Unlikely combination: Train depots and CPAs

What do trains and accounting offices have in common? In Chattanooga, Tennessee, they cross paths at CPA firm Henderson Hutcherson & McCullough PLLC (HHM).

Five years ago, HHM purchased a piece of history when it acquired the Southern Railway Freight Depot. Constructed in 1871, it is one of only two surviving train depots in the area. This may seem like an unlikely place for a professional office. So how did a historic train depot become the home of one of Chattanooga's accounting firms?

"When we started looking for a new location for our firm, our first thought was that we wanted to be downtown with parking at our front door. It was about location and convenience only. While we still wanted to provide our clients with convenience, our focus quickly shifted when we found the Freight Depot property," Donnie Hutcherson, HHM managing partner, told AccountingWEB.

"Here was an opportunity to have a very unique work environment for our staff and a convenient location for our clients and business associates. But, even better, through restoring the property, we actually gave back to the downtown community as a whole," Hutcherson said.

Between the time the building ceased to function as a depot and when it was purchased by HHM, it had been used as a place for shops and small offices. Still, it would take an ambitious renovation for it to meet the needs of a busy CPA firm, while retaining as much history as possible. To do it right, HHM hired River Street Architecture.

Maintaining historical integrity

Among the historic features of the depot that HHM decided to keep is the original brickwork, signed by the Copeland-Inglis Shale Brick Company of Birmingham, Alabama, from the 1800s. Wood from the rafters and flooring was salvaged and used to make tables for the kitchen and the conference rooms. Offices are separated by partial walls so that the original walls are still discernible. And, according to Hutcherson, the most notable and amusing aspect of the building that was retained is the sloping floor.

"The Freight Depot was designed to slant from back to front by 18 inches to assist in the unloading of train cars. The trains would pull alongside the back of the building, and then passenger baggage and assorted cargo were loaded onto heavy-duty carts that were literally rolled to the front of the building where wagons and trucks waited. Once the carts were emptied, they were pulled back up the 18-inch incline for the next load," Hutcherson "This characteristic is quite noticeable to visitors since they lean slightly as they walk through the building."

Two years after the renovation began, the HHM team moved into their new digs, right in the middle of tax season, in February 2007- certainly an indication of how eager they were to soak up the history of the depot. Are they happy with the new building?

"The restoration results are beyond anything we anticipated or imagined. It has actually provided a brand for HHM. The building, itself, symbolizes the importance we place on the work environment we provide to our employees, in that it is fun, different...unique." said Hutcherson

"It also speaks of our commitment to giving back to the community in the form of a beautifully restored, historic landmark, and our dedication to maintaining an open, approachable workplace for our staff and clients. The building has definitely increased the community's awareness of HHM," Hutcherson said.

Hutcherson added that the historic nature of the depot has drawing power. Now when clients, vendors, and others need to schedule a meeting, they want to come to HHM rather than asking HHM to come to them.

"They enjoy the front-door parking, they enjoy the open atmosphere of the building, and they enjoy the vibe of the property itself. Visitors, whether they are student recruits, new clients, or vendors, request tours and ask countless questions about the building and the restoration process. We're always happy to share our story," Hutcherson said.

Have there been challenges? Oh yes!

Firm cofounder Ladell McCullough described how, not long after they moved into the building, they held a meeting in the training room. Thanks to open ceilings in that room and in the upstairs offices, the noise level made it difficult for the audience to hear the speakers. It soon became clear that in old, open buildings like the depot, there was nothing to absorb noise. Adjustments to the wall height were made to fix the problem.

"The key thing is that we listen to the staff and try to accommodate their needs while maintaining the open and airy feeling of the building," McCullough told AccountingWEB.

The sloping floor, as you might imagine, also has caused its share of problems, like employees who are there one minute and... rolling downhill the next. But the solution was as simple as installing rubber mats under their desk chairs.

Taking on this renovation was a big job, and not just anybody would tackle it. Then again, nobody ever said HHM was an ordinary firm. If you need proof, pay them a visit and soak up some history.

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