennessee River was vital.  This is also the city where General Sherman began is blazing march through the South. 

This is also the home of the famed Chattanooga Choo Choo.  The rail station is now a hotel and we may have to spend the night in one of the former train cars before heading out to visit the East Chattanooga Station and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum with its rail yard full of refurbished rail cars, diesel engines and a giant turntable.

Another day we will tell those stories, but for now we are moving on to Montgomery, Alabama.  We hope to meet up with you there.

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