Chattanooga restaurant's neon frog sign coming back to life

photo Barry Snyder, left, and Scott Coffey survey the old Ellis Restaurant's jumping frog sign with plans on restoring it to working order. The unique sign and former restaurant are situated directly across the street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

A giant green neon frog may jump again in downtown Chattanooga.

An effort is underway to restore the Ellis Restaurant sign at 1443 Market St. across from the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

In its heyday, the sign blazed in Art Deco glory. A green neon frog -- advertising the restaurant's frog legs -- jumped over such neon-lit menu items as "steaks," "chops" and "spaghetti." The words "Ellis Restaurant" stood out in red neon surrounded by more than 600 white incandescent bulbs.

Like moths drawn to a flame, local diners and out-of-town luminaries -- including heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey and pro football quarterback Joe Namath -- ate at the Ellis Restaurant, which closed in the late 1970s.

"It's a piece of art," building owner Scott Coffey said of the sign. "I'm one of those who believes art shouldn't be in somebody's house. I believe art should be where people can enjoy it."

That sentiment is shared by Cornerstones Inc., Chattanooga's only nonprofit historic preservation organization. It earmarked money to restore the jumping frog sign at its recent Wine Over Water fundraiser, an annual wine-tasting event held on the Walnut Street Bridge.

"We just thought it was about time for the sign to be renovated," Cornerstones Executive Director Ann Gray said.

The Ellis Restaurant is sandwiched inside a block of prominent downtown buildings that have long been vacant, but are finally showing signs of life.

A specialty food tenant may lease space in the building to the north, which is owned by architect Thomas Johnson, who's restored other downtown buildings. The new owner of the partially demolished St. George Hotel south of the Ellis Restaurant hopes to create residential condominiums there.

"We feel the sign might be the catalyst that really pulls that block all together," Gray said.

Coffey wants a restaurant to move back into the old Ellis Restaurant, once the sign is lighted again.

"I'm absolutely certain that once the sign gets restored, people will be interested," he said.

Grant money may help

The cost to restore the sign and the time it will take are questions Coffey is still trying to answer. Coffey, who bought the burned-out restaurant building in 1989 mainly because he liked the sign, already has replaced the building's roof and floor to create a shell that's ready for occupancy. He's got a barn full of items salvaged from the old restaurant that a new tenant could use, including a 12-foot-wide mirror with a lobster etched into it and an Art Deco-style stainless steel bar back.

Coffey inspected the jumping frog sign Thursday with his friend, local artist Barry Snyder, who has restored neon signs before. The two men used a lift to get a close look.

"These letters are all intact. Only one is broken," Snyder said of the "very rare" red neon tubing that spells out the restaurant's name.

In addition to restoring the neon, every one of the more than 600 incandescent bulb sockets will have to be replaced and rewired, Snyder said. Other required restoration work includes repainting the hand-painted frogs, cleaning up the sign's stainless steel and replacing missing metal pieces.

The men plan to remove the sign and restore it offsite.

Gray said a sign company previously estimated restoring the jumping frog sign would cost more than $100,000, but she thinks that might be high.

Cornerstones earmarked between $10,000 and $20,000 for the sign, Gray said. She hopes to leverage that money by getting a grant, possibly from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

One way to use state money to restore a privately owned building, Gray said, is through a "facade easement" under which the building owner promises never to change the building's outside appearance.

"The sign's there to stay," Coffey said. "If something this iconic isn't worth preservation, then what is?"

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at timesfree or 423-757-6651.

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