The Nooga.com headquarters is located inside Chattanooga’s historic D.B. Loveman Building at 800 Market St.
Obviously, the history of the building is noticeable at every turn: majestic, ornate columns; luxuriously tiled floors; and large, open rooms (now offices) that at one time held clothing and goods.
Originally constructed in 1886, the Loveman’s Building burned down a few years later; but undeterred, Loveman rebuilt a much larger building in 1891 on the same site.
That building served as the home for Loveman’s retail operation for more than 100 years before being sold to Proffitt’s in 1988. They later closed their downtown Chattanooga operation in 1993, ending a tradition of department store retail in the area.
But the Loveman’s Building also holds a clue to the past, a potential centerpiece to one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the city: Underground Chattanooga.
For years, citizens have recounted tales of a lost city below the downtown streets: former windows buried below street level, brick-lined doors that open into dark tunnels and long-forgotten basements.
The theory is that after a series of devastating floods in the 19th century-the worst in 1867-either business owners or the city (or both) decided to raise the street level, meaning what was once the first-level floor of many buildings became the basement.
Though not inexpensive, a project of this magnitude would’ve been much cheaper than building a large levee at Ross’s Landing at the time.
Experts suggest the large amount of stone and dirt needed for the project may have been swept downhill from the area around the Hamilton County Courthouse.
Another theory is that large retaining walls were a part of the filling approach, evidence of which may appear in the Loveman’s basement and other buildings in the 700 and 800 blocks of downtown.
The general consensus, however, is that there is no general consensus. Nothing. There’s no local history book, no official record or City Council mention whatsoever of the idea of raising the city streets during that time.
But there is evidence, albeit circumstantial, that something occurred.
Nick Honerkamp is a professor with the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Geography at UTC.
He first became interested in Chattanooga’s underground after reports from utility workers who found sawed-off trees with intact roots 8 feet below the ground during inspections.
Then, he started noticing knee-high windows and doors leading to nowhere.
He said that these utility accounts and the visible windows are really the best evidence of Underground Chattanooga.
“That’s what’s so weird about this,” Honerkamp said. “There’s really no definitive evidence of a concerted effort to raise [the city]. To me, it’s just … incomprehensible that something of that nature would be casual.”
To Honerkamp, the specifics of the rise are the most fascinating element. What was the process? How did it occur? And ultimately, is there really an Underground Chattanooga at all?
What we do know
The street-level windows can most likely be explained, especially in the older buildings throughout downtown.
“Back before the turn of the century, the main fuel source was coal,” Honerkamp said. “It wasn’t electricity, it wasn’t gas, it was coal. And you had to have a coal chute.”
Many buildings-including Loveman’s-had street-level openings leading down to boiler rooms underneath the street. A visible example of this can be found at Second Presbyterian Church on Pine Street, where coal was delivered from the street above into a designated area below.
These chutes were later covered with brick and may have the appearance of a window to passersby. A quick Google search yields plenty of examples.
“It’s always going down; it’s not going up,” Honerkamp said. “Some of the structures that we interpret as Underground Chattanooga are simply power-generation procedures that we can barely comprehend now.”
Honerkamp said not every hole that was dug and lined with bricks is a vast mystery. But the prospects get more interesting when you have basements containing doors with stone frames.
“If you’ve got that, you’ve got direct evidence of an Underground Chattanooga,” he said.
We invited Honerkamp and local attorney/historian Maury Nicely to visit the basement of Loveman’s to determine whether it was part of what we know as Underground Chattanooga.
Armed with a camera, our crew explored each end of the building from Cherry to Market streets.
Much of the basement is now residential storage, though a few peculiarities exist. A grand, forgotten staircase suggests a history of use as retail space. Several exterior walls have what appear to be windows long ago sealed off. Several doors, too, were bricked over and sealed shut.
Little was learned about the construction of the 1891 building, but a large, underground stone retaining wall was discovered along the Eighth Street side. This wall, at least 6 feet high, runs adjacent to the sidewalk underneath the surface.
Curiously, the north-facing wall also includes spread footings, which, in terms of load-bearing capability, are not efficient in large buildings.
For Nicely, the presence of retaining walls suggests a larger project may have occurred.
“It looks like [the wall] might be the centerpiece of the Underground Chattanooga project,” Nicely said. “It has reduced my skepticism of the Underground Chattanooga idea.”
For Honerkamp, the presence of the walls was a revelation.
“The retaining walls may be the only evidence of an amazing, purposive municipal effort to protect the town from (pre-TVA) flooding,” he said. “If so, it’s a unique example of our urban history that literally transformed the downtown area.”
“The legends are interesting,” he said. “But the evidence has been spotty. This may give us a clearer idea of how it happened, and perhaps when.”
Both Honerkamp and Nicely agree that much of what we could consider Underground Chattanooga was limited to a specific area of downtown prone to flooding, i.e., the 700 and 800 blocks of Cherry, Market and Broad streets.
According to Honerkamp, further research is needed, including an inventory of the presence of retaining walls adjacent and parallel to building foundations, plus an extensive examination of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, originally created to estimate fire insurance liabilities.
“These maps should show a reduction, as retaining walls marked the ‘new’ street dimensions,” Honerkamp said.
Nicely added: “Efforts to examine this have been piecemeal to date. I’d hope we can begin a coordinated, complete examination of the Underground Chattanooga concept.”
The Loveman’s Building isn’t going anywhere.
Updated @ 8:34 a.m. on 3/6/14 for clarity.