Descendent of Modern Maid empire aims to start residential art program in old stove warehouse
Charlotte Caldwell's father, grandfather and great-grandfather made their fortune manufacturing stoves in Chattanooga — most famously with Modern Maid, a brand that was built here and sold in all 50 states.
At its peak in the 1970s, the Caldwell family's Tennessee Stove Works employed more than 700 people at a 10-acre site south of the Chattanooga National Cemetery.
And now part of the old stove-making facility is back in family hands.
Charlotte Caldwell bought a 75,000-square-foot complex of buildings on three acres between E. 13th and E. 14th streets just west of South Holtzclaw Avenue that she plans to turn into "Stove Works," a nonprofit artist-in-residency program supported by private businesses, such as a microbrewery.
"There's no chance that this is going to fail — only because it has to succeed," said Caldwell, who in March paid $750,000 — or about $10 a square foot — to buy the property from Top Flight, Inc.
She figures it will cost between $3 million and $5 million to make all the renovations required in the sprawling complex of buildings that range in age from a brick warehouse built in the 1910s — which is where retail businesses would go — to a prefabricated steel warehouse added on in the 1960s or 1970s.
Can Chattanooga support an artist-in-residency program? Has the Southside's and Highland Park's real estate boom spread down E. Main Street as far as Holtzclaw Avenue? Did Caldwell — whose decision to buy the property was partly due to its family history — time her purchase right?
Friends and family have divided opinions.
"My dad is a healthy skeptic. This a huge project," Caldwell said. "My mom is like the enthusiast."
Area 'catching fire'
Caldwell's commercial real estate broker, Jack Martin of the Fletcher Bright Co. is bullish. (And a friend, since Martin was best friends in elementary school with Caldwell's brother.)
"We have had an incredible amount of interest," Martin said. He said the former stove-making facility has gotten more interest than any other commercial property he's working with.
Martin also anticipates that property values will rise on E. Main Street.
"It's all pushing down the road there," he said. "We're really excited to be working on it, and see it kind of catching fire."
Caldwell says her life's path led her to buy the property.
She spent five years in New York City and then moved about three hours north where she spent two-and-a-half years as residency director at Wassaic Artist Residency, a program in Wassaic, N.Y. a hamlet of about 1,500 people.
Each month, the residency program says it gives nine professional contemporary artists, writers and other creative people the opportunity "to live and work in the heart of a rural community." Buildings used by artists there include an old, seven-story grain elevator.
Caldwell thinks its' time to establish an artist-in-residency program here.
"The Northeast doesn't want for arts organizations," she said. "The Southeast is hungry for them."
'Passion, not profit'
After she moved back to Chattanooga a few years ago, Caldwell began to look for a 5,000- to 18,000-square-foot space here to lease for Stove Works. But when she learned that her family's old building was for sale, she decided to buy, not rent, partly because she'd seen arts organizations act as pioneers that move into gentrifying neighborhoods — only to be priced out later when rents go up.
She's identified 25,000 square feet of the building for the nonprofit Stove Works, including a loading dock inside a newer, steel-sided part of the complex that will hold a wood shop, metal shop and screen printing shop for artists. Artists would live upstairs in section of older brick warehouse in small studio apartments with shared bathroom and kitchen space.
The remaining 50,000 square feet would be used by businesses, and the rent they would pay will support the arts program.
Although old, the complex of buildings has been used for its entire existence, Caldwell said, most recently as storage for Top Flight, Inc., which makes school and office paper products. The oldest part of the building was originally used to make coffins and caskets.
Caldwell has lured a friend, sculptor Mike Calway-Fagen, away from a tenure track position at the University of Georgia to help organize exhibitions at Stove Works. She's assembled a board of young people to oversee her nonprofit organization. And she's already planning outreach to local schools by artists at Stove Works.
"This will be a success — it has to be," Caldwell said. "This is passion, not profit."