Denise Crowell and Cyndi Roberts stood in the middle of the darkened main dining room of the former Brass Register, the walls lit by utility lights as workers applied a new coat of varnish to the old wooden tables.
Under their oversight, the former Chattanooga landmark across from the Hamilton County Courthouse on Fountain Square is set to transform into a Jefferson's sports bar in mid-January, an upscale sports grill with a full menu including wings, oysters, burgers and salads, as well as alcoholic beverages.
The restaurant should employ about 45 employees initially, but that number could expand if the business takes off.
"We were looking for a good location in Chattanooga for our restaurant, and we came up with this," Crowell said.
Crowell came to Chattanooga from St. Louis where she has worked for Anheuser-Busch for a decade.
Roberts, from Cartersville, Ga., worked for Anheuser-Busch for 17 years.
"We were very impressed with this city," she said. "We thought it would be a good fit."
But before she could open Jefferson's, she and Roberts had to redo the place.
It could cost $150,000 to open the doors, including tens of thousands to tie in a new sprinkler system underneath Georgia Avenue, but Crowell and Roberts were willing to roll up their sleeves and get the old building whipped into shape, they say.
The new sprinklers, an unexpected expense, "almost shut us down," Crowell said, but they decided to swallow the additional cost and move forward.
The Brass Register originally opened in 1973, the first establishment to do so after the city allowed liquor by the drink, according to Fred Robinson, co-owner of the building.
"It was a popular place back then, and the drinking age was 18," Robinson said. "It was very popular for college kids and lawyers getting off work."
After it closed in the late 1980s, a succession of other eateries vied to take its place, none of them lasting very long,
The first order of business for the new owners was to remove tacky touches from previous occupants, Roberts said, to be replaced with more modern, eyeball-friendly themes.
"When we got here, it looked like a saloon, with a stage in the back that had a barn top and a lot of Tiffany lighting," Crowell said, adding, "We're taking the saloon image out of it."
Burnt oranges and greens were replaced by neutral colors, and dining areas were revamped to seat about 130 inside and another 20 outside.
They are also adding a banquet room for meetings, with a big screen TV for presentations.
Owners plan to offer a light breakfast for office workers in a hurry, including take-out meals for those late for meetings, as long as there is demand for it.
The actual brass register that was used in the second incarnation of the old eatery, which replaced the original brass register that was sold off decades ago, will be kept for the time being, Crowell said.
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.