Heather DeGaetano did not want to see the century-old building her husband, Joe, was in the process of purchasing. She knew if she saw the dilapidated structure at 50 Frazier Street, she’d tell her husband to back out of the deal. “He’d described it to me, and I told him if I saw it, then I’d probably tell him he couldn’t buy it,” she says.
The building, which has a history that dates back to the turn of the previous century, wasn’t all bad. Downstairs, Bridge Salon and Veteran Upholstering & Gifts were housed in comfortable spaces. However, the upstairs was a different story. According to records on file in the County Register’s office, the International Order of Odd Fellows purchased the property on which the building sits in 1903. The fraternal organization then used the upper level of the structure for its meetings. By the time attorney Joe purchased the building in February of this year and started to convert it into office space for his practice, the former gathering place had seen better days. “A complete mess” is how Heather described the state of the building after hazarding a look. Joe whips out his phone and cycles through several “before” pictures, including one of a bathroom with ripped up tiles, stripped walls and no door. “She had told me she wanted to see it when it was finished,”
Joe says. “But then she came by during the demolition, and there was garbage everywhere. You could see where the walls had caught fire, and instead of replacing the burned boards, they’d installed paneling over them.” “Everything was down to the studs,” Heather says, looking at her husband and laughing. Heather is able to laugh because the story ends well. As she looks at the product of a complete overhaul, she says the building looks “great.” Heather is right. Instead of a small room and a large, gutted meeting place, the upstairs now features a snug reception area, a conference room with a kitchen, several offices and two restrooms. The walls sport a relaxing earth tone brown while the original molding on the door frames has been given a fresh coat of white paint.
In addition, the builders at GenTech that did the renovation installed three windows in the front of the building, which not only improved the look of the facade but also brightened the conference room. One can still find artifacts of the building’s older self, though. An old fashioned doorbell still claims a spot near the top of the long, narrow staircase that takes visitors to the second story.
Joe cranks it, creating a loud, discordant clanging. In the hall beyond the reception area is a large, antique pull switch that once dimmed the lights in the meeting room. None of the electricians who worked on the renovation had seen anything like it. “It would dim the lights, but it would get really hot, so I disconnected it,” Joe says. And an old upright piano acts as a decorative piece in the conference room, more by default than good taste; it was too big and heavy to move. How it came to be upstairs remains a mystery, as none of the original windows are large enough to have provided an opening for the piano, and the staircase seems too steep and tight to have provided a venue for transporting the instrument. Although old and out of tune, the piano does bear witness to structural integrity of the building. “I’ve looked in every nook and cranny, and this place is well built. The builders used big, heavy timber,” Joe says. He’s not precisely sure when that was. On a wall in his conference room, Joe has hung a grainy black and white photograph of Frazier Avenue taken from the south side of the river. It shows the building and a few others along the north shore, but not the Market Street Bridge. In a book at the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Bicentennial Library, the photograph is dated 1895. Although Joe is a sole practitioner, he’s not alone in the building.
Bridge Salon and Veteran Upholstering & Gifts, which opened in 1947, are still thriving in their original spaces, and Joe has taken on several tenants upstairs, including a counseling center, a technology group, and two out-of-town law firms with satellite offices in Chattanooga. “I wanted to turn the building into the kind of place where other professionals could enjoy working,” he says. Joe enjoys working in his new space. His practice primarily involves civil litigation and federal criminal defense. Although he doesn’t advertise, a steady stream of clients keeps him busy. When he’s not serving a client or doing pro bono work through Legal Aid of East Tennessee, he and his wife tend to their daughter, a kindergartener at Normal Park, and he gets outside as much as he can. “I like to exercise, play soccer, and mountain bike on Raccoon Mountain. It has some nice trails,” he says. Joe grew up in Hixson, earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Vanderbilt, worked as a computer programmer for a year in Atlanta, and then obtained his Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia. In 2001, after clerking for a judge in Atlanta for a year, he moved to Nashville to do personal injury work for Bolt Cummings Conner Berry (now Bradley Arant Bolt Cummings). He and Heather, also a licensed attorney, moved to Chattanooga in 2005 to be near his parents and closer to hers.
Joe telecommuted for the Nashville firm for two years, and then went to work for a small firm. In 2009, he struck out on his own, although he rented space from another firm until he decided to move into his own building. “I wanted to decide which cases I took and to be free to do things my way. It’s hard work, but I’ve enjoyed it, and at times, it’s even been fun,” he says. Over the last 30 years, Chattanooga has undergone a transformation from a bleak industrial center to a vibrant modern city. Throughout that process, the people of Chattanooga also removed some of the tarnish that had covered the historical charm that once defined their town. That work continues today. Sometimes, it involves companies restoring and setting up operations in old buildings; other times, it entails the work of Cornerstones and the people who contribute their resources to preservation organization; and in some cases, it’s born out of the efforts of an individual to make a dilapidated structure his or her own. Joe DeGaetano has made 50 Frazier Street his own, and in the process has also made it possible for a small piece of old Chattanooga to continue to be of use for many years to come.