A curious structure has emerged from the woods behind Niedlov's. Sporting an L-shaped roofline, lots of windows and a swooping side panel that has a critter with a martini on it, The Flying Squirrel is a gaze-magnet drawing double takes from several vantage points on Main Street.
It's one of two new Southside anchors that, although planned and developed separately, seem like a matched set perfectly situated to amp up the energy of Main Street a few more notches.
Enzo's is not just the grocery store grail of every in-town neighborhood, but also has a full kitchen and ample indoor and outdoor seating that's made for people watching on Main. Although The Flying Squirrel restaurant-bar is an extension of The Crash Pad hostel a block off of Main, it is designed not just to serve hostel guests, but to engage the neighborhood and to fully reintegrate that formerly decrepit block into the urban street grid. I talked about the Squirrel recently with its designer, architect Thomas Palmer.
"It's a very interesting little part of the Southside," said Palmer. "It was just an overgrown lot with a couple old buildings, completely forgotten about."
Both The Crash Pad, which opened in 2010, and The Flying Squirrel were conceived as serving more than one purpose.
"The Crash Pad is more of a social place, not just a place to sleep. It needed an outdoor living room, which is where the idea of a pavilion came about," said Palmer. The accompanying park-like lawn has been embraced by the neighborhood as much as hostel guests for lounging and flinging Frisbees.
In keeping with The Crash Pad's outdoor orientation, The Flying Squirrel was designed to blur the distinction between inside and out.
"We were able to open it up with large garage doors, and doors and windows, and lots of glass and connect it urbanistically on the street,” said Palmer. ‘We put it on the sidewalk so that people walking on the sidewalk could engage people sitting in the restaurant. There's not a lot of barrier between indoors and outdoors."
Palmer's architectural design of The Flying Squirrel takes a lot of cues from Chattanooga's industrial past, including using steel trusses to create a framework.
"I felt like it needed to have the same materiality of metal that's usually enclosing a shop-type space and then start to peel it away to create that visual openness of the building," he said. The building's front includes a curving shape somewhere between awning, wall and roof that seems to be lifting away to expose a wall of windows beneath. It also serves as a sunshade for the entire southern exposure and a shelter for outdoor seating.
Designs for The Crash Pad and The Flying Squirrel were created by Palmer and former partner architect Blythe Bailey, who just joined Mayor Andy Berke's administration to lead the new Department of Transportation. Bailey designed The Crash Pad building when he worked for River Street Architecture, with Palmer designing the pavilion and landscaping. Roles were reversed for The Flying Squirrel, with Palmer designing the building and Bailey—then part of Palmer's firm—being instrumental in siting the building and designing how it works with the street.
Both former partners are passionate about not just architecture—the design of buildings—but about urban design, which focuses on the public spaces that are created by buildings and that serve as the glue the binds disparate buildings into a city.
"I tend to think of a city street as the living room of the city," said Palmer. "It's where all activity occurs between different people. It is the gathering place of the city."
The effect of adding Enzo's and The Flying Squirrel is not just having more things to do. It strengthens the neighborhood by putting more people on the street, according to Palmer.
"You reach a point where now that all these people are on the street, they all know each other. That's what builds community, that's what builds strength. They will do things for one another that most people won't do in a community that is completely disconnected
Palmer studied architecture at Auburn University under the late Samuel Mockbee, an influential teacher whose Rural Studio created homes and "shelter for the soul" for the rural poor.
"He's the one who taught me you are affecting community well beyond the lifespan of whatever company or person is in the building you design,” he said. “It becomes part of the community or city or town that you're in. It needs to have a positive effect."
Enzo's grocery store holds its public grand opening Friday from 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. The Flying Squirrel restaurant-bar by the Crash Pad hostel has been holding private soft opening events, with a grand opening to be scheduled.