The local preservation group tasked with restoring part of the iconic Chattanooga Choo Choo has announced a goal of raising $1.4 million by the end of 2019 for the work to be completed at the Terminal Station over the next 10 years.
Cornerstones Inc. announced it was taking over ownership of the Terminal Station in 2018 after Choo Choo Partners investment group, which acquired the former railroad station in 1989, donated the front passenger lobby area along with $350,000 for preservation efforts. The "Choo Choo Terminal Station Fund" and capital campaign includes five stages of work with the first stage — replacing the roof and gutters — already complete.
Cornerstones Executive Director Ann Gray said it was critical to replace the roof sooner rather than later after flooding in the building last year.
"We are still in the due diligence stage, and really what we will be addressing is the aesthetics," Gray said about the station. "It's all very solid and everything is there, but it all needs attention to really take it through the next 100 years."
The next phases include pre-renovation and analysis and review; cornice, brick and door restoration; interior plaster, painting, lighting and floor restoration as well as glass dome and window cleaning; and repair and re-illuminating of the neon Chattanooga Choo Choo sign.
The group has already raised about half of the dollars needed for restoration efforts, but Gray said they need about $600,000 more.
The entrance to the Choo Choo, which was popularized in the 1941 hit song by Glenn Miller, served as the front door to thousands of people coming to Chattanooga in the 20th century via the railroad, including Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.
But while Glenn Miller's song popularized the Choo Choo, the Beaux-Arts-style station was designed and completed in 1909. The center arch section, the Dome, was the largest self-supporting brick arch in the world and won international awards for its design.
"Every reference goes back to the song period, but it has so much more history than that. We are trying to get back to that," Gray said.
According to Gray, it has been difficult finding photographs from before the 1940s and World War II. Gray said if anyone has photographs of the Choo Choo in its earliest years then the preservation group would love to see them.
During its height of operations in the early 20th century, the 14 tracks at the Choo Choo moved thousands of people and tons of goods across the country, making Chattanooga the primary travel route from North to South.
But with the end of passenger rail service to Chattanooga in 1970, Terminal Station was scheduled to be demolished before B. Allen Casey led an investment group that bought the abandoned rail station, put more than $4 million into the Terminal Station renovation and turned the facility into a Hilton hotel and convention facility with rail cars, stores, a skating rink and more than 500 hotel rooms on 26 acres.
Former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey is managing partner of the Choo Choo Partners investment group that acquired the hotel complex in 1989 after the Choo Choo filed for bankruptcy. Kinsey's group has revamped much of the hotel and conference center into an entertainment complex of restaurants, music venues and bars.
The Choo Choo has welcomed several new businesses just this year, including a new distillery and cocktail bar, a jewelry store and cycling studio. Terminal Station had been under private ownership for 50 years until Cornerstones acquired it.
Terminal Station was listed on the National Register in 1973 and was repainted nearly two decades ago, but Gray said the dome needs additional work to be preserved to its original grandeur.
While the Terminal Station lobby currently features more "muted" paint colors, Gray said it's highly likely the station was painted with warmer gold and darker hues in its earliest days in order to highlight the engineering and dome architecture.
"Its greatness was in its engineering," she said about the station.
A Cornerstones spokesperson said that if the money is raised early on then hopefully the restoration won't take a full 10 years. For more information or to donate, visit choochooterminal.fund.
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at email@example.com, @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.
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