World War I, Dr. Harold Major, pastor of First Baptist Church, suggested
to the Chattanooga Kiwanis Club that a memorial of some kind should be undertaken
for those from Chattanooga who were in the war effort. The Kiwanians began
discussing the idea and Frank Mahoney suggested that the memorial should
be in the form of a city auditorium. The old auditorium on Ninth street
had never proven adequate, and it was badly damaged by a fire.
The Kiwanis Club formed a memorial committee, and it recommended that
the city of Chattanooga issue $400,000 in bonds "for the purpose
of building a memorial auditorium." The necessary legislation was
secured, and the voters of Chattanooga approved the auditorium by a vote
of more than three to one in a referendum held March 11, 1919. A Soldiers
and Sailors Memorial Auditorium Commission was appointed, including D.
A. Landress, George Patten, Fred Dearing, Milton Ochs and Z. W. Wheland.
This commission, on September 24, 1919, paid $100,000 (an absolutely immense
sum in those days) to James A. Caldwell for his residence site at McCallie
and Lindsay, running back to Oak Street. The fine old Caldwell home was
then torn down, and the beautiful shrubbery and flowers on the grounds
were transplanted to other Chattanooga yards.
H. Hunt was chosen to draw the plans for the new Memorial Auditorium. The
cornerstone was laid Saturday, November 11, 1922, which was the fourth anniversary
of the signing of the armistice that ended the war. For this ceremony, downtown
business was suspended and a great crowd gathered at the Tivoli Theatre.
At two minutes to twelve, a cannon boomed from atop Cameron Hill and every
factory whistle in the city joined in the announcement. Then, at the stroke
of twelve, all traffic came to a halt and citizens stopped whatever they
were doing for two minutes of silent tribute to those who gave their lives
in the great war. During these two minutes, taps were blown by ten trumpeters
from the top of a tall, downtown building. Upon the conclusion of taps,
seven volleys were fired by an entire troop of cavalry from the same location.
Then the crowd made its way to the McCallie Avenue site for still another
impressive ceremony. Work then began on building the handsome auditorium,
which extended the length of the block back to Oak Street. The final cost
of the auditorium was $700,000.
Right from the early stages of planning, the Chattanooga Music Club assumed
an active role, as the club wanted plans to include stage facilities for
grand opera and space for an organ. In December 1922, the Music Club inaugurated
a campaign to see that an organ would be installed, and a committee was
named to implement that objective. The next month, the committee presented
arguments for an organ before the City Commission, and it was given authority
to form plans and negotiate for an instrument.
committee's investigation pointed to Skinner, Austin and Casavant as the
leading builders of the time. Casavant was then ruled out because it was
a foreign builder. In addition to Skinner and Austin, Moller, Pilcher and
Hall also submitted proposals. Skinner's proposal was found inadequate for
the size of the building; Wurlitzer's unit design was rejected; detailed
analysis of Kimball's bid placed it second to Austin's. In June 1923, it
was announced that the Music Club had presented a formal report to the City
Commission recommending purchase of an Austin organ for $44,549. Representatives
of the Music Club visited every civic organization in the city to elicit
support for the project, so that the newspapers were suddenly filled with
headlines like "Realtors Want Organ Bought" and "Civitans
Want organ Bought." On July 31 the Austin Organ Company proposal was
approved by the mayor and commissioners and the contract was signed on August
In May of 1924, THE DIAPASON reported that Edwin H. Lemare had been engaged
as municipal organist and would go to Chattanooga in time to supervise
installation and finishing in the design of the organ. Due to Austin's
experience with Lemare during their installation of Op. 500 at the City
Auditorium in San Francisco, they were less than thrilled to be working
with him again. His stinging criticisms and demands were considerable.
Due to the changes he insisted in, completion of the organ was delayed
from May 1924 to February 1925. Changes that Lemare made to the stoplist
were good ones, though. The official Lemare touch was banishment of the
hated crescendo pedal to the north forty; instead of being to the right
of the Swell shoe, it was moved to above the right end of the pedalboard.
The opening recital was played on February 12, 1925, to an capacity audience
er 4,000 people. When his contract expired four years later, he played
his farewell recital on Mary 26th. He was well-liked in the city, he did
not seek to renew his contract "as a consequence of attractiv
offered him in other cities. However, the Chattanooga position was his
last regular one. He died five years later.
Lemare's successor as civic organist was McConnell Erwin. The 34-year
old native Chattanooga and blind musician had graduated from the Cincinnati
Conservatory of Music and studied piano in Paris with Isidor Philipp and
organ with Marcel Dupre. By 1932, support for the concert series had eroded
and Erwin was donating his services. The series ended shortly thereafter.
In 1940 a brief attempt by the Kiwanis Club and the WPA was made to start
a concert series once again, but the project was short-lived.
The organ was used only occasionally for many years after that. However,
lack of maintenance and damage done during the 1964 renovation to "modernize"
the auditorium (in gray and goldish-yellow - the favored colors of the
times) contributed to the deterioration of the organ. Sometime in the
early 1960s, the String division was kidnapped and taken to a residence
south of Atlanta. By the early 1980s, the organ was barely functional.
In 1985, Austin's Burton Yeager paid a visit to the organ at the behest
of the Chattanooga Music Club to analyze the situation. It was found that
46 flue ranks were still playable, 21 ranks were unplayable and 14 ranks
were missing completely.
Evelyn Gibbs, long an active leader of the Chattanooga Music Club, as
well as the AGO Chapter, and organist on the large 3-manual Austin at
Brainerd Baptist, began spearheading an effort to have the organ renovation
included in plans to renovate the auditorium. In December 1987, a very
successful Christmas concert attended by nearly 1,000 people was held
in the auditorium, featuring area organists, brass, choirs and soloists.
Well-covered by the press and television, considerable publicity and support
was garnered for the organ renovation project and, consequently, the auditorium
The Music Club actively helped to raise funds for the entire project,
with many members calling on business and civic leaders. Then, when Miss
Gibbs, a member of the Auditorium Renovation Committee, was out of town
on vacation, the committee excluded the organ from the project. The funds
which would have gone to the organ renovation went instead to renovation
of the front entrance hall.
The Chattanooga Music Club was out in the cold and had to start fund-raising
for the organ renovation all over again, encountering resistance from
those who said that, when they gave to the auditorium project in the beginning,
it was with the understanding that the organ was included - and they would
not or could not give again.
auditorium renovation went forward after members of the Music Club and the
Chattanooga Chapter of the American Guild of Organists carried thousands
of pipes out of harms way from the chambers 30 to 60 feet above the stage
along catwalks high above the floor below to safety in ceiling corner rooms
at the opposite end of the building. It was dirty and dusty work; by the
end of each shift, the workers looked like they were extras in an old Al
the advent of the Chattanooga Meeting and Convention Center and the UTC
Arena, the function of the Auditorium had changed. It was converted from
from a flat-floor gold and gray room with folding chairs and the ubiquitous
1960s flying clouds to an elegant sloped-floor theatre-style room with
comfortable theatre-style seats. Colors are tan, burgundy, silver and
gold - a truly elegant look. The console was positioned in a box just
to the left of the stage, in full view of the audience.
after the committee's decision in May of 1989 has been slow, but definitely
steady. Evelyn Gibbs considers the word "No" from a potential
donor or foundation to be a challenge, not a negative answer. The console
and combination action was completely restored by Austin. Further mechanical
work, done by Dennis Milnar and Associates, includes complete restoration
of the Great (after the Music Club paid $40,000 to have a new lower ceiling
put in the chamber to replace the higher damaged ceiling) and rehabilitation
of the Pedal Bombarde unit, though it was subsequently damaged by a water
leak. Led by Music Club member
Dan McFarlan, a small group has steadily replaced much of the wiring
of the organ. Alerted to the location of the kidnapped String division,
Barger & Nix went down to Atlanta and rescued it -returning it to
its home after a 30-year absence. Music Club and AGO members re-installed
the pipes and Dennis Milnar restored the division. A new 75-foot cable
In July of 2007, the Chattanooga Music Club celebrated the organ's restoration
with a concert featuring Peter Richard Conte, the organist of the famed
Wanamaker organ in Philadelphia, PA. A crowd of over 3,000 enjoyed patriotic
tunes and orchestral transcriptions played on the newly restored Austin.
On September 18, 2008, the Organ Advisory Committee met with Dennis
and Derek Milnar to complete the details for the solid state system for
the Austin Organ.
Donations to the organ renovation project can be made to: Chattanooga
Music Club, P O Box 3128, Chattanooga TN 37404.
Information about the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium came from
John Wilson's book CHATTANOOGA'S STORY, printed by the CHATTANOOGA NEWS-FREE
PRESS and available at area bookstores.
Information on the organ came from the informative book AUSTIN ORGANS,
by Orpha Ochse. It
can be purchased through the Organ Historical Society. You can find the
OHS website via the website for the
Chattanooga Chaper, American Guild