With three buildings representing 100 years of architecture, the Hunter Museum of American Art is a prominent feature of the Chattanooga skyline.
Not only has the Museum been an important part of the city’s cultural life, but the Hunter’s bluff-top setting has long played a significant role in the history of the region.To the Cherokee people the bluff – one of the highest points along the Tennessee River – was said the be the sacred home of a mythical hawk-like giant known as “Tia-Numa.”
In 1854, an iron smelting plant was erected on the bluff near the present north western corner of the museum. The plant, known as the Bluff Furnace, was one of the South’s earliest industrial enterprises. During the Civil War, the area was used as a lookout and a garrison by both Confederate and Union forces. Although the Bluff Furnace was destroyed during the Civil War, it is now a site for archaeological research.
In 1904, wealthy insurance broker Ross Faxon commissioned the Cincinnati architectural firm of Mead and Garfield to design a new home for his family. The family lived in the Edwardian-style mansion for nine years.
After passing through several hands the home eventually was sold in 1920 to the widow of Benjamin F. Thomas. Thomas was one of the founders of the world’s first Coca-Cola bottling company. George Thomas Hunter, Benjamin Thomas’s nephew, had arrived in Chattanooga in 1904 at the age of 17 to work as a clerk in his uncle’s business. Hunter soon rose rapidly through the ranks to become secretary, president and finally, chairman of the board of the company that franchised bottling in almost every state in the union.
Hunter became one of Chattanooga’s most respected philanthropists. One of his finest achievements was the creation of the Benwood Foundation, a private charitable trust still in operation today.
Hunter was unmarried and following his death in 1951, the Chattanooga Art Association approached the Benwood Foundation to ask that the Faxon-Hunter mansion be donated to their organization in order to found an art museum. The Association transformed the home into a space suitable for Chattanooga’s first art museum and the museum, named the George Thomas Hunter Gallery of Art, in honor of its benefactor, opened to the public July 12, 1952.
The mansion was built in the classic revival style. The fireplaces, hardwood floors, wall moldings and hand-carved woodwork are all original, as are sconces and fixtures over the Grand Staircase. Many of the ornamental details are classical in inspiration, using the egg-and-dart, acanthus leaf and fruit-and-flower motifs popular with architects of the period.
The 1970s Building
The mansion remained in its original architectural state until 1975 when a modern addition was added to the museum. The new building was designed by Chattanooga architects Derthick, Henley and Wilkerson. Build of concrete with a dramatic central atrium space, the building won several prestigious architectural awards.
The new building and renovated mansion opened to the public in September of 1975 with the new name, Hunter Museum of Art and a gift of 40 American painting from the Benwood Foundation with a value of more than $1 million. After the opening of the 1975 building, the museum grew rapidly. With consistent funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Allied Arts and the Lyndhurst and Benwood Foundations, the museum set about to build its collection of works by American artists.
A collections department was established and the collection was professionally documented with a 300-page catalogue. Programming efforts were expanded and studio classes were offered in co-sponsorship with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. In 2000, a number of internal changes took place to improve operations and an operating endowment campaign was underway. The Hunter was poised to move to its next level of development and become even more involved in the Chattanooga community.
The 21st Century Waterfront
When Chattanooga’s $120 million 21st Century Waterfront Plan was unveiled in 2002, the Hunter Museum became an active partner with the City of Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum to complete this public/private venture in less than three years.
The Hunter Museum portion of the project included a $22 million expansion and renovation that was completed in April 2005. This included the addition of 28,000 square feet of new construction, 34,000 square feet of renovation, restoration of the 1905 mansion, the creation of an outdoor sculpture plaza and a complete reinstallation of the Museum’s permanent collection.