Cornerstones to preserve Chattanooga Choo Choo dome

Cornerstones to preserve Chattanooga Choo Choo dome
Hotel donates historic structure for preservation

One of Chattanooga's most historic structures will be preserved by a local preservation group which is taking ownership of part of the city's most iconic building.

The owners of the Chattanooga Choo Choo will announce plans today to donate the historic Terminal Station to Cornerstones Inc., which is launching a $1 million fundraising effort to preserve the structure and its award-winning dome architecture.

"We are proud to take ownership of this iconic historic property and show by example how historic properties can be saved and restored through a private and public partnership," said Ann Gray, executive director of Cornerstones Inc.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, the managing partner in the Choo Choo Partners investment group that acquired the former railroad station in 1989, said the Choo Choo is donating the Terminal Station along with $350,000 for its preservation to Cornerstones Inc.

"Terminal Station was built for the public and it is now going to be returned to the public domain where we believe it should be," Kinsey said. "This is one of the greatest rooms in the state of Tennessee and certainly the most famous and historic in Chattanooga."

The entrance to the Choo Choo, which was popularized in the 1941 hit song by Glenn Miller, served as the front door to thousands of persons coming to Chattanooga in the 20th century via the railroad, including Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Beaux-Arts-style station designed by Donn Barber was completed in 1909. The center arch section, the Dome, was the largest self-supporting brick arch in the world and won international awards for its design.

During its height of operations in the early 20th century, the 14 tracks at the Choo Choo moved thousands of people and tons of goods across the country, making Chattanooga the primary travel route from North to South.

But with the end of passenger rail service to Chattanooga in 1970, Terminal Station was scheduled to be demolished before B. Allen Casey led an investment group that bought the abandoned rail station, put more than $4 million into the Terminal Station renovation and turned the facility into a Hilton hotel and convention facility with rail cars, stores, a skating rink and more than 500 hotel rooms on 26 acres.

Kinsey's group acquired the hotel complex in 1989 after the Choo Choo filed for bankruptcy and has revamped much of the hotel and conference center into an entertainment complex of restaurants, music venues and bars.

Terminal Station was listed on the National Register in 1973 and was repainted nearly two decades ago, but Gray said the dome needs additional work to be preserved to its original grandeur.

"This building is in much better condition than most of the structures we get involved with to restore," she said. "This is certainly the best known Chattanooga attraction and a great historic site we hope to be able to open up to the public and to be able to allow students from UTC and others to possibly observe some of the preservation work we hope to soon do."

The Choo Choo will continue to own and operate the wings of the brick Terminal Station on Market Street, where Stir, Frothy Monkey and a couple of new restaurants and bars are planned. The entrance beneath the dome also serves as one of the hotel lobbies for the Choo Choo, although Gray said the area also could be opened up for historic displays or tours.

Kinsey said there have been nearly 80 train stations demolished in the United States since the decline in train travel, including Union Station on M.L. King Boulevard that was demolished in 1973 to make way for the Krystal and Tallan office buildings.

"We take for granted that our historic buildings are always going to be here," said Gray. "We've seen over and over how easily historic properties have been demolished. We are so proud to say that will never happen to Terminal Station."

This article appeared in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Jan. 31. 
Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

Amanda Carmichael