Chattanooga’s Houston Museum houses over 20,000 antique artifacts

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts on High Street
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts on High Street

When Anna Safley Houston moved to Chattanooga in the early 1900s, she did what we all do when moving to a new place: packed up her prized possessions and relocated. Only for her, packing was more of an endeavor than simply stuffing a few suitcases with clothes and family photos. Her move involved storing away beer steins alongside music boxes, wig stands next to toy soldiers and daguerreotypes mixed in with swords.

Houston's collection lives on today at the museum in her name, the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, which houses the 20,000 artifacts she purchased, gathered, bartered and collected one way or another until her death in 1951. "It's niche, but very nostalgic," says museum director Pam Reed.

Upon her passing, Houston's collection fell into the hands of 100 community members, as outlined in her will (curiously, not one of her 11 siblings was included). They scavenged through the East Ridge barn Houston had built and lived in until her death, and they emerged 10 years later with the contents of the museum on 201 High Street in Chattanooga's Bluff View Arts District.

Contrary to the museum's title ("decorative arts"), everything that Houston collected was functional. That means that that intricately carved toad on a shelf did serve a purpose: to hold tobacco. The banjo-shaped item next to the fireplace? "That's actually a bed warmer," Reed says. "You'd put coal in it, put it in your fire, then rub it along your bed to add heat."

Additionally, everything on display at the museum — save for the gift shop knickknacks — is from Houston's original collection, and there's plenty more where that came from. Only 30-40% of her artifacts can be on display at one time, so more than half are waiting in the house's basement for their turn in the spotlight.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Pam Reed, museum director, stands inside the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts.

Reed took over as museum director in August of 2022 with the vision of "curating it in a way that would be appealing to more people than just your grandma." She's begun rotating in more artifacts from the basement, resurrecting items that had previously never been on display. The museum has started hosting artists-in-residence and collaborating with local organizations, like the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, which put on an intimate performance at the Houston Museum in mid-November.

The performance corresponded nicely with a room curated with a music themed room typically occupied by the artists-in-residence. In lieu of an artist, Reed thought it worthwhile to make use of the music-related artifacts Houston collected — of which there were many — for the holidays. The result is a room with working music boxes, photographs and the crown jewel: a pump organ. "This organ was in the basement forever, at least 50 years, so I hired some buff dudes to come carry it up the stairs for me, and I cleaned it myself," Reed says. "It was black, completely covered in basement soot."

Reed, a Brooklyn transplant, moved to Chattanooga two years ago (without any daguerreotypes to her name, believe it or not). "I just googled unique, off-the-beat places," she says. "I love Atlas Obscura, and that's how I found this place."

While the Houston Museum doesn't hold a place among Atlas Obscura's "6 Cool, Hidden, and Unusual Things to Do in Chattanooga, Tennessee," it certainly fits the criteria. Where else can one find a collection of 19th-century pickle castors a room over from a functional pump organ?

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Artifacts on display at the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts

 Reed has been working to modernize the museum, with plans to begin renovating in April of 2024. The house — built in 1893 and tucked into the tranquil arts district — is the oldest in the neighborhood, and in certain rooms, it shows. Cracks and fissures run along walls of the home, toeing the line between vintage aesthetic and necessary tune-up. "We're really proud to be in [the house], but it needs some love; it needs some TLC," Reed says.

There are plans to add a new staircase at the back of the museum, an ADA-compliant elevator, a glass-encased event space and additional bathrooms, Reed says. Currently, in the midst of all the events held at the museum, there's even more commotion going on downstairs in the basement, where Houston's collection is being boxed up, labeled and sent to a nearby house to be kept and temporarily displayed during the renovations. While the museum is under renovation, a building across the street — formerly the Inn Cafe — will serve as a pop-up museum of sorts.

"We've been here 60 years, and it makes me nervous if we're going to renovate and close everything up. But it'll be nice to still be open and still function in this neighborhood so people don't forget about us," Reed says.

In February, the museum will be having its annual antique show at the Read House in Chattanooga, this time with a special guest. In celebration of the show's 50th anniversary, Reid Dunavant of the Antiques Roadshow will host an appraisal fair and brunch.

It's the final hurrah before renovations begin on the 19th-century house. "We just need to do some work to make it shine like it once did," Reed says.

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