Chester Martin Remembers Architect William Caton

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - by Chester Martin
William Caton
William Caton

While growing up back in Neolithic times (aka the 1940's), various friends would point out a slightly built, wiry little man, who drove a funny car.  We would be waiting for the bus at the corner of Anderson and Belvoir Avenues in Brainerd, and, if lucky, we MIGHT get to see him in his odd car. He would be coming down from his modest home on North View Avenue, second street behind my house. At that time the only thing that distinguished him from us ordinary folk WAS the car. He never seemed to even notice the crowd of school kids waiting to see him before catching their bus to Anna B. Lacey School, east of us, in East Ridge. And he certainly never uttered a single word in our direction.

As time progressed, we were told by adults that his car was an English-made "foreign" car. In those days "foreign" cars were extremely rare in our area and to glimpse one never failed to rouse excitement - much like the sight of an ancient Model T Ford causes today when unexpectedly seen on the street. So we came to watch for Mr. Caton's car for the momentary thrill it gave us, and on occasion we would see him chauffering his wife in the passenger seat.

Many years passed, and my old neighborhood was given up to the construction of Interstate Highway 24. My parents and I were forced to move, so we left Mr. and Mrs. Caton - and their wonderful car - behind. (The name is pronounced, “KAY-ton”, incidentally)

Another block of years passed, and during the late 1960's and early1970's I found myself doing full-color renderings for all the architects of the city. I was regularly calling on the Selmon T. Franklin firm of architects on North Market Street, and one day I was requested to follow one of his people back into a workroom area where quite an impressive number of draftsmen were kept busy. While inside the drafting room my eye noticed a familiar wiry little man whom I immediately recognized as our Mr. Caton! This was quite a big surprise, as I had NO IDEA that he was an architect. He worked until virtually his last day on earth, and I clipped his obituary when he died. That obituary, dated April 4th, 1973, will be the basis of what I write below...

Mr. Caton was one of those genteel, old-school Britishers who rarely ever made an audible sound. Always focused on the work in front of him, he could have been a good role model for the youth of any generation. Born in the south of England (Sussex, in 1889) in the coastal town of Hove, he studied at nearby Brighton College, and also Brighton School of Art. After serving with British forces in WW1 from 1914 to 1919, he migrated to Winnipeg, Canada at war's end. There he joined an architectural firm, but left soon for the R.H. Hunt firm of architects here in Chattanooga. THAT was one of the very most influential old-line architectural firms of our city and you will find examples of their work in John Wilson's various Chattanooga books. I was fascinated to chat one day with Rufus Holt, an elderly architect I did renderings for, who had first-hand knowledge of the R.H. Hunt Company. Holt showed me some astoundingly beautiful watercolor renderings on linen paper which were produced by someone at the Hunt firm. Our Mr. Caton could also have told many stories about the early days here, of course, but unfortunately I never got a conversation with Caton. (Those old watercolor renderings are still around, I would wager, and are of sufficient interest that they should be displayed in any Chattanooga History museum for the public to admire!)

William Caton was in town when TVA first came into being (during the Presidental terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt). He spent a short time with TVA, before associating himself with a Mr. Street, and later with Rufus  Holt (above) for a second time. He finally settled at the Selmon T. Franklin firm in 1964,  where he remained until virtually the day he died in 1973.

During all these seemingly indecisive years he found time to leave us several buildings which are still landmarks of our city. These include the Chattanooga Bank Building, Medical Arts Building on McCallie Avenue  (still in daily use by First Presbyterian Church), the former downtown  post office, (now known as the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building), Brainerd Junior HS, (more recently called the 21st Century School for the Arts and Sciences), Howard School, Orchard Knob Junior HS, and Ridgeview Baptist Church. If not "THE" architect for all these buildings, he at least played a major role in the design and construction of each.

I had long been in search of some people and buildings to connect into some kind of interesting story about the rich architectural legacy we have here in Chattanooga. As John Wilson's new book of Chattanooga photos proves, beautiful brick structures were beginning to crop up out of the mud here very soon after the Civil War. These new buildings gave our city a very strong and "substantial" look which endures to this day. I am thinking specifically of the long sweeping curve of brick buildings on the east side of Market Street which lead southward toward the Choo Choo. There are plenty of other such places as well. The firm of Selmon T. Franklin (above) was most responsible in taking photos of almost every old building that was demolished in town. I know he photographed a lot of the fancy old Victorian homes along Oak Street just ahead of the wrecking ball, as the university spread ever-farther in all directions. We can tie Hunt, Holt, Caton, and Franklin together to create the abbreviated history of architecture in our city which I have laid out here. Some young and energetic person should definitely write a more comprehensive history of our dynamic architectural heritage than I have done. I have left out such men as Donald L. Wamp, Sr., Alan Derthick, and MANY another great talent, but who represent a much newer day. It was the old connectivity I sought, and - thanks to Mr. William Caton's obit - I was able to (barely) scratch the surface.

Mr. Caton's obituary says he returned to England in 1924 to marry Miss Elsie Mary Alcon, and that they had one daughter. I never knowingly saw the daughter, but remember Mrs. Caton riding proudly beside her husband...

How many of my grade-school memories have paid off somehow in later life! For it was thanks to that funny English car with the ungainly large wheels and the steering wheel on the wrong side (!) that led me to focus on Mr. Caton in the first place, and remember who he was. He connected the right stuff to make this little story possible.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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