Chatter A look behind the magic of EPB Holiday Windows

Chatter A look behind the magic of EPB Holiday Windows

This holiday tradition is well worth seeing

November 1st, 2017 by Sunny Montgomery in Chatter

The spirit of the past and shades of what's to come: a Holiday Window from 2010.

Photo by Laura-Chase McGehee /Times Free Press.

For now, EPB's street-facing windows on Market, Broad and M.L. King reflect ordinary scenes of city life: vehicles idling at the intersection and brightly dressed runners powering by. But over the coming weeks, those windows will transform into whimsical worlds complete with blinking snowflakes, dancing teddy bears and merry-making elves.

The EPB Holiday Windows have been a Chattanooga tradition for more than 60 years. Every year, the displays are unveiled on Thanksgiving Eve with much ado. Families gather, choirs sing and the mayor makes an appearance. Then, the windows continue to sparkle and shimmer day and night through Jan. 2.

Angela Love oversees the process of bringing the Holiday Windows to life.

Angela Love oversees the process of bringing the...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Bringing those scenes to life takes more than sugarplum dreams. Those Holiday Windows involve multiple community partnerships and hundreds of volunteers for an effort that begins as early as June, when Angela Love, EPB resource planning manager, calls the first meeting to brainstorm that year's theme.

Decorations of all kinds wait patiently to be chosen for the annual holiday display.

Decorations of all kinds wait patiently to be...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Ideally, Love explains, the goal is to determine a theme, then design a series of supporting vignettes, one for each of EPB's seven street-facing windows. For example, in 2014, the theme was "Bringing it to Life." Every window featured a different time-honored holiday story. There was a snowman factory, a gingerbread house construction site and a candy cane lab where an animatronic elf was rigged to "test" the quality of his peppermint. On loop, the puppet dipped a probe into a solution. If the peppermint was good, a light bulb winked on.

To come up with this year's theme, EPB partnered with 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students involved in STEP-UP Chattanooga, a program that connects youth with local companies. During the students' two-week internship with EPB, they were asked to research and pitch potential ideas for Holiday Windows.

After several brainstorming sessions, together the group settled on "Holidays Around the World."

Next, it was time to channel the spirit of the season and figure out how to make that concept magical.

"We have to figure out how we bring that to life. We like to have lots of movement, lots of color and lights," Love says.

For the past four years, EPB has let students from STEM School Chattanooga lead the way on designing each window. A class of 11th-graders not only develop the concept for each window, but work in their school's "Fab Lab" to build actual models. They are provided the windows' dimensions and instructed to visualize their display in nine equal frames. Each frame, Love says, should feature a twinkling light or moving part — something to catch the eye.

"But keep in mind," she adds, "these windows are open for roughly 45 days, so whatever you put in there has to work for that length of time."

The only other direction Love gives is, "Make it fun; make it cute. Don't do anything that would make a person stand there going, 'I don't understand'"

This year, each window will reflect a wintry celebration taking place on a different continent. To keep it easily identifiable, the students chose recognizable places from around the world: France with the Eiffel Tower, Egypt with its pyramids, and the North Pole in Antarctica, for example.

STEM junior Lin Bolus stands alongside an early model of the Chattanooga window display, which saw several transformations. The final concept for the display will remain a secret until its unveiling on Thanksgiving Eve.

STEM junior Lin Bolus stands alongside an early...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Laser-cutting a 2-foot-tall acrylic Eiffel Tower or designing shimmering lights to look like the ocean around Australia — that's the easy part, says STEM student Lin Bolus, 16.

"We have to think very carefully about the placement of everything. The elves have motors on their backs, so you have to think about them overheating. You can't put them at an angle because you don't want people to see the motors. We have to conceal those very carefully, or we take away from the magic," says Bolus, who was assigned to the North American display, featuring, of course, Chattanooga.

Bolus' group's first idea was to show the aquarium, the bridges and the river.

"We had created a full-scale model that featured elves and penguins ice skating, but then we met with EPB representatives and were told it had been done before. It wasn't original enough," Bolus says. So her group returned to the Fab Lab to draw up a different idea suggested by Love and her team.

The new display showcases a never-before-seen side of the Scenic City — a side that will remain unseen until the unveiling of Holiday Windows, Love says, a twinkle in her eye.

In early October, the STEM students presented their final models to EPB's board, receiving grades for their creativity. Then, Love says, a casting call goes out to EPB employees. "We list all the things we have a need for: sculpting, painting, sewing, carpentry, for example," she says. "We have some guys that are really talented. A couple years ago I was in [Sam's Club] and I saw this stuffed puppy dog. I thought, 'Oh, that'd be really cute in a display.' So I took pictures and sent it to one of our volunteers and asked if he could do anything with it. He said, 'Sure, bring it back.'"

Using lengths of PVC pipe, chicken wire and a motor, that plush toy was animated to look like it was playing fetch. When an elf lifted a stick, the dog raised up on its haunches.

Workers brainstorm theme ideas in EPB's operations center, where the annual holiday windows displays are constructed.

Workers brainstorm theme ideas in EPB's operations center,...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Every year, about 50 EPB employees volunteer their evening and weekend hours to help build the downtown displays. From now until Thanksgiving Eve, they will work six days a week, sometimes past 9 p.m., like Christmas elves tirelessly building toys.

"It requires a lot of dedication," Love says, adding that seeing Chattanooga's city streets transform into a whimsical wonderland is always worth the effort.

"It's our gift to the community."