Songbirds guitar museum to relocate from the Choo Choo to West Main Street venue

Staff photo / Displays featuring guitar legends Roy Orbison and Joe Maphis and the instruments they were known for playing are seen at the Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum in 2021. The museum will move next year out of the terminal building at the Chattanooga Choo Choo into a new location in the 200 block of West Main Street.
Staff photo / Displays featuring guitar legends Roy Orbison and Joe Maphis and the instruments they were known for playing are seen at the Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum in 2021. The museum will move next year out of the terminal building at the Chattanooga Choo Choo into a new location in the 200 block of West Main Street.

The Songbirds Guitar & Pop Culture Museum is saying goodbye to Station Street after nearly eight years at the Chattanooga Choo Choo and will move next year to another downtown building 3 blocks away at 212 W. Main St.

Unable to reach a new lease agreement with the new owners of the terminal building at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, Songbirds is slated to close its second-story guitar museum and music venue on Station Street on Dec. 23. Reed Caldwell, executive director for the nonprofit Songbirds Foundation that owns the guitar museum, said Songbirds should reopen by next spring in a smaller but more accessible one-story structure along Main Street that will add outdoor seating for the first time.

"The decision to move was a difficult one," Caldwell said, noting the Choo Choo was a historic site for Chattanooga's music heritage. "When we began work on the Songbirds museum in 2015, (Station) Street was just a dirt alley. We have come a long way and helped bring life to the road and the Southside neighborhood."

In a telephone interview, Caldwell said the move is both strategic and reactionary after Songbirds failed to negotiate a new lease agreement with Northpond Partners, the Chicago-based real estate investment company that bought the terminal building in the Choo-Choo Complex in 2021. Songbirds' lease in the terminal building runs out in April, Caldwell said.

The closing of the museum in December will come four months after another Station Street venue, the Blue Light bar, also closed its doors after receiving multiple citations in the past two years from Chattanooga's Beer and Wrecker Board.

(READ MORE: Staying on track for a half century, Chattanooga Choo Choo complex evolves under different owners)

Officials with Northpond Partners, which is completing a renovation of the hotel facilities at the Choo Choo this fall, could not be reached for comment on the new vacancies in its terminal building.

"It is time for us to move on," Caldwell said in an announcement of the relocation. "The new space on Main Street is already the coolest hidden spot in town, and we can't wait to share it with the public."

 

New options at new location

The new location for Songbirds in the 200 block of West Main Street is directly across from the Feed Co. Table and Tavern and has been a private venue for decades. Caldwell said the building has a full commercial kitchen, two bars, exhibit space and an outdoor patio. Songbirds will continue to host private event rentals, concerts and rotating music history exhibits at the Main Street site, as well as operate its museum display of classic guitars and provide guitar music lessons and concerts, Caldwell said.

Although the new leased facility for Songbirds won't be fully renovated and opened on a regular basis until next year, Caldwell said Songbirds will celebrate this year's MainX24 on Dec. 2 in the new location.

The new location, once expanded and renovated, should include about 4,800 square feet of indoor space, plus outdoor seating spaces. That's only about two-thirds the size of the current 7,800-square-foot museum and venue on the second floor of the terminal building at the Choo Choo, but Caldwell said the new site will have easier access and more visibility.

"Being on the ground floor of Main Street, there are a lot more people who will see us, not just concert attendees and event rentals but students," he said. "The foundation's mission has always been about music education, and we feel like we're going to be able to better deliver our services out of our new headquarters."

Promoting guitar music

The museum displays vintage and celebrity guitars, and it also hosts live music events. The museum has had more than 1,500 guitars, including two Gibson Explorers worth $1 million each. The new museum site will have a smaller display area, and Caldwell said the foundation is working to have traveling exhibits of its guitars.

"We hope to be able to share more of our interesting museum exhibits across the state," he said.

The original for-profit museum, which opened in 2017, closed during the summer of 2020, and the nonprofit foundation took over the museum with a mission to use proceeds from museum visits and concerts, along with donations, to fund its music mission. Since then, the foundation's Guitars for Kids program has awarded more than 4,000 guitars to underserved students studying guitar music at 127 schools across nine states. The music education program by Songbirds has worked with nearly 10,000 students over the past couple of years, Caldwell said.

(READ MORE: 'Songbirds: A Documentary' wins regional Emmy)

The Songbirds museum draws about 25,00o visitors a year and hosted about 100 music shows last year, Caldwell said.

Through the end of the year, Songbirds has cut the price of its adult admission from $15 to $10 per visit. Children under age 17 accompanied by an adult are admitted for free. All scheduled concerts this fall will proceed as planned, and the museum's new exhibits, including Dolly Parton and Richard Lloyd, will be on display until the museum closes just before Christmas.

"We've had a great run here on Station Street, and we'll miss it, but our future at our new Main Street home is very bright," Caldwell said.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or 423-757-6340.


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