Ask people what they think of when they think of Southside Chattanooga, and chances are, they’ll say Main Street: the turnaround boulevard in a turnaround town, the center of creative economy in the middle of what is arguably the most richly diverse neighborhood in the 374-- ZIP codes.
From a revitalization perspective, Main Street is something of a miracle. Working together, foundations, private businesses, social innovators and residents have transformed it from a battered urban landscape into a festival-ready place of clean brick buildings and safe, well-lit lots.
Now, it also has a visual anchor, a marker of the aspiration that fueled this transformation. Now, when cars pass the intersection at Rossville Avenue and glance northward, jaws drop. There is a glimpse of silver wings, of exposed girders and unpainted wood. And the closer you get, the better it gets, a warm, quiet space set off from the main drag, built for daylight and nightlife.
The building is The Flying Squirrel, a full-service bar and restaurant linked to the hostel next door. The brainchild of Dan Rose and Max Poppel, The Crash Pad opened in 2011 as an “affordable boutique hostel,” a base camp and community hub catering to climbers, kayakers and other enthusiasts who come to Chattanooga for the mountains and rivers. The Crash Pad itself is a model of modern, efficient design—and not coincidentally the world’s only LEED Platinum-Certified hostel.
But to really understand The Flying Squirrel and what it means to Main Street, you have to know a bit about its designers, Thomas Palmer of Palmer Built Environments, an architecture and sustainable design firm headquartered in Chattanooga, and Blythe Bailey, who earlier this week was appointed administrator of Chattanooga’s newly formed Department of Transportation. The two designers were shaped by two studios—Palmer started in Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio, an Auburn University program that gives architecture students hands-on experience while assisting underserved people in western Alabama. Bailey started in Stroud Watson’s Urban Design Studio here in Chattanooga, where he cut his teeth on projects designed for the greater good of the city and all of its citizens.
In the years since, Bailey and Palmer have worked on residential and commercial spaces throughout the Southeast—first separately, then brought together by shared values around what makes a building right for a given space. They are always working with a strong impulse to make every project a public interest project.
In recent months, the two teamed up on projects including Community Pie and the 1885 Grill in St. Elmo, as well as converting the Francis Willard building into affordable housing for UTC students and other residents. But with the Flying Squirrel, the team seems to have struck a new chord.
Because The Crash Pad owners had worked with Bailey and Palmer individually on the hostel and pavilion, they were open to letting Palmer Built Environments explore ideas with real freedom.
“We brought an idea in the early stages and had a rough plan of what size we wanted the restaurant to be,” Rose said. “But in terms of how it looks, that’s purely from their first drawing.”
"As a designer, I found it to be very liberating, almost even intimidating, to be able to express my design sensibility so openly," Palmer said.
"Strong spaces are important,” Bailey added. “They justify thoughtful design."
And at the root of this “thoughtful design” is a deep love for Chattanooga—an old manufacturing town surrounded by unspoiled outdoors. In fact, it’s possible to say that no other street in no other city in no other country could have produced a building like The Flying Squirrel.
At first glance, the building is highly industrial, suggestive of the old architecture of Chattanooga, taken back to its structural elements. But there is a heavy influence of the outdoors in the design—even the mix of concrete, metal and handcrafted wood surfaces bring together industrial and outdoors. Where the structure is open and light, the things in it have weight, are touchable, without any veneers or fakery.
The result feels like an open-air, outdoor room. Where the hostel building and pavilion are more private spaces for the guests, The Flying Squirrel is a wide-open, interactive edge of a pedestrian-focused street.
“We wanted the restaurant to be like an ant farm, with all activity readily visible from the outside-in and vice versa, almost like inside and outside are one big space," Bailey said.
And in one man’s opinion, this could be its best feature. Because in a neighborhood with so much diversity, where people of all types bump up against each other on a daily basis—but where many of the revitalizing features of the street have felt exclusively focused on artists and entrepreneurs—it is a welcome sight to see such a welcoming space. Especially one where Rose and Poppel, both transplants to our city, are inviting neighbors and travelers alike to stop in for a drink.
The Flying Squirrel opens later this spring but is already playing a part in setting out a design sensibility that is uniquely Chattanooga, uniquely of the now, yet also expressive and sustainable enough to last.
Now that our city is redefining itself as a progressive place that attracts and retains creative, progressively minded newcomers, we need buildings that celebrate this evolution while keeping the doors open to long-term residents who give us our small-city flavor. As the Flying Squirrel shows, design can (and should) take a leadership role in architecting both who we have been and who we are becoming.
Updated @ 10:51 a.m. on 4/29/13 to correct an inaccuracy.
Caleb Ludwick is a contributing writer. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.