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Chattanooga historian’s book highlights city’s changes
By Clint Cooper   - 02/03/2008

Chattanooga Times Free Press

As a child growing up in North Chattanooga, Bill Hull said, the fields under the bridges at the foot of the Tennessee River were some of his playgrounds. There, he said, he kept a sharp eye on river traffic, noting what passed by and what docked. There were, he said, plenty of savory and unsavory characters to behold.

Today, a photograph from the 1920s or 1930s of a houseboat moored along the river within site of the Walnut Street Bridge is juxtaposed with a similar new one taken by Mr. Hull in his newly published book, “Chattanooga.”

“I have always, as a historian, had an interest in what was then and what is now,” he said.

The book by the former collections manager of the Chattanooga Regional History Museum is divided into 96 pages of past and present images of various locations in the area. It is divided into four chapters: “River City,” “Heart of the City,” “Faith, Home and Education” and “Landmarks and Attractions,” and includes an introduction and afterword about the author.

The book, Mr. Hull said, had been “percolating” in his mind for a while and follows his 2006 release, “Historic Photos of Chattanooga,” which looks at 100 years of Chattanooga history through black-and-white images.

All the older photographs in “Chattanooga” are from the collection of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library.

Mr. Hull, a former staff photographer for the Atlanta History Center, took all of the new images.

Ann Gray, executive director of Cornerstones, a Chattanooga nonprofit historic preservation organization, said juxtaposing old and new photographs is a historic preservation technique that emphasizes history and how things change.

“We use that format in telling Chattanooga’s story,” she said.

Ms. Gray said Mr. Hull’s book is “great” and proves “a picture is worth 1,000 words.”

“There is a lot of information in one photograph,” she said.

In “Chattanooga,” Mr. Hull said, he wanted to compare photographs of things that had not changed, things that had changed a bit and things that had changed dramatically.
The stone house at the corner of Vine and Palmetto streets, for instance, looks little changed today as the Mayor’s Mansion Inn from when it was built in 1889 as a home for Chattanooga Mayor Edward Watkins.

The 1920s or 1930s houseboat photo, though, shows a boat painted with the names “Gospell Ark” and “Gospel Ark.” In the rear are the bridge, Maclellan Island and what was then Hill City.

The photo of the area today shows the Plexiglas pleasure cruiser “Evening Star” docked at the riverfront’s new Chattanooga Pier. In the background are the Walnut Street Bridge, Maclellan Island, the 1980s-era Veterans Bridge and what is now called North Chattanooga.

Among the photos where the scene has dramatically changed is Old Main, the original Gothic, four-story building that housed the higher education facility known variously as Chattanooga University, Grant University, the University of Chattanooga and, since 1969, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

That building, razed in 1917, was replaced by a pictured group of more squat brick buildings surrounding an open lawn.

Many of the older photographs in the book have never been published and have been seen only by librarians and archivists, Mr. Hull said.

A 1948 photograph of street pavers just south of the Market Street Bridge, for instance, ordinarily might seem “mundane” but becomes interesting when compared to a current photograph of the same area now changed by the presence of the Tennessee Aquarium.

Similarly, a scene from Ninth and Market streets in the 1950s includes storefronts and the concrete Allright parking garage, but a newer photograph depicts people heading toward Nightfall in Miller Plaza on a summer Friday night and portrays “how active our downtown is now.”

Mr. Hull said he made a conscious effort to make his photographs interesting, with people and automobiles to reflect the era, and give the new images a clear connection to the archival image.

For example, he said, “I spent a lot of time lining up the (Walnut Street) bridge.”

The book also includes photographs of places such as Cameron Hill, which Mr. Hull said had an uncanny resemblance to Lookout Mountain before its top was sliced off during urban renewal in the late 1950s. Given his druthers, he would have preserved what he said was “a fine high hill with beautiful structures.”

The 300-foot, four-track, limestone and brick, pre-Civil War railcar shed that occupies the space where the downtown library stands today is also depicted.

“I’d love to slip back and time and look” at that “handsome monolith,” Mr. Hull said.

Nevertheless, he said, Chattanooga has “done a lot of good things in term of preservation.”

Conservation of downtown structures is a “struggle between the past and present” and a “building by building, block by block decision,” Mr. Hull said.

People have a tendency “to get romantic about the past,” he said, but buildings in need of preservation should have a use.

“They’ve got to have a living use,” he said. “If they do, they have a real chance.”

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