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High atop the Westin Hotel in Chattanooga, Tom Underwood, left, Richard E. Pauley sit in the open-air bar/restaurant called Alchemy, on the 10th floor.

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BlueCross BlueShield building signaled new wave in cityWestin hotel is latest use for signature downtown tower

Atlanta architect John Portman and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee each broke new ground on Chattanooga's "Gold Building" in the late 1960s, a key worker on the project recalls.

"Classical styles were still popular in Atlanta and Chattanooga," said William Kampmeier, who was the resident engineer inspector during the building's construction. "It was very unusual for an insurer to have a glitzy office."

Earlier this month, the 10-story tower at M.L. King Boulevard and Pine Street reopened as a Westin hotel, refashioned by DeFoor Brothers Development as part of $88 million being spent in that end of downtown.

DeFoor Brothers has added about 30,000 square feet to the former BlueCross headquarters, including a second-floor pool. The Westin hotel owners also are putting in condominiums and a high-end restaurant across Pine Street, and they helped pay for new streetscaping in the area.

The DeFoors have revamped the building interior from offices to hotel rooms and restaurants, but the distinctive gold exterior remains much as it looked when the structure first opened in 1970.

Kampmeier, who is now 80 years old and living in Virginia, said his job was to know the drawings and specifications as the original building was erected. That way, he said, Portman and local architects could ensure the contractor was doing its job on a daily basis in raising the structure, which was started in 1968 and finished two years later.

"I'm proud of that episode in my life," Kampmeier said in a telephone interview. "I do consider [Portman] the greatest architect Atlanta has produced."

He said the building's gold windows were innovative at the time. Portman had become interested in the so-called curtain wall style of designing buildings and the use of reflective glass, Kampmeier said.

The building's gold-reflective floor to ceiling glass permitted office workers to look out but stopped outsiders from peering in, said Kampmeier, who was reared in Chattanooga, attended Baylor School and graduated from Georgia Tech.

For health insurer BlueCross, its officials bought into creating what was then a new modern look, said Dan Jacobson, a longtime employee who recently retired as senior vice president of properties and corporate services.

Jacobson, who joined the company in 1973, said that from a birds-eye view, Portman designed the building to resemble a turnstile because the architect saw it and the site as the gateway to downtown.

The project cost was about $6.5 million. BlueCross sold the building to Chattanooga developers Byron and Ken DeFoor for $6.15 million in 2010 after the insurer built its new headquarters across U.S. HIghway 27 on Cameron Hill.

"It's gratifying to see it repurposed," Jacobson said.

Portman, who is now 90 years old, had designed the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco as well as the Regency Hyatt House in Atlanta. He said during the insurance building's groundbreaking in Chattanooga that the tower would be the first impression many visitors have of the city.

"When I first came to Chattanooga and saw the strategic site from the freeway, I saw a great opportunity to build something for the city, something out of the ordinary to inspire the people to return to the city," Portman said in 1968.

Roy McDonald, who was board chairman for BlueCross during the time of the building groundbreaking, said that while he preferred more conservative designs, he recognized the "overwhelming democracy" of the other people involved and that his opinion didn't matter.

McDonald, the late founder and longtime publisher of the Chattanooga Free Press, cited the "useful and efficient" design of the building at the time.

Kampmeier said he was brought into the project by Chattanooga architect Ted Franklin. He said the reflective glass became "perfect for hotels" and that Portman designed a few of those.

But ultimately, Kampmeier said, the design became so expensive that architects quit specifying the gold glass look.

"It also got dated quick," he said. "They all looked alike."

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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