As a 16, 17, and 18-year-old, my best friend and I, accompanied by my little brother, would spend summers playing ping pong in the front half of the artist Cessna Decosimo’s studio on Williams Street in Chattanooga’s Southside District. The studio, as we affectionately referred to it, was and remains a beautiful open space building, over 100 years in age, with a ceiling of white wooden panels, supported by steel rafters and lit by enormous influxes of natural light. The washed concrete floor was perfect for acrobatic ping pong, and we’d slide across the floor, which was often covered by a layer of dust, to keep rallies alive. Were we prone to glorious images of ourselves sliding like Nadal across Parisian clay? I’m not going to say we weren’t, but I won’t deny it either.
When we returned from college to learn that Cessna had decided to rent out the front of his studio to a business, we were mortified, and urged him to abandon the idea and to keep the studio open for our games. He didn’t listen to us, and in 2010, Chris Sorensen and Aaron Rauch opened the first Camp House in Chattanooga.
Ostensibly, the Camp House was a coffee shop, but the broader vision was to create a space to cultivate the culture of the city in the broadest sense possible. Matt Busby, the Camp House’s Manager says, “The most common expression of cultivation is music, and we have one of the largest venues in the city. But we also open our space to other sorts of events—like poetry readings, lectures, and film screenings.”
Early on, the Camp House was the first proprietor of Counter Culture Coffee in the city, and with Chattanooga having had little experience with artfully crafted lattes and cappuccinos at that point, the Camp House caused an understandable bit of a buzz. It wasn’t long before businessmen and women were making their way from the downtown district in the morning and at lunch to join the collective caffeine crave of hipsters, entrepreneurs, artists, designers, and writers. As a former art studio, the space was creatively inspirational, and by its second year in business, the Camp House had solidified its position as an open room for artistic work, business meetings, reading and writing, and enjoying time with good company.
Today, Chattanooga, and the Southside in particular, is dappled by high-end coffee shops, but the Camp House was the first of its kind in downtown Chattanooga, and it set the tone as the city’s first true meeting place for conversation and commerce.
In 2014, the Camp House relocated to the heart of downtown in the refurbished first floor of the Volunteer Building on MLK BLVD. Like its first space, the new Camp House remains a large open concept with a stage for live music, poetry readings, and other performances. It now sits at the nexus of everything, with the central business hub its literal neighbor, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga two blocks south.
The menu has been updated, and they serve a unique variety of pastries and muffins, but also impressive breakfast options like the Camp House Waffle, which is Chattanooga’s best attempt at Belgian mimicking. The menu incorporates locally grown produce, and has extended to include world-inspired lunch and dinner items, as well as craft beer on tap. We recommend the European, which comes with Tripp Farm ham, arugula, tomato, home made aioli, on French Baguette. The burger and the tacos are also delicious.
The coffee remains Counter Culture, which is widely regarded as one of the best roasters in the country, and you won’t meet a friendlier group of baristas, anywhere. If you’re lucky enough to be served by the lovely Jenna, she is an artist with the latte pour, and her infectious laugh will leave you feeling warm inside.
Matt Busby is a fan of London’s Arsenal Football Club. Meet him in the Camp House on a Saturday or Sunday when the Gunners are playing, and he’ll give you a lesson in English soccer, or ask him about the Camp House, and he’s proud to talk about how the open design of their space (be it the old location or the new) has shaped it to be one of meetings and collaborations, ideas and creativity. The Camp House has provided Chattanooga a living room of sorts, where different spheres of the city overlap in a very natural way—from business and music, art and education, to friends and families. At the Camp House, you’re in good company.