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The Tennessee city's urban renaissance has been much heralded, and with good reason.
Kevin Kittredge | Special to The Roanoke Times
The park-like area in front of the Hunter Museum attracts many visitors, even when the museum is closed.
Kevin Kittredge | Special to The Roanoke Times Chattanooga's Hunter Museum of American Art, located on an 80-foot bluff above the Tennessee River, includes a 2005 addition (at far right) designed by Randall Stout, architect of Roanoke's Taubman Museum of Art.]
Kevin Kittredge | Special to The Roanoke Times The 2,400-foot Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge, which spans the Tennessee River, is used by walkers, runners and bicyclists.
Kevin Kittredge | Special to The Roanoke Times The Delta Queen, a sternwheel steamboat that is a National Historic Landmark, is anchored at Chattanooga, where it serves as a floating hotel.
huntermuseum.org Willem de Kooning, “Untitled 1969.”
huntermuseum.org George Benjamin Luks “Allen Street,” circa 1905.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
The federal government named it the most polluted city in America back in 1969. Now walkers, runners and bicyclists enjoy its crystalline views of the river and surrounding hills. Among the tens of millions of dollars in new construction the city has witnessed in recent years is a sweeping steel, stone and glass building designed by Randall Stout -- architect of Roanoke's own Taubman Museum of Art.
I had long heard about the urban renaissance in Chattanooga, Tenn., a smallish city (pop. 171,000) that, with its industrial roots and Appalachian mountain backdrop, could be compared to Roanoke. And I was more than a little curious about the Randall Stout addition to the Hunter Museum of American Art.
So following a recent visit to family in Alabama, I decided to spend a few days in "Gig City" - so nicknamed because Chattanooga now boasts what is said to be the fastest Internet service in America. (Chattanooga's claim is based on fiber optic service; Blacksburg recently claimed to have the world's fastest free wireless service. )
What I discovered was a remade downtown where bicyclists and pedestrians far outnumbered cars. Add breathtaking views of the mountains and the Tennessee River - another of Chattanooga's nicknames is "the Scenic City," and it's not all hyperbole -- upscale restaurants, brew pubs, parks, pathways, fountains, an IMAX theater, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Hunter Museum, and it's easy to see why the likes of Volkswagen and Amazon have chosen to build huge facilities and bring thousands of jobs here in recent years.
A river runs through it
Much of what makes Chattanooga scenic is the river, which runs through the middle of town on its way from the Southern Appalachians to the Ohio. I spent an hour after my arrival on the deck of the Delta Queen, a vintage paddlewheeler and National Historic Landmark that has been turned into a floating hotel. (If you want to stay there, you'd better hurry. The old riverboat is for sale. There's talk of moving it to Cincinnati.)
From the deck outside my cabin I had a riverside view of the Hunter Museum, perched on its 80-foot stone bluff across the way. Whatever you may think of Stout's $22 million addition, and residents say it has been controversial, the setting is spectacular. It would have been very pleasant to just keep looking at it until sunset, while enjoying the cool river breezes, but I eventually roused myself and went exploring instead.
Downtown Chattanooga has many attractions, from the requisite IMAX theater to the Tennessee Aquarium, which brings in more than half a million visitors a year; it is said to have been one of the drivers of downtown Chattanooga's turnaround when it opened in 1992. Having written many articles about the Taubman Museum for The Roanoke Times, however, I chose to spend most of my indoor time in Chattanooga at the Hunter Museum.
The Taubman, which opened in 2008, was Stout's first complete museum. His addition to the Hunter, which opened three years earlier, houses the museum's entryway, gift shop, atrium and temporary exhibit space.
As I said, the museum site on the river bluff is breathtaking. I saw Stout's addition from many angles in succession as I walked across the broad river on the busy Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. Like his Roanoke museum, Stout's building, which is the part of the museum closest to the pedestrian bridge and downtown, looks different from every angle. In such a setting, it seems organic, as if its undulations and extrusions were created by natural forces out of the rock itself.
There are multiple approaches to the museum entrance, including a glass-bottomed walkway that connects the museum complex to the Walnut Street Bridge. The glass bridge recalls Santiago Calatrava's much longer bridge across the Nervion River near the famed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. (Both bridges have reportedly had maintenance problems, plagued by broken glass tiles.) The Guggenheim, of course, was designed by Frank Gehry, for whom Stout used to work as an associate architect. Stout's Hunter addition, like the Taubman, recalls Gehry's work in its innovative building materials and restless lines.
A forward-looking city
I arrived at the museum that first evening after closing time, but the space was far from deserted. The parklike area in front of the museum was host to a steady stream of strolling, jogging and bicycle-riding humanity. As I watched, several passers-by stopped at Stout's addition for a closer look, with some passing under an archway to admire the view across the river as well.
The modern design of the Taubman Museum has been much criticized in Roanoke, and Stout's Chattanooga building has drawn its share as well. Some apparently thought it clashed with the neo-classical character of the original museum building. For what it's worth, my desk clerk at the Delta Queen, 21-year-old Megan Sorenson, found Stout's addition "strange, but nice."
Certainly, given its prominent location, the addition sends a message that this city is looking forward, not back. It was in Stout's atrium that Volkswagen announced in 2008 it was building a billion-dollar factory in Chattanooga, with the creation of 2,000 new jobs.
The Hunter's permanent collection of American art is housed in the original 1904 Edwardian mansion and in an earlier, blocklike addition built in 1975. Though I was unannounced and unexpected, museum executive director Daniel Stetson found time to give me a personal tour.
The Taubman Museum has made great strides with its permanent collection in recent years, but it still has a ways to go to catch up with the Hunter. Including not only paintings and statuary but furniture and glass, the Hunter's holdings span the American centuries, from its recently acquired portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale to works by Marsden Hartley, Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning. Along the way are art history book luminaries such as Edward Hopper, George Luks, Thomas Cole, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, George Bellows and many, many more. Indeed, I'll need to return to the Hunter a time or two just to take it all in.
Fortunately, the Hunter seems to be suffering from none of the financial woes suffered recently by the Taubman. Founded with Coca-Cola Bottling Co. money -- namesake George Hunter was an heir -- the Hunter Museum also boasts a $19-million endowment, said director Stetson. "We're in the black," he said.
Downtown Chattanooga is bicycle-friendly, and I took advantage of its bike share system to pedal about all evening and most of the following day. The 2,400-foot Walnut Street bridge spans the river from the Hunter Museum to Coolidge Park and a village-like stretch of small shops, eateries and pubs; it was also the way back to the Delta Queen.
Returning late in the afternoon, I had a glass of wine, grabbed a bike from the nearest rack and pedaled back toward where I had parked my van the previous day, under a bridge. I had seen no parking meters or "no parking" signs at that time, but I couldn't quite believe I was going to get off so easily - not in the middle of a city. And yet my windshield was ticketless. I drove away homeward, vowing to return.
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