Bordering Chattanooga's newly invigorated MLK District, Fort Wood Historic District encompasses a concentrated collection of prized architecture amid the original homes of notable, early Chattanoogans, perhaps none more so than Thomas Clarkson Thompson, twice mayor of Chattanooga and namesake for Children's Hospital at Erlanger. The three-story Queen Anne home at 907 Oak St. was his private residence from 1898 to 1901, and beautifully restored, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Only 20, pre-1900 homes remain along the wide, shady streets of Fort Wood, and of those most are brick. Thompson's former residence on Oak Street is one of a handful of surviving wood-frame homes from the 19th century, and the uneven front, gingerbread detailing and porticos are representative of its Queen Anne style and of the district which has one of the best collections of Victorian homes in the area.
Steve and Michele O'Neal bought the home last October when they returned to the neighborhood after spending 13 years living on Lookout Mountain, where they raised three sons. With one son in high school and still at home, the O'Neals say they enjoy the vibrancy of the Fort Wood neighborhood and the shorter commute to school, work and play.
"We have the best of both worlds," Steve says. "We have the downtown access, but we still have a big house and a little bit of a yard."
Diversity resulting from shifts in the neighborhood's history is also a boon. Many of the old homes have been converted to fraternity houses or apartments, which bring a flood of energy from the adjoining UTC campus, and several families with young children live in the neighborhood too. The property of the Mizpah congregation, the oldest Jewish congregation in the city, backs up to Oak Street opposite the O'Neals' home.
Fort Wood residents are invited to "Friday Twos," a gathering at a different home on the second Friday of every month. It's a small effort considering the sense of communal fellowship it helps foster. Like days gone by, residents do a lot of porch sitting and strolling through the neighborhood conversing. "As you walk, you visit," says Michele.
Noise curfew is respected most of the time, and violators are not necessarily the usual suspects. "A couple of nights, we've been on the porch playing music and afraid the frats would report us," Michele jokes.
The historic importance of the community brings with it responsibility, too, and listing on the National Register, its own regulations for the exterior of the house. Repairs on wood windows are costly and require just the right craftsperson. A fresh exterior paint job is next on the O'Neals' list of renovation projects, and the color has to be cleared with higher powers first. But none of this deters the couple's affinity for the property.
"We just have bought into the historical element," says Michele. "We love that there are limitations."
After all, there's so much to love about this 119-year-old gem. The huge wraparound porch offers an intimate seating area to one side and the glass-front entry door is tucked into a wood-floored nook. Like the front entry, every room has a glass transom over its door, and nearly every room has its own fireplace, seven in all. Their highly crafted surrounds include molded, Art Nouveau tiles.
True to Victorian tradition, there is no trendy open concept here. Rooms are connected to each other and a long center hall by wide doorways, which can be closed off with pocket doors, but with soaring ceilings and tall windows, nowhere feels stuffy. "We love the airiness of the house; the flow of air from room to room is just wonderful. Our house on Lookout Mountain was harder to keep cool than this one, and it was built in the '70s," says Steve.
The division of the main floor breaks it into purposeful spaces — a music room to the left of the foyer, a living room adjacent and a cheerful dining room across the hall — each comfortably appointed with a blend of antique and new furniture. Modern paintings by Steve's brother, Charles O'Neal, bring splashes of color to the rooms.
At the back of the house, a cozy breakfast nook was added on to adjoin the kitchen whose highlight is a gorgeous set of giant, period wood cabinets reclaimed from the kitchen of the Read House and now built in on either side of the oven. The breakfast nook accesses a brick-edged patio partly sheltered by a pergola and made intimate by a retaining wall that supports the upper level and parking deck.
Like many older homes, this one was converted to apartments in the 20th century and previous owner Debbie Dunlap masterfully restored it to a one-family home before it was added to the National Register in 2002. Elements of the building's apartment days were left intact, for example a kitchen on each of the three floors, but the floor plan is fluid.
From the foyer, the main staircase, with its finely turned millwork, leads up to the sizable bedrooms on the second floor. Dunlap renovated the master bath in period style but with modern functionality including a raised jetted tub, above which hangs a painting by artist Kathleen Mack.
The natural beauty of heart pine floors offset by pristine white walls draws the eye down the long hall past another bedroom, to the sunroom-like office both O'Neals share. Here on the second floor, trees already veil the view of the surrounding property, and the third-floor view looks onto rooftops of neighboring buildings.
Part of the draw of an old house is working out the little puzzles that come along. On the second-floor hallway outside the master suite, a glass-front cabinet is built into the wall that was used to leave out chamber pots for servants to collect, or so the O'Neals have been told. In their son's bedroom, there's a clear distinction where the floorboards are laid at an angle instead of parallel to the wall. It might have been a porch that was enclosed long before the O'Neals came to live there. "We find stuff like that all the time," Michele says. "It's part of the fun."
The latest in a line of stewards of the property, the O'Neals are much like the massive 8-by-8-inch beams that are said to keep the wood-frame house on its feet. Side-by-side with their neighbors, they are the supports that hold up this little piece of Chattanooga history.