TWO CHATTANOOGA ICONS USE HISTORY TO GUIDE THEIR FUTURE
In just a handful of years, two of Chattanooga’s most iconic locations have undergone a true renaissance with nods to the past and futures that are poised to be way more than bright. Both the Chattanooga Choo Choo and The Read House are examples of how a rich history can be adapted, celebrated, and — with a bit of investment and elbow grease — polished into even more lush, relevant versions of themselves.
Chattanooga Choo Choo
The Chattanooga Choo Choo ended passenger train travel in 1970 — it opened in 1909 — and entered a new phase as a hotel experience and entertainment complex thanks to several local businessmen. Why did they invest $4 million to save the former Terminal Station? The answer is about potential. Thanks to a 1941 song by Glenn Miller, the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” had become a household name throughout the world.
An additional $4 million was invested in 1989 and this phase of the Choo Choo continued throughout the 90s and the first decade of the new millennium. But that word kept creeping back into the air … potential. What did the future of the Choo Choo look like?
A state-of-the-art music venue called Track 29 opened in 2011 at the rear of the complex. The success of that venue (now closed) prompted investors to consider a more full-scale reimagining of the historic complex. In 2014, an $8 million investment was announced to transform the complex into THE entertainment complex for the city.
In 2020, those visions are a reality. High-quality restaurants like STIR and Frothy Monkey are permanent destinations of the original Terminal Station building. The Glenn Miller Choo Choo Gardens offer everything from craft beers in a former Pullman train car to a railroad-themed escape experience. And you’d miss the best Instagram-worthy opportunity in the city if you didn’t get a photo underneath the huge “Chattanooga” sign in the breezeway.
The center is also home to the city’s premiere comedy venue The Comedy Catch, two music venues and two dance clubs along Station Street, which has become one of the most popular “night out” destinations in town.
Recent additions include Gate 11, a multi-spirit micro-distillery experience, in the former Station Inn location. Likewise, the brand-new Nic & Norman’s restaurant — which opened in 2020 — maintained as much of the original structure as possible, including wood from the early 1900s and the original terrazzo floors.
Not to be outdone, the historic Read House hotel has also seen major renovations come to fruition in the past few years. But while the Choo Choo has maintained the integrity of its past as it marches toward the future, the Read House looked back in time for inspiration.
The Read House Hotel
Opened in 1872, the original Read House quickly became the city’s go-to hotel thanks to the hospitality and compassion of owners John and Caroline Read. The current building was constructed in 1926 to match the city’s growth at the time. However, throughout the 80s and 90s, the hotel saw its reputation as a community gathering place transition into a place for visitors rather than locals.
The hotel needed a boost and a return to its former glory. Fortunately, the new owners saw an opportunity and decided to go for it.
The year 1926 — amid the middle of the glitz and grandeur of the Roaring 20s — was the inspiration for Avocet Hospitality Group in 2017. That year, the hotel closed and reopened in 2018 after a $25 million renovation to convert the complex in a “period boutique hotel.”
Using the Roaring 20s and, specifically, “The Great Gatsby” as inspiration, the new Read House is like taking a step back into the luxury of the past. All the public areas of the hotel were returned to their former glory, while the guestrooms received a much-needed upgrade to the modern amenities attendees would expect at any luxury hotel.
As you step through the doors and into the lobby, the experience is likely to put a nostalgic smile on your face even if you weren’t alive in the 1920s. A new billiards room, front desk and a library were part of the project. As was bringing back the historic Green Room as a meeting place which, according to owners, was THE place to be in Chattanooga.
The former Porter’s Steakhouse was replaced by Bridgman’s Chophouse, an upscale dining experience with steaks and a wine list that would make Robert Mondavi blush.
The new/old Read House also embraces more than one ghost of its past. For years, rumors of a specific haunting in Room 311 were not to be addressed by hotel staff. Now, the vindictive presence of Annalissa Netherly is fully embraced. She is said to greatly dislike males, especially those who smoke as they reminded her of her husband.
Both the Chattanooga Choo Choo and Read House are examples of adaptive reuse. The term applies to the reimagining of historic buildings for a different purpose. These unique properties are just two of many that enhance Chattanooga’s rich history while paving a new path into the future of the city.
Choo Choo Events
1909: Terminal Station opens. It was designed by architect Donn Barber in the popular Beaux-Arts design at the time.
1940: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrives by train at the Chattanooga Choo Choo before visiting the Chickamauga Dam.
1941: Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo” appears in the movie “Sun Valley Serenade.”
1956: Elvis Presley visits the Choo Choo and has dinner at the diner.
1970: The final passenger train — Birmingham Special — arrived at the station.
1973: Local businessmen invest $4 million to save Terminal Station.
2014: $8 million renovations and entertainment complex conversion announced.
Read House Events
1847: The Crutchfield House occupied the site of the current Read House. It was a popular hostelry during the pre-bellum years. It burned to the ground in 1867 after surviving a historic flood and the ravages of the Civil War.
1904: Coca-Cola was introduced at RH Drugstore at Read House.
1953: $50,000 in jewels are stolen from the RH safe. Nobody was prosecuted but a jewel case from the collection washed ashore on a river in Connecticut. None of the other jewels were ever found.
1962: The Read House adds a motor inn on the back of the hotel following the new Golden Gateway interstate system that ran through town. This section is called the Manor House today.
2018: The Read House completes a $25 million renovation, restoring the grandeur of the ‘20s.