published Monday, October 7th, 2013

'Best Old-House' neighborhood St. Elmo in Chattanooga getting national attention

TOP SPOTS

The editors of ThisOldHouse.com singled out the following Southern communities in their 2013 Best Old-House Neighborhoods as ones that would "charm you from the first moment you see them." The lower end of the price range is for houses that need fixing up, while the upper end is usual price paid for move-in-ready homes.

• 1. Norwood, Birmingham, Ala. ($20,000-$120,000)

• 2. Hot Springs, Ark. ($100,000-$650,000)

• 3. Springfield neighborhood, Jacksonville, Fla. ($40,000-$275,000)

• 4. Old Fourth Ward, Atlanta ($150,000-$400,000)

• 5. Kenwick neighborhood, Lexington, Ky. ($125,000-$300,000)

• 6. New Iberia, La. ($350,000-$1 million)

• 7. Belhaven neighborhood, Jackson, Miss. ($150,000-$500,000)

• 8. Hillsborough, N.C. ($130,000-$850,000)

• 9. Mesta Park, Oklahoma City ($120,000-$425,000)

• 10. York, S.C. ($90,000-$300,000)

• 11. St. Elmo Historic District ($40,000-$250,000)

• 12. Glenbrook Valley neighborhood, Houston ($100,000-$300,000)

• 13. Danville, Va. ($10,000-$150,000)

• 14. Elkins, W.Va. ($60,000-$170,000)

Source: This Old House

When an epidemic of yellow fever swept through Chattanooga in the 1880s, many of the city's residents moved south to the then-newly established community of St. Elmo in search of healthier climes.

More than a century later, the neighborhood has been pegged yet again as a desirable destination on This Old House's sixth annual list of Best Old-House Neighborhoods.

In all, 61 communities -- 51 in the United States and 10 in Canada -- were included in the magazine's feature, which was compiled by editors of ThisOld House.com. The neighborhoods and towns that made the cut were selected for their architectural diversity, amenities, craftsmanship and historic preservation.

"We look for old neighborhoods with a true identify and rich architecture, a real feel to the neighborhood," writes a This Old House spokesperson in an emailed response. "Plus, we ask ourselves 'Is [the community] attracting new buyers, artists or small businesses, a certain type of person?' We are looking for a new energy."

Despite its newfound stamp of national approval, St. Elmo was not always considered a must-live community. In the 1960s and '70s, many residents left, en masse, for the suburbs, says Jenny Shugart, a historic preservation planner for Chattanooga from 2007 to 2012.

In the early 1990s, a few stalwarts recognized something worth preserving in the area's many Victorian-era homes. They sought to safeguard that architectural legacy by applying for designation as a local historic district, and in 1992, the city granted their wish.

As a member of the Chattanooga Historic Zoning Commission, Shugart and her staff enforced construction regulations designed to maintain the historic look of St. Elmo and the city's three other local historic districts: Ferger Place, Battery Place and Fort Wood.

The recognition of St. Elmo's distinctive character by This Old House vindicates the commission's work and the efforts of those in St. Elmo who have to abide by strict regulations against altering the historic elements of their homes, Shugart says.

"I'm extremely proud of the residents [in St. Elmo]," she says. "They very much want to improve their neighborhood as well as be good stewards of the history of the neighborhood.

"This helps the residents realize that their hard work is paying off, and I think it make some of the doubters realize the same thing. They're making a name for themselves, not just in Chattanooga but around the nation."

In their description of St. Elmo, This Old House editors also praised the community's upswing, writing, "Owners of all ages and walks of life are restoring historic houses to their original splendor.

In addition to being one of 14 desirable Southern locations included on the list, St. Elmo also was singled out for its many Victorian homes -- primarily folk Victorian and carpenter gothic -- its proximity to downtown and nearby Lookout Mountain and its appeal to budget-minded buyers, retirees and DIY renovators.

  • photo
    Notable St. Elmo houses
    Graphic by Laura McNutt/Photos by John Rawlston

Jeffrey Cross, 43, his wife Heather and their children Teddy, Zachary, Lexi and Millie, live in a sprawling Queen Anne at 4300 Alabama Ave in St. Elmo. The family moved in on Oct. 1, 1994 and, about 12 years ago, Cross founded St. Elmo's community website (St-Elmo.org) and its extremely active email list.

Marveling at the neighborhood's historic homes through a car window might be the main draw for visitors to St. Elmo, but Cross says the diversity of the people who live in those homes is just as appealing.

"We have all kinds of different people," he says. "We like raising our kids in a community where not everybody is the same color or has the same amount of possessions."

According to a This Old House spokesperson, research for the Best Old-House Neighborhoods list is a yearlong process. Last November, one of the website's writers, Cathy Garrard, contacted Cross to let him know St. Elmo was being considered for inclusion and to conduct some fact-checking about the area's history.

Although the announcement that the neighborhood made the cut was a thrill, Cross says it was hardly surprising, given St. Elmo's dramatic turnaround in the last 20 years. Still, he adds, it's nice that the rest of the country is finally catching on to what Chattanoogans figured out 130 years ago.

"I think it's clear, from anybody's perspective, that St. Elmo has become a more desirable place to live," he says. "I think [being selected] is a reflection of St. Elmo and Chattanooga as a whole that we're up-and-coming.

"It's a great place to live."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

  • photo
    This house is located at 4300 Alabama Ave. in the St. Elmo community.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

REGAL RESIDENCES

4300 ALABAMA AVE.

• Year built: 1888.

• Owners: Jeffrey and Heather Cross.

• Style: Queen Anne or Folk Victorian.

• Features: Period stained-glass windows; extensive decorative rosettes and other trim features; original plaster and working radiators inside.

• Square footage: 3,112

  • photo
    This house is located at 4410 St. Elmo Ave. in the St. Elmo community.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

4410 ST. ELMO AVE.

• Year built: 1900.

• Owners: Chris and Rebecca Dodson.

• Style: Victorian Farmhouse.

• Features: Interior staircase is original to the home as are most of the windows and some of the hardwood floors.

• Square footage: 2,375

  • photo
    This house is located at 5201 Tennessee Ave. in the St. Elmo community.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

5201 TENNESSEE AVE.

• Year built: 1905.

• Owners: Edward and Doreen Kellogg.

• Style: Folk Victorian or Victorian Gothic.

• Features: Four original stained-glass windows and slate roof.

• Square footage: 3,540.

  • photo
    This house is located at 4801 Alabama Ave. in the St. Elmo community.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

4801 ALABAMA AVE.

• Year built: 1920.

• Owners: Andy and Gloria Mendonsa.

• Style: Folk Victorian.

• Features: Original architectural features throughout, including five fireplaces (one in the downstairs bath), heart of pine trim, doors and flooring, original brass door hardware and separate downstairs water closet.

• Square footage: 3,358.

Note: Build year and square footage values are derived from Hamilton County Assessor data.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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