The Art of the Building: The Hunter Museum
Words by Julia Eskins
Photos by Aleyah Solomon
Located in the heart of Chattanooga’s pedestrian-friendly Bluff View Art District, the Hunter Museum of American Art has been a part of the fabric of Tennessee’s cultural scene for more than 60 years. The building itself represents three distinct architectural stages: the original 1904 Classical revival style mansion, the 1975 addition of a Brutalist building and the modern 2005 wing that now serves as the museum’s entrance.
Since opening its doors in 1952, the Hunter has been a destination for art and architecture aficionados from around the world. Its wide-ranging collection of American art from the 1700s to the present day includes everything from historical portraiture to contemporary art. Visitor favourites include French Tea Garden by Frederick Childe Hassam, Helen Frankenthaler’s Around the Clock with Red, Robert Rauschenberg’s Opal Reunion and In the Returnal by Radcliffe Bailey.
“The Hunter Museum has grown and evolved along with the Chattanooga Riverfront area,” explains chief curator Nandini Makrandi. “The Bluff View Art District is a vibrant hilltop neighborhood overlooking the Tennessee River with gorgeous architecture that helped usher in the revitalization of Chattanooga’s downtown, a process which continues to this day.”
The name of the museum pays homage to the mansion’s original owner, George Thomas Hunter, a businessman and philanthropist who inherited and ran the Coca-Cola Bottling Company empire. Hunter went on to create the civically focused Benwood Foundation and in 1951, his mansion was donated to the Chattanooga Art Association. Today, reminders of the structure’s historical past are evident in the interiors. The space still has its original fireplaces, hand-carved woodwork and ornamental details featuring the egg-and-dart, acanthus leaf and fruit-and-flower motifs that were popular with architects of the period.
In 2005, Los Angeles architect Randall Stout expanded the museum’s vision by creating a new wing inspired by the bluff, Tennessee River and local scenery.
“The zinc cladding covering the outer walls takes its cues from the limestone cliffs of the bluff and the surrounding mountains. The floor of the Hunter atrium is covered in mountain stone, also echoing the landscape,” says Makrandi.
The nearby Walnut Street walking bridge—spanning the Tennessee River from the North Shore— leads pedestrians to the museum’s doorstep. Across the river and in Chattanooga’s Southside neighbourhood, several up-and-coming galleries have emerged.
“Chattanooga has an active and growing art scene with a good bit of experimentation,” says Makrandi. “You can come spend the day looking at amazing artwork, trying pastries, coffee and tasty treats at the Art District restaurants, and walking along the gardens and Riverwalk.”
The Hunter Museum is currently exhibiting the colourful paintings of Golden Age illustrator Harvey Dunn and his students. This November, it will host Spectrum, its annual gala and art auction. The arrival of 2017 will bring a range of new exhibits including Our America, the Smithsonian’s travelling exhibition of Latin American artists.
The always-evolving museum continues to enrich Chattanooga, and not just within its own architecturally stunning walls. Along with a strong permanent collection of paintings and drawings, the Hunter Museum has several sculptures around town, bringing art out of the building and into the cityscape.