Many Union veterans came after the Civil War to seek their fortune in Chattanooga. They helped jump-start its economy and in the late 1880s began building beautiful mansions on Cameron Hill and its East Terrace extension. "The houses [had] 15 to 25 rooms. In elegance they climaxed the love of ornateness of the last half of the 19th Century. Classical gothic and renaissance architecture were joined by a profusion of carvings and curley-cues."
Louise and Keith Fort in their July 2, 1959, article in the Chattanooga Times described how proud coachmen drove sleek horse-drawn carriages along cobbled stone streets to receptions. Ladies alighted wearing "large hats covered with sweeping plumes and birds of paradise. The short trains of their elaborate dresses trail the ground behind them. In their white kid gloved hands, they carry gold mesh bags holding only a linen handkerchief and engraved calling cards, which they deposit on a silver tray held by the butler."
An orchestra played soft music behind huge palms. The velvet and gold elegance of the Victorian era could be seen in parlors and gilded salons lit by dim gas and candlelight. Chattanooga scenes during Reconstruction were acted out on the walls. The highlight of decorations was in the dining room, where the dearest and most important friends presided at the tea table, which shined with the hostess's silver service. Chicken salad, hot rolls and innumerable other party foods were complemented by little cakes. Ice was decorated with candied rose leaves to match the roses that graced the table. "In the gardens, white-gloved ladies and wealthy young men made their formal way into courtship."
"Chamberlain, Montague, Wheeler, Lesley, Evans, Wilder, Adams were among the names outside the homes. When the [Northern] families first came to East Terrace, they were separated from the southerners of Chattanooga by a wide gap. A number of things contributed to the closing of that gap toward the end of the century. The huge receptions of the day were one thing. It was hard to give a big party with only a small group of people to invite. So, as the Southern and Northern ladies came to know, like and respect each other, two societies gradually merged. The Southern ladies found that the Northerners were different from the influx of 'carpet baggers,' who poured into the South after the war. The ladies were charming and educated and had chosen Chattanooga as a city where they could build their home."
In the 1950s, Mayor P.R. Olgiati feared that the interstate system would bypass Chattanooga due to its hills and mountains and promoted a project that would create a major crossroads of I-24 and I-75. But that effort required millions of yards of fill soil from Cameron Hill to raise the road bed of the proposed freeway. The project, which fit into the popular urban renewal tide, would lower the hill by 150 feet and demolish more than 1,100 buildings, including elegant homes on Cameron Hill.
Resistance to the leveling of the hill came from a small, determined group of preservationists, including Mrs. Walter Cline, Mrs H.H. Wilson, Mrs. Elizabeth Patten, Mrs. Zella Armstrong and my great aunt, Mrs. Sim Perry Long. "Aunt Sophie," the classic little old lady in tennis shoes, would confront influential male officials with cane in hand and tap on their sternums as she lectured them about preservation. At Eloise's and my rehearsal dinner in June 1966, she forgot about the bride and groom and toasted saving Cameron Hill. When the bulldozers came on that final day, she stood in front of the machines and delayed their work several hours.
The project moved forward. Olgiati spoke for development: "The earth belongs to the living. If we were to keep as a permanent park every plot of ground on which an Indian skirmish was fought or the guns of war raged, there would be little ground left for homes, farms, public buildings or streets. We cannot afford to see Chattanooga checked in its growth, to see constant deterioration of the communities into slum areas, to see the flow of traffic into and outside the city stopped because of lack of proper facilities. It would be easy for any city administration to avoid most of the abusive criticism even in Chattanooga — simply by doing nothing."
Today, we see the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee headquarters complex, a shrunken Boynton Park and U.S. 27 in perhaps the last chapter in the struggle between preservation and development at Cameron Hill.
Frank "Mickey" Robbins coordinates the Local History series.