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Chattanooga’s history: 3 Black residents who helped shape the city’s architectural footprint

Let’s uncover some of the stories within the Chattanooga Public Library’s Black residents archives and how they shaped the city in their own way throughout history.

Historical photo of the Market Street Bridge from a newspaper clipping

Learn a bit about the residents that shaped some of Chattanooga’s buildings + structures.

Historical archive provided by Chattanooga Public Library

Editor Haley here. I recently took a trip to the Chattanooga Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy department to uncover some unique stories within its “Black residents” archives.

Let me share with you the stories of three folks who played a role in shaping some of Chattanooga’s well-known landmarks + buildings.

Newspaper clipping of Chattanooga resident James Chandler

James Chandler began working in 1900 and retired at the age of 81 in 1953.

Historical archive provided by Chattanooga Public Library

James Chandler

James Chandler (whose last newspaper clipping shows him at the age of 102) was born in Richmond, VA before coming to Chattanooga in 1880 when he was eight so his father could help on the first railroad for Chattanooga.

When Chandler first came to the city, there wasn’t a bridge to cross the river — residents had to rely on a ferry service. In his adulthood, Chandler worked for the Southern Railway Co. and built some of Chattanooga’s staples.

  • Market Street Bridge | Originally called the John Ross Bridge, Chandler dug the first concrete tier himself, helping construct the “third largest of type in the world” that opened in 1917.
  • Chickamauga Dam | He used an air drill 37 feet below the base of the river when the 5,800-ft dam was being built from 1936-1940.

Additionally, Chandler worked on the McCallie Tunnels + East Third Street bridge. He was also the first Black man in Chattanooga to own an automobile and have electricity in his home.

“When I came to Chattanooga the city limits were at Central Avenue. There were lots of woods, with deer and bear, all around town.” — James Chandler

News clipping of Chattanooga resident J.B. Ghiden

Ghiden and his family lived in several neighborhoods in Chattanooga, including St. Elmo.

Historical archive provided by Chattanooga Public Library

J.B. Ghiden

J.B. Ghiden (who has one news clipping as he celebrated his 94th birthday) was born in Rockmart, GA in 1877 before moving with his family to Chattanooga four years later. During his ~90 years in the city, Ghiden not only saw the area transform, but helped build our historical buildings with his own hands.

Ghiden was a self-employed master stone-cutter, rock + concrete mason, and home builder. The next time you look at some of these buildings, you might think of him.

  • Homes | He was responsible for building many of the cobblestone homes throughout the city, including those on Lookout and Signal Mountains + his own at 3514 Ridgeside Rd.
  • Hotel Patten | Now known as the Patten Towers, Ghiden’s craft can be found in parts of the marble, terracotta + pressed brick that created Chattanooga’s first $1 million modern hotel that opened to the public in 1908.

You can also see the history of Ghiden in the rock-and-stone walls surrounding the Hamilton County Courthouse downtown.

“I couldn’t tell you how many stones I had layed over those years, but it has been a tremendous number.” — J.B. Ghiden

News clipping of Genell Anderson

Genell Anderson might not have been a full-time Chattanooga resident, but her mark is still left on the city.

Historical archive provided by Chattanooga Public Library

Genell Anderson

Genell Anderson’s story and news clipping is a little different — born in Charleston, SC, Anderson came to Chattanooga in 1983, fresh out of an architectural program at Tulane University. During her year in the city, she worked on a few projects like revitalizing a piece of MLK Boulevard.

  • Live and Let Live Laundromat | You all might know this barber shop + laundry facility at 763 E. MLK Blvd., but you might not know that Anderson was the one who designed it — revitalizing the abandoned structure that was first built in the ‘20s.

Anderson, who now lives in Washington D.C. and owns her own firm AMAR Group LLC, recalled designing the building decades ago. She said that coming into a predominately Black neighborhood, there were certain things she knew had to be incorporated like adding glass-block walls + making a statement out of the entryway. Anderson added that she loved the postmodern movement, even citing that she was using “Trauma-Informed Design” before it had a real name.

“Postmodernism had a lot to do with colors and looking at history in a different kind of way,” she said. “I thought that those elements would have been good in that neighborhood.”

Anderson said that even the color blue of the building had her work written all over it. Even though her time in Chattanooga was short-lived, she said that she felt tuned in to our landscape (compared to the flat lands of her hometown) to create designs the way she did while she was here. She added that if you look at her designs after ’83, you can see the resemblance of the textures she used on the laundromat.

Bonus: You can search through the library’s resources for local history like this + see digital collections online.

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