Moment: Iconic marquee restoration nears completion across from Chattanooga Choo Choo

Moment: Iconic marquee restoration nears completion across from Chattanooga Choo Choo

January 19th, 2015 by John Rawlston in Local Regional News

It was one of Barry Snyder's earliest childhood memories of Chattanooga: seeing a dazzlingly lighted flashing sign with neon frogs that seemed to jump.

This amazing sight was the iconic marquee of Ellis Restaurant, located across Market Street from the bustling passenger train station of the Southern Railway, a majestic building now known as the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

The hopping-frog sign was designed by Jim Ortwein, now a neighbor of Snyder, and it was the first animated neon sign in Chattanooga, some 70 years ago.

Ellis Restaurant was the place to go for steaks, seafood, chops, and, yes, frog legs. The restaurant's clientele included an untold number of celebrities and VIPs traveling through town. But passenger railroad service faded, then disappeared in the early 1970s, and, one by one, the thriving block of businesses across the street from the train station fell dark.

Snyder, a sculptor and artist at Area 61 on Main Street, has extensive experience in historic restoration. About four years ago, he bought a downtown condominium in one of the old buildings restored by architect Thomas Johnson. Sitting with Johnson one day at the Terminal Brewhouse, Snyder spotted a familiar sight across the street.

"It was one of those curiosities: The first thing I saw when I came to Chattanooga that I remembered, as a child, seeing, and I wondered if it was still there," Snyder said. "I looked across the street and there it was."

Johnson introduced him to Scott Coffey, who bought the old restaurant building in the 1980s and stabilized the dilapidated structure. The two hatched a plan to fully restore the old sign and that is now being put into action. Using a grant from Cornerstones of Chattanooga to get started, the planners hope to get support from the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Snyder said state grants come with strings: The state would own the building facade and it would have to be preserved.

"If Scott doesn't keep it -- he dies, he passes it on, somebody else buys it -- they have to keep that facade," said Snyder. "It doesn't matter if they want to put a Publix or a shoe store or dress shop. Victoria's Secret could go in there. They are going to have jumping frogs on the front. That's just the way it's going to be. And the glass tiles as well."

Donating his time, talent and labor, Snyder took the frogs down in October and was surprised to find much of the original neon intact, in a rare "neo-red" color. He feared the frogs could only be used to make a pattern for new ones, but was surprised by the integrity of the dirty, rusty metal.

Those very same frogs are coming back, probably within the month, fully cleaned, coated and sealed, and with a new paint job inspired by Ortwein's original design.

In time, all the sign's neon will be restored and the frogs will jump again. More than 600 "chasing" lights, retrofitted with modern controls and energy-efficient lights, will return to the chrome marquee if the City Council approves.

"A friend of mine used to call me the master of illusion, because I would take the strange and make it familiar, and take the familiar and make it strange," Snyder said.

"Our basic goal with this structure is to take something that was original, and have a person who came 70 years ago, maybe, and see it and say, 'I remember that. It's exactly as it was when I was a kid.' Well, it's going to look exactly like that and it's going to act exactly like that, but it's going to be much more efficient, and it's going to last a lot longer, hopefully."

Snyder is proud to be a part of what he calls a renaissance town, and he believes the Southside Arts District will become as important to Chattanooga as the Bluff View Arts District, and as vibrant as Little Five Points in Atlanta.

He said he is glad so many historic buildings remain in the downtown area, and compares downtown renovation with tending a garden.

"We've had to cull a few weeds out, but we have actually taken a few very stable weeds and pruned the tops off of them, and grafted something beautiful to them," Snyder said.

Barry K. Snyder paints spots on one of two frogs from the sign on the front of the old Ellis Restaurant, located across Market Street from the Chattanooga Choo Choo, as he works in the studio behind his home on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The frogs will soon return to the former restaurant location along with the neon lights that made them appear to jump.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.