Restoring Stories

By Rachel Coats
Photography by Sarah Unger

Every object has a story to tell, and individuals in the business of restoration are listening. We spoke with seven locals who are using their unique skills to honor the past by restoring its mementos. Read on to learn about what inspired their work and what it takes to give historic items a second life.

Photo by Ryan Long Photography

John LongJoHn Long black and white

With an impressive six decades of experience, John Long knows a thing or two about restoring vintage vehicles. “I got started on a serious level in 1968 when I purchased a 1949 Mercury for $25. I just could not bring myself to let it go to the scrapyard. My next project was a 1947 Ford convertible in 1972 that I bought for $90. I know where both cars are today, and they are still owned by the men I sold them to,” shares Long.

His projects involve far more than a quick repair. Long specializes in restoring cars that, without his intervention, would end up as scrap metal. Where others see a rusted and damaged car beyond saving, Long sees a worthy challenge. He finds meaning in his work, as it is “saving a piece of history that was destined to be scrapped.”

Antique cars in poor condition often need entire parts replaced, and in many cases, these are discontinued. Rather than purchase used or reproduced parts, Long is unique in that he prefers to make them himself. Though it can be the most challenging part of his process, forming parts allows Long to achieve an authentic result that preserves the vehicle’s history. “Bending a piece of metal is one thing, but giving it shape and being able to duplicate a rusted or damaged panel that is no longer usable is immensely rewarding to me,” he describes.
Long enjoys speculating about the places each car has been and the hands that have driven it. “How fascinating it would be if these old cars could talk and tell you their story. Somebody may have had their first kiss in this 1953 Chevy Bel Air I am finishing up. I found a service station sticker on the door from Long Island, New York. Who knows how it got to Cartersville, Georgia.”

While successfully completing a challenging restoration project is rewarding, Long believes the connections he has made over the years are priceless. He concludes, “I have been greatly blessed to be able to do what I have done and make the friends I have in the 60 years I have been fooling with these old cars.”

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Jason Holcomb

Chattanooga Monument Company

By following in the footsteps of his family legacy, Jason Holcomb is helping other families preserve their own. “My father’s involvement in genealogy and association with several historical societies provided a segue into the memorialization and monument sales industry. This business further ventured into restoring older monuments and memorials,” shares Holcomb.

Holcomb works alongside his father and son at their family-owned and operated business, the Chattanooga Monument Company, which has been creating and restoring monuments and memorials in the region since 2013. The three generations of Holcomb men understand the importance of family and bring that care into their restoration work. “Families have invested significant money to memorialize their loved ones, and over time, may feel as though their memorial no longer looks good. There are options to restore these to an appearance that does not look neglected,” says Holcomb.

jason holcomb
He specializes in polishing bronze memorials and marble and granite monuments to look good as new. Projects can take days or even weeks to complete, as they range from small headstones to large statues. The process looks very different for each material, from casting and painting a bronze plaque to dusting marble monuments to washing granite fixtures. The result is a clean and legible appearance that families can take pride in. “We are passionate about memorialization, and bringing a monument back to the condition of a new one is rewarding,” says Holcomb.

In addition to providing services through his company, Holcomb educates families on how to practice restoration themselves, saying, “Partnering with local cemeteries, and volunteering during cleanup days or decoration days, has allowed us to teach families how to practice self-restoration so they become involved. I recently spent time with a friend of nearly 30 years and have enjoyed seeing his work restoring some of his family monuments.”

jason holcomb
Coming alongside families in the healing process of memorialization is at the heart of Holcomb’s work. His projects go beyond simply restoring a monument – they honor the memory of the people his clients love.

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Alan Shuptrine

Shuptrine’s Gallery & Gold Leaf Designs

Local artist Alan Shuptrine is preserving a lost art. “When I came home after college, my father, watercolor artist Hubert Shuptrine, needed a framer and gilder, and I needed a job. My uncle, James Shuptrine, who had been my father’s framer for many years, agreed to teach me all that he knew about gilding,” he shares. Gilding is a decorative technique of applying a thin gold coating to items such as frames, mirrors, and furniture. Shuptrine developed this skill in apprenticeships nationally and internationally but maintains that “the best teacher has been the time and practice over the last 38 years.”

Alan Shuptrine Shuptrine’s Gallery & Gold Leaf Designs
His companies, Shuptrine’s Gallery and Gold Leaf Designs, offer a wide range of fine art restoration services in addition to gilding, which is a delicate process. “A sheet of 22 karat gold leaf is 1/250,000th of an inch thick, which is thinner than a human hair,” says Shuptrine. He carefully manipulates the leaf using a gilder’s tip – a wide, flat brush made of squirrel hair – and afterward, enjoys “stepping back and viewing a treasure that has been restored to its original splendor.”

Specializing in gilding has opened doors for significant restoration projects. In 2010, the New Orleans Museum of Art asked Shuptrine to provide on-site restoration of 446 gilded frames and religious icons damaged in Hurricane Katrina five years prior. “I was working on everything from Roman iconography dating from 1000 A.D. to the works of Modigliani, William Trost Richards, Monet, and Renoir. It was one of the most rewarding and in-depth restoration projects I have had the pleasure to experience,” he recalls.

Through his restoration work and instruction of other artists in gilding techniques, Shuptrine continues to champion its importance. He explains, “The repair and restoration of fine art and gilded antiques is essential to the preservation of our culture, our history, and our own personal story … A knowledge of these techniques is critical to properly preserve these items that are reflective of our past.”

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Photo by Ryan Long Photography

Matt Winget

Elemi Architects

A city-centric focus on revitalizing Chattanooga’s downtown has ushered in opportunities for Matt Winget and his architecture firm, Elemi Architects, to restore buildings that have seen centuries of Scenic City history. While the firm focuses primarily on new building design, Winget says that the one or two restoration projects it takes on per year are “some of the most challenging projects, but also ultimately the most rewarding.”
Winget studied at the Chattanooga Urban Design Studio, which paved the way for his now nearly 20 years of experience in architecture. He has helped revive iconic landmarks in Chattanooga’s downtown and created spaces for thriving local businesses, including Niedlov’s Breadworks, Naked River Brewing Company, The Turnbull Building, and most recently, Stove Works. Even the office that Elemi Architects operates out of is a renovated funeral home.

During his restoration projects, Winget strives to maintain the historic character of the building and differentiates added designs from originals to give both new and old a chance to shine. He adds that reoccupying formerly abandoned spaces boasts benefits beyond preserving history, explaining, “Restoration also has huge environmental benefits. Even the best net zero building built today would need to be used for 40 years before it offsets the impact of the energy and resources used in its creation. Adding lifespan to our existing built environment is one of the most environmentally conscious things that we can do.”

Helping a building transform into a fully functional space comes with its challenges. “You never quite know the issues that you will encounter until the building process is actually underway. It’s a bit like surgery – you can anticipate the problems that you will encounter and do as much due diligence as you can, but you don’t really know what you are going to see until you start opening up the building.”

Any difficulties are ultimately worth it. Winget shares, “My favorite part of this process is definitely seeing a formerly abandoned building be reused and reinvigorated by new activities. To see the Stove Works, for example, now occupied by the granddaughter of the original owner for use as an artists’ space and gallery is really rewarding. It feels special to help in adding another chapter to a building’s story.”

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Taft and Jill Cardwell

Cardwell Caningcaning

Taft Cardwell has been honing his skills as a weaver since he was a young boy. Weaving is often associated with cloth or tapestries, but Taft focuses on cane furniture – a style consisting of interlaced split canes stretched over a framework. He shares, “I come from a family of weavers. Cane chairs were around every corner and adorning every porch. I was taught the basics at an early age. Around six years ago, my wife and I decided to see if a caning business would work in this area. We’ve been warmly welcomed and could not be more grateful.”

Taft runs his cane furniture repair business, Cardwell Caning, alongside his wife Jill. Together, they specialize in dozens of traditional weaving styles, from simple over-and-under techniques to intricate designs that require immense skill and attention to detail. Projects can take anywhere from a week to several months, and because everything is done by hand, can be a demanding venture. “Chair restoration is back-bending, knuckle-busting, and mind-twisting work,” describes Jill.

Though the weaving process can be labor intensive, the Cardwells are passionate about their work. They enjoy learning the stories behind each piece, which often involve family history and sentiment. “We’ve re-caned rocking chairs that have rocked three generations of babies. We’ve restored chairs that have helped people feel connected to their lost loved ones. We’ve done dining sets for Thanksgiving dinners. We feel so privileged to have a small part in these memories.”

Jill shares, “Restoration maintains what is already here. Sometimes we get to work on furniture that has existed for a century, and with a little help, can exist for a century to come. We take pride in preserving the history of the furniture, the family that used it, and the craftsmen and women who created it … This furniture is unique and beautiful. It has character and culture. We are so proud to help continue traditions, as well as create heirlooms to be cherished for years to come.”

Taft adds, “This work has also restored me. What began as a way to make ends meet has grown into a passion. Seeing something brought back to life can spark new life in something else!”

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Carolyn Insler

Visions Stained Glass  

When Carolyn Insler first discovered stained glass art, it was love at first sight. A Michigan native turned Chattanooga local, Insler has been restoring stained glass art for 30 years and creating pieces of her own for over a decade longer. After moving to Chattanooga 13 years ago, Insler opened Visions Stained Glass Gallery, where she displays her work and offers stained glass lamp and window custom design and restoration services.

Insler’s understanding of the hard work that goes into the stained glass art process informs her desire to salvage these pieces. For Insler, restoration is both a service to the client and a homage to the original artist. “As a stained glass artist, I know the blood, sweat, and sometimes tears that go into the process. To have someone discard a window or lamp, not aware of all the work involved, is a shame.”

A fragile medium can lead to broken pieces and, like a puzzle, fixing stained glass art often comes down to finding the right piece. Matching glass isn’t always possible and requires a keen eye to find a similar option. Insler is skilled at identifying replacements and returning a piece that looks brand-new to her clients. She says, “I love it when they can’t tell where the repair was done and are grateful that their cherished piece is restored.”

stained glass restoring carolyn

Insler recalls one of her favorite and most extensive restoration projects, which involved five large windows a client discovered at a local antique store. She shares, “They came out of an old Presbyterian church that used to stand on the corner of Georgia Avenue … The glass was so beautiful and uniquely geometric. He built a bell tower and an outdoor chapel on his property with them.” The windows were nearly 200 years old and in need of extensive work. With cracked and missing glass and crumbling lead, the windows recruited all Insler’s stained glass knowledge. She was able to preserve the original wood frames and as much of the existing glass as possible, as well as releading the framework that binds the glass fragments together.

In addition to her love for the art and respect for the artist, Insler ultimately believes that the pieces she restores have an inherent value, explaining, “I have always preferred to repair rather than toss out, because some items have a history and bring back memories that should be valued.”

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Greg Hembree

Gig City Customs

Greg Hembree is a jack of all trades when it comes to restoration, but his passion is restoring vintage instruments. “I had the opportunity to work under a few professional restoration specialists and discovered that it’s something I really enjoy. I then began my career as a custom guitar builder and honed my finishing skills – that allowed me to become more proficient in the restoration process.”

Hembree has been providing restoration services for items from high-end furniture to old stereos for nearly a decade, but these efforts came to life as his custom guitar building and music restoration business, Gig City Customs, five years ago. Since then, he’s been giving new life to the treasures of Chattanooga’s musicians. Hembree shares, “As a former musician, it allows me to stay connected to our local music scene … We’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible musicians and restore some of their absolute pride and joy guitars. There is a lot of pressure in doing those types of jobs, but it’s worth it.”

With such a range of projects, every day looks different. Some require the team at Gig City Customs to completely disassemble an item to refinish each separate part. Others involve reversing modern updates, such as stripping a finish, to restore the instrument to its original state. Restoring vintage instruments that are no longer in production takes innovation. Hembree shares that one of the challenges that accompanies repairs is “learning to troubleshoot problems using prior experience since there is no actual handbook that describes each process.”
Hembree finds value in restoring instead of replacing, with a deep appreciation for the care and time that went into crafting each instrument. He shares, “This is important work to me because things aren’t manufactured the same way they used to be. It’s always nice to see a customer that has interest in preserving a unique item because there aren’t any more being made.”

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