With Nod to Past, Tomorrow Building Charts Chattanooga's Future
In a sense, 130 years haven’t changed that much at the Tomorrow Building in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Where it once housed hotel rooms, it now features “micro-living” units. Theoretically, they’re not all that different.
But local preservationists are hoping the transformation brings not only 39 new rental units to the area, but also a change in attitude when it comes to preservation in Chattanooga.
Ann Gray is the Executive Director of Cornerstones, Inc., a local preservation nonprofit whose list of endangered properties included the Tomorrow Building (formerly the Ross Hotel building) for years. She says that as investment started returning to the downtown area over the last decade, preservation wasn’t a priority, with old blocks being wiped clean for new development and public amenities. Very recently, though, she’s seeing renewed interest in historic buildings like the 1888 hotel.
“I’ve explained [the federal historic tax credit] program for over 10 years, and only within the last year so I have real interest in pursuing it,” she says, adding that Cornerstones has even begun aiding in the tax credit process. “It’s perfect for us. I think people are seeing things a slightly different way now in Chattanooga.”
The organization, which is housed in the historic Dome Building nearby (formerly the home of the Chattanooga Times newspaper), had a hand in the hotel’s rehabilitation as well. It commissioned an engineering study of the derelict building to illuminate what a rehabilitation would require for prospective buyers.
Built in 1888, the structure opened as the Delmonico Hotel before reopening as the Ross Hotel in 1925. It became famous as the place where William Jennings Bryan, a U.S. Secretary of State and the anti-evolution attorney in the Scopes Trial, died taking a nap.
The hotel would close as residents and businesses fled the city’s downtown. The building remained in use only on the lower level, where “Yesterday’s” became just the second bar in Chattanooga to serve liquor by the drink, making it a legendary watering hole.
“Everybody of a certain age in Chattanooga has a story about Yesterday’s,” says Stephanie Hays of Lamp Post Properties, the Tomorrow Building developer.
It now sits at the edge of the city’s Innovation District, an initiative to draw startups to the downtown area. It began when the municipal power board laid a fiber optic network in 2009, giving Chattanooga the fastest internet in the western hemisphere. It was, by all accounts, a great success; entrepreneurs flocked as the local population and economy grew.
“The missing piece was residential to make it easy for someone to land here,” says Hays.
The Tomorrow Building represents the first reuse project for Lamp Post Properties, an outgrowth of the local venture incubator Lamp Post Group that bought the building from the economic development nonprofit River City. The developer saw a need for housing tailored to the tech workers drawn to the area by the Innovation District. The “micro-living” units range from 300 to 500 square feet, with communal gathering spaces scattered throughout the building to foster tenant interaction and even collaboration. The “co-living” setup has caught on in big, young cities like San Francisco and New York, but is new to the Chattanooga area.
The property also houses four storefronts on the ground floor, helping to activate the Patten Parkway streetscape. Adding density and creating vibrant public spaces is a priority for the city government, which is just beginning an extensive renovation of nearby Miller Park.
“It really anchors this little Patten Parkway district,” says Gray, “and we know it’s what people want to be in. Everyone loves that historic character and the architectural features, even if they’re just on the outside.”
Construction on the Tomorrow Building began in spring of 2015 and wrapped up December 2016, and it’s already full.
With that success, Lamp Post has taken on two more reuse projects, converting a historic building nearby into creative office space and an old auto dealership into space for a local distillery.
“There are a lot of historic buildings that haven’t been used downtown,” Hays says, “and that’s kind of our mission, to take buildings that were once grand and make them reuse projects for what’s currently happening in Chattanooga and our entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
That’s music to Gray’s ears, who wants preservation to play a role in the city’s renaissance. She’s even working towards historic district designation to make it easier for developers to take advantage of the federal tax credit (Tennessee has no state historic tax credit).
“I think what we’re trying to and the Innovation District work together,” she says. “We just want them to use the old buildings that are there. I think we still have interesting history here.”