Opinion: Art and history a powerful mix at Bluff View District’s Houston Museum

Staff file photo / The Houston Museum of Decorative Arts on High Street in the Bluff View arts district of Chattanooga has one of the finest collections of antique glass, porcelain and pottery.

Current debates about preserving history can be contentious, but our Bluff View Art District illustrates an important dimension to that debate: art. One of Bluff View's treasures is its oldest building, the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts on High Street. The museum's collection of antique glass, porcelain and pottery is one of the finest in the world. And the story behind the collection is as fascinating as the artifacts themselves.

Visiting the museum, I heard about Anna Safley Houston, who is thought to have been born around 1876. Born in a small rural town, Anna was an unlikely collector of fine art glass which she ultimately stored in a barn in East Ridge.

Museum board President Clare Hetzler shared how Anna is part of the museum's attraction.

"Reading about Anna and learning about all the many items displayed in the museum increased my connection to the museum as did involvement with events, touring visitors and serving on the board. Her collection is vast and varied and a testament to her tenacity and singleness of purpose," Hetzler said. "I very much admire her and what she was able to accomplish in a time when options for women were quite limited."

Yes, there were controversies surrounding Anna and her nine husbands and divorces. But board member Lori Cleghon said Anna Houston's story is a unique piece of Chattanooga's history. The museum shares her story and has preserved her unique collection of glass.

History can be personal.

"I decided to join as a volunteer at the Houston Museum and then later became a board member because I have deep family roots in this museum," board member Julia Dooley shared recently. "My grandfather, Robert Baker, was one of the original founders of the museum. My grandmother, Mary Baker, was the museum's director from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. I decided after my retirement that I'd enjoy trying to help this wonderful museum embark on a new and exciting future. We are very committed to the preservation and education of our collection."

The aging building has experienced considerable damage that have prompted discussions of selling it. Board member Ann Lupton reflected on her concern about modernizing some of its spaces.

"Unable to make the difference that I had hoped to make, I resigned from the board and stayed off the board for about four years. Later, I started showing up at board meetings without being asked," she noted. "It became obvious that the board was going to get things done." She wanted to be included, and the board re-elected her.

So renovations are planned, but history and art will be preserved.

"I agreed to served on the museum board due to the building project proposal over a year ago," board member Lulu Copeland said. "The original proposal was to tear down the building and build a new mixed-use complex. My original reaction was excitement for a new development that can enhance the Bluff View Art District. But after a year of getting to know the museum and the board members' passion about keeping the old house, I'm now convinced the new chapter can happen with a preservation project as well."

And so Anna Safley's spectacular collection will continue to glow in the Houston Museum's windows. The museum reminds us all that history should be known, art should be treasured — and shared — and controversies explored. These are lessons that can and should be applied widely.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@ diversityreport.com.