Camping Out

Camping Out

November 1st, 2012 by Merrell McGinness in Local Regional News

It's a beautiful fall day at the Camp House. The metal barn doors are flung open and a languid breeze filters past the wooden slat tables and soft leather couches. Natural light pours in through the clearstory windows, filling the old brick warehouse with soft, diffuse light. Naked filament light bulbs hang from the ceiling, under which creative types gather to work, meet and socialize; attracted to the coffeehouse like the proverbial moth.

"I preserved as much of the cobalt glass windows as I could," says Cessna Decosimo, the renowned painter and sculptor who renovated the 19th century building in the late '90s when the Southside was still considered dangerous. "If you look at the way light reflects through these windows, the shapes and colors - it's like a moving painting." He's working in the back of the building - his new studio - sanding and brushing a small canvas. Occasionally he steps back, turns sideways and holds a piece of mirror between his eyes. "DaVinci talks about using a mirror," he explains. "It reverses the image and allows you to see it with a fresh eye."

In late 2009, the artist was convinced to see something else from a new perspective - the idea of renting the front half of his beloved studio. Decosimo had merely floated the idea among friends when Chris Sorensen, an Anglican priest from New York, showed up on his doorstep. Led to Chattanooga by a dream his wife Angie had, the couple decided to pick up and move after a brief fact-finding trip. Jason and Satoya Foster, and Tim and Michelle Newton joined the Sorensens in Chattanooga sight unseen as modern-day missionaries. When they arrived they weren't certain of their purpose, but they knew they'd need a building. They stumbled upon Decosimo's studio and, true to form, the space inspired the concept.

Camp House Espresso (the coffeehouse) and Mission Chattanooga (the church) emerged from a late-night brainstorm Chris had. Barista Aaron Rauch moved from New York shortly after to head up the coffee bar. The Camp House is the name of the building that encompasses both. It also houses a thrift store in the back, Mission Exchange, and serves as an event space. "Camp House was born out of the idea that culture cannot be refined; it has to be created," explains Sorensen. "We believe that part of our mission is to bring goodness, truth and beauty into the city, and The Camp House is the mechanism to do that."

Today CH inspires all walks of life: entrepreneurs, business leaders, politicians, artists, designers, writers, musicians, college students, moms, grandparents and children. Venture capitalist Charlie Brock regularly holds meetings here as does David Belitz from The Lupton Company. The head of Barack Obama's reelection campaign in Tennessee always stops by when in town. So does the occasional homeless person. Everyone's welcome.

Weddings, concerts, professional development and theological events are all held at the CH. You can call it many things; just don't call it a Christian coffeehouse. "That sounds like a place where you go to get coffee and are preached at," says Sorensen. "None of that goes on here. Mission Chattanooga has gifted Camp House to the community. There's no second agenda."

While there's clear separation of church and coffee, a common thread among CH regulars is an innate desire to improve the city. Teal Thibaud, who used to work for CreateHere, draws a parallel between the two workspaces. "The surge of creativity that Camp House has activated I think in part comes from the supernova of CreateHere," she says. "I've seen more and more folks involved in CreateHere frequenting the Camp House. People will be working on a project and literally turn to the right and they're talking to someone they're collaborating with."

Patrick Kearns, creative director for marketing firm AREA203 Digital, uses CH as a satellite office, sending his team here when they need to think outside the box. "You can come here and let the world of work escape you for a minute," he explains. "When we're having a brainstorm at the office, people may be reserved. When you take them out of that scenario and put them on neutral ground like the Camp House, they open up."

The CH has also served as a makeshift boardroom for Kearns and Chris Enter, fellow AREA203 creative director. "At one point we were going through some managerial restructuring and we brought a big sticky note tablet and just laid it all out on the tables over there," says Enter. "We asked some people's opinions. Caleb Ludwick happened to be here so we asked him to weigh in."

Ludwick, author and principal of marketing firm 26 Tools, llc., uses CH not only as an escape from the office but a chance to find collaborators. "I know I can walk in any given day and find a designer or writer if needed," he says. "Camp House mirrors the floor plans you see in many offices now where they're moving away from cubicles and into open project rooms where creative ideas can sort of bump into each other."

Of course, the coffee's great too. "They make the best coffee in Chattanooga. Period," claims Ryan Russell, social media strategist at AREA203. "And the food is wonderful too. There's something about being around artisans that fosters creative spirits." Russell stumbled upon CH shortly after moving back to Chattanooga. An impressive pour-over turned into a church service which turned into a first date with his now wife. The two were married at the CH in December 2011. Overall his favorite aspect is the openness. "One day you have Tea Party members meeting here, the next day it's Democrats. Camp House has a way of bringing the community together for positive change."

Tianna Buckwalter, creative director at CO.LAB, also came for the coffee but stayed for the people. Not only does she work and meet at the CH, she also utilizes it as an event space for CO.LAB series like "Will This Float?" and Experience Talks. "I can sit in here and run into everyone I need to run into," she explains. "It facilitates a lot of serendipitous interactions."

Much like the one she had with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman. Both regulars, the two kept bumping into each other, eventually realizing a shared graphic design background. They've since partnered on several projects including efforts to involve the design community in Chattanooga's new flag. While that initiative stymied, they feel they've laid the groundwork for better collaboration on future civic design projects.

It's not unusual for Jensen-Inman to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the CH. Her travel schedule as a designer, educator, author and speaker makes traditional office space burdensome. "I literally set up shop all day and meet everyone I need to meet," she says. "I also schedule some time to be open to chance encounters."

As she discusses plans for an education initiative that will potentially change the face of design in Chattanooga, she cherishes another quality of the CH - privacy. The unique acoustics allow you to have conversations at the tables without everyone hearing.

Other regulars include D.J. Trischler, Jonathan Mansfield and Robbie de Villiers of D+J Identity.

Since the coffeehouse serves as corporate headquarters for the young firm, they essentially launched ChaType from within its walls. "There's something happening here," says Trischler. "It's hard to put a finger on it, but it's a great place for ideation. I'd say the city is better because of this place, particularly the Southside."


Aaron Rauch, director of culture, was brought on to launch CH's coffee bar concept. Having mentored under award-winning barista Tal Reznik, Rauch learned the nuances of pulling the perfect shot and achieving just-right foam at New York's Art Cafe. Before moving to Chattanooga he spent nine months in Portland, Ore., training at The American Barista and Coffee School. Today he can explain the difference between a Cortado (two ounces espresso, two ounces foam) and a Macchiato, or decorate your espresso with his well-known latte art.

Fellow director and barista Matt Busby joined the team in September, just a few months after its opening. Knowing he wanted to be involved in coffee, he moved to town one Saturday in July and was at The Camp House by Monday. Before moving to Chattanooga, Busby spent a summer interning at various shops in Seattle. Be sure to ask him about the Yama Drip Tower, a rarity among Southeastern coffeehouses. With 30 drips per minute, it takes 24 hours to brew at room temperature and is used for iced coffee drinks.


Katherine Currin and Teal Thibaud of Glass House Collective frequently hold meetings at CH as they work to revitalize the once vibrant business community of Glass Street. Most recently the duo invited some of the finest minds in architecture to their AIA Urban Design Workshop, which paired Glass Street residents and merchants with architects and designers from across the state. They developed long-term and short-term plans for revitalization, many of which will be implemented with the Collective's recent $300,000 grant from ArtPlace America.

Dr. George Yu has worked for NASA and Homeland Security, but when he launched his own company he chose CH as home base. He's often seen at CH tables tweaking his Node invention, an iPhone accessory that turns a smartphone into a genius. No bigger than a roll of quarters, the slick, white device has various sensors that measure temperature, physical motion, humidity and light. Node's applications are vast, ranging from taking your child's temperature by pointing it at their forehead to instantly knowing your elevation when hiking to knowing when your clothes dryer has finished its cycle.

Chattanooga is one of the first cities in the world to design and implement its own font from the ground up --- Chatype. This feat can be traced back to typeface designers Robbie de Villiers and Jeremy Dooley, and brand specialists D.J. Trischler and Jonathan Mansfield. Much of the work was done within the walls of CH.

CH regular Caleb Ludwick recently published a book of short stories titled, "The First Time She Fell." Published in part by a MakeWork grant it features eight stories, each illustrated by a different graphic designer. The book recently won a regional design award from Print Magazine.

Joe Ledbetter of Chattanooga Whiskey got to know well-known graphic designer Steve Hamaker at the CH, commissioning him to design the labels and website for his spirited startup. Ledbetter also met his box manufacturer at the CH. In fact he spends so much time there he even has a sandwich named after him, "The Joe" --- turkey, cheese, tomato and egg.

Dr. Jim Tucker, educational psychology professor at UTC, recently received a grant from the Kettering Foundation to study what makes Chattanooga tick. Our Renaissance has spurred national conversation, leading many to wonder how we've done it. Through the end of the year he will interview more than 60 people spanning four generations. Many of the meetings are set to take place at the CH.

Each month CO.LAB holds their Experience Talks at the CH. The free question-and-answer forums feature a panel of experts on different topics each month. While marketed to graduates of CO.LAB's start-up programs, the events are open to anyone interested in taking their business to the next level, with topics ranging from finding investors to social media marketing. CO.LAB has also hosted their "Will This Float?" event at the CH --- an open mic for entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to future investors.

CO.LAB employees regularly hash out future plans for the GigCity campaign at the tables of the CH. Most recently was Hackanooga, a 48-hour programming blitz that invited some of the nation's brightest tech minds to Chattanooga to design apps for the future utilizing the city's Gigabit network. The weekend had two goals: brainstorm awesome new applications and try to attract brilliant programmers to relocate to the Scenic City.

In the back of the CH, Cessna Decosimo has been feverishly preparing for his curatorial show at Tanner Hill Gallery this month, Sacred and Profane. An opening reception is scheduled for Nov. 16 from 5:30-8:30 p.m. that will include an artist's talk and refreshments.

LifeKraze founders Ben Wagner and Michael Brooks, Jr., regularly meet over coffee at the CH. Already covered by TIME Magazine and The Atlantic, LifeKraze is a new social media platform that rewards you for what you accomplish throughout the day. Instead of rambling about your kids, this "Twitter with heart" start-up encourages users to set a goal then post the steps they take toward that goal, big or small.