Historic preservation and demolition do not seem like they would make good companions. As one effort seeks to restore heritage sites, the other threatens to erase our memories of the place.
Oddly, the two seemingly conflicting efforts are in reluctant accord this week in the heart of the Main and Market streets historic district, as demolition crews tear down the backside of the old St. George Hotel, across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Seven years after a 2004 fire caused a rear portion of the building to be dismantled, the city condemned the back third of the property in the fall of 2011.
Unfortunately, conditions worsened in the months between the last inspection and last week when the demolition crews arrived to remove that condemned portion on the backside of the former hotel.
“We just learned this week we may have to lose the entire back part of the building. The property is that derelict,” Ann Gray, executive director of Cornerstones, the local historic preservation nonprofit, said.
Opening in 1917 as the Hotel Grand, this four-story destination served travelers arriving in Chattanooga at the Terminal Station (Chattanooga Choo Choo) across the street.
Many know the location as the building with a large tree actually thriving and growing up and through a deteriorated exterior brick corner. That wall and tree are now gone.
Although the news about losing the entire back of the property isn’t what anyone wanted to hear, Gray said all is not lost.
Gray said plans are to save the street-facing facade so that the building’s character can continue to charm the neighborhood, which boasts other successful public-private rescue projects including the Strong Building on Market Street, which became The Terminal Brewhouse; the former Mitchell Street YMCA that is undergoing extensive renovations before reopening as The Basecamp hostel; and the Levin Brothers Building on Main Street, which was dramatically saved last year and is still undergoing a full restoration.
A beloved building
The building has been on Cornerstones’ list of the city’s most endangered historic structures for many years and is the favorite of many urbanites.
Last winter, Cornerstones and the interior design department of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga partnered to create several proposals for the property as student projects. You can see their ideas here.
On Monday, local urban design consultant and blogger Christian Rushing wrote that although he understands the site has “serious issues that make its redevelopment problematic,” he thinks it’s time to show the place some respect.
“The state of the St. George Hotel is shocking. I am amazed that, with all of the investment and good work that has been done in the Southside, that the hotel and adjacent properties are in the condition they are. The Terminal Building of the Choo Choo, one of the grand structures in our city and one of the biggest tourists draws, is set across from the biggest eyesore in all of downtown,” Rushing posted on his blog Monday.
As the city’s first fireproof hotel, the structure has been a challenge for developers to find cost-effective ways of adapting the hotel’s many small guest rooms into something usable. “What do we do with it?” was always the question, Gray said.
Now with the structure’s back removed and front saved, different possibilities open up for redevelopment, according to Gray.
“It will now make sense to have something built off the main architectural feature of the property, which is the front facade,” Gray said.
After demolition activities are complete, the facade will be re-boarded up and the entire site secured until more and new development conversations begin again, some of which are already taking place today, according to Gray.
Since 2006, the property has been owned by St. George Development LLC, which is owned by Craig Driver. The comany paid $420,000 for the building and an adjacent parking lot, according to the Times Free Press.