For three U.S. presidents and a king (at least of rock and roll), the Terminal Station at the Chattanooga Choo Choo was the gateway to Chattanooga to those coming to the city via rail in the 20th century.
Singer Elvis Presley, U.S. Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt and tens of thousands of other Americans entered Chattanooga in the past through the railroad lobby beneath what was once the world's biggest freestanding dome of its kind.
"Outside of the state capital, this may be the greatest room in Tennessee," former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey said Wednesday, standing beneath the 82-foot high dome ceiling at the entrance to the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Kinsey and the two dozen other investment partners who now own the Choo Choo announced Wednesday they are donating the Terminal Station and giving $350,000 to the local historic preservation agency, Cornerstones Inc., to help restore and preserve the domed entrance to the former railroad station, which once was the entry or departure point for 50 passenger rail routes every day.
The Beaux-Arts-style station was designed by Donn Barber and completed 109 years ago with what was then the largest self-supporting brick arch in the world. The train station achieved international fame in 1941 when Glenn Miller and his Orchestra recorded "Chattanooga Choo Choo," a big band song which went to No. 1 and became the first certified gold record.
But for all of its historic significance and unique design, Terminal Station, like most of the former railroad passenger buildings that have been toppled over the past century, is not necessarily commercially viable.
Chattanooga's other downtown passenger railroad station on M.L. King Boulevard was demolished in 1973.
Kinsey said as a real estate developer he has helped restore and develop older buildings for restaurants such as Big River or the corporate headquarters for Craftsworks and Walden Security, among others.
"I know from my experience that real estate tends to go to the highest and best use — and this (public preservation of the dome structure) is not necessarily the highest and best use from a commercial perspective," he said. "But this is the right thing for this special place."
The Choo Choo will continue to own the wings of the main railroad facility, which are leased for Stir, Frothy Monkey and new restaurants being developed by veteran restaurateurs Tim Hennen and Allen Corey.
For all its modern success, the Southern Railway was going to demolish Terminal Station a half century ago after passenger rail service ended in Chattanooga in 1970. B. Allen Casey used his Hilton hotel franchise, combined with local investors, to buy the 26-acre rail station in 1973 and developed the Choo Choo hotel complex. But the hotel ultimately filed for bankruptcy when interest rates soared and the economy soured.
Kinsey, whose group bought the Choo Choo in 1989, said the dome area should be open to the public and maintained by an entity that can ensure its long-term preservation.
The Choo Choo hotel plans to lease the lobby for the next decade for the hotel, but Ann Gray of Cornerstones Inc. said the facility will be open to the public and shared with students in UTC's interior architecture program.
Gray said the dome area also may be developed for historic tours and displays.
"This was a marvel of structural engineering," she said of the Terminal building. "They don't make them like this anymore."
Cornerstone on Wednesday launched a fundraising drive (at www.cornerstonesinc.org) to try to collect $1 million for the dome restoration, display and preservation. Gray said her group also hopes to work to reactivate the lights and sign atop the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Gray said the success of Chattanooga's Southside revival at structures such as the Choo Choo, the Terminal Building, the Church on Main, the Industrial YMCA and others "shows that people like to be in historic buildings and want our history preserved."
At the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Jon Kinsey and his son, Adam, are revamping the hotel complex into more of an entertainment, housing and hotel facility. Kinsey said the plans already represent $85 million of development with new restaurants, bars, apartments and music venues and a guitar museum. The former convention complex, which closed at the end of 2017, is being marketed for possible office use.
Bob Doak, a former general manager at the Choo Choo who has served for the past 15 years as president of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the Chattanooga Choo Choo is the city's best known landmark around the world.
"When you say Chattanooga to many people around the globe, the next two words that are either said or sung are "Choo Choo,'" Doak said. "This special place has been one of the foundations of building our billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry in Chattanooga."
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 423-757-6340.