Chester Martin Remembers Some Favorite Downtown Buildings

Sunday, January 22, 2017 - by Chester Martin

Woodfin B. Martin was my dad - and a Letter Carrier. All through the 1920's,'30's, '40's, and over half of the 1950's he was an icon on the streets of Chattanooga. Every time I went into town I could expect to see him at least once, scurrying from one mail box to the next in his little Model "A" Post Office truck. There were mailboxes on the sidewalks which had to be collected, and all the main buildings of the downtown area also had mail boxes inside which were part of dad's route.

It was fun for me to chase him down while stopped at one of those streetside mail boxes, or inside a building. Of course, it is also true that my mom and I would have business inside some of those same buildings and so I became familiar with the interiors of several.

I always liked it when I would see my dad double-parked (!) in front of the James Building, because it had one of the friendlier, though small, lobbies. I would follow him inside where the good odors emanating from the small sandwich shop (on the right) could make anyone's mouth water. The elevators were situated directly in front as you entered the lobby. To the right was a rather large, solid bronze and ornate mailbox which appeared so strong that it could have survived an Atomic blast! Dad had the key to that amazing utilitarian object, of course, (he had seemingly thousands of keys!) and the lock, although shaped somewhat like a regular Yale lock, was designed so that it could not be removed. It could only be opened and closed - never taken out of its hasp. For whatever reason, that lock and box always fascinated me, as it was kept gleaming, being hand polished every day. Above the box was a mail-chute like in all the other tall buildings, which stretched to the top floor. The poor letter carrier's hand, then, became the unwilling target of a sudden terrorist attack from above when someone would drop a heavy envelope, or barrage of envelopes, from an upper floor! I am sure it could be pretty painful at times, but it was just an accepted "occupational hazard", and dad never complained. When I want to indulge myself a nostalgic minute or two - when I want to get really close to my dad again like in the old days, I have once or twice done so by visiting that very site to study that ancient mail box and its ponderous lock, becoming for a few moments a little boy of ten again, with his uniformed dad standing by.

But I have other good memories of the James Building also: Clarence T. Jones's (the Observatory builder's and one of my earliest hero's) office was on one of the floors and I was there to see him on various occasions. I think the James Building was Chattanooga's first "skyscraper" - the source of much civic pride in 1910 or so. And it has been well-preserved through the years by the on-site supervision of a resident architect. Kudos to that person or persons! My childhood doctor - Dr. Carl Hartung's office - was in that building also, and possibly that of Dr. Hiram A. Laws, my birth doctor.

"Medical Arts" was a beautifully designed early tall building on McCallie Avenue, and I am glad that it has been kept pretty much as it always was. Main differences are on the ground floor where the entrance has been altered for the new owner's needs. Back in the 1940's and later there was a very popular drugstore on the ground floor, usually full of students of all ages, with a barber shop and other "humanizing" features on the same level. Nowadays the former crowds of students and other commercial traffic are missing, though I continue to wonder where they all went every time I pass by! I still remember going there to see my old EENT (Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist, Dr. Samuel Long. He had a wonderful way with children, was about five feet tall, with a son who seemed about seven feet tall by comparison! The building was acquired by First Presbyterian Church next door, and pastor Ben Haden made it the seat of that church's radio and TV ministries.

The former Hamilton National Bank Building (now First Tennessee), was the tallest building in town. (It seems like two stories were added to the building when it changed names and was renovated throughout). I worked in it for a couple of years while at the university - in WDOD's very lovely and modern studios. When time permitted, I used the stairways where I would frequently run to the top floor to keep my legs in shape. Near the Market Street entrance there was a nice lunch counter with some really "droll" and funny characters who ran it. Everybody liked them and it was always busy as a result. An elderly retiree wearing a business suit (and NO weaponry!) sat on an old-fashioned swivel chair in the lobby after 5:00 p.m. - the ONLY security for the entire building! Never suspicious of anyone, he seemed always to be smiling and friendly.

But the "creme-de-la-creme" building in town was the Art Nouveau-style, U.S. Post Office building. It is now known as the "Jay Solomon Federal Courts and Office Building". It was - and is - a magnificent addition to the Chattanooga skyline. Built of gleaming white granite, I always admired it. My dad worked out of it, and it was the "new" post office to him, while the old one was on 11th Street, (and now still being used as a public building). Built with Federal funds, and before WW2, tons of money were spent on it. I have known architects who have told me how every tiny detail of that structure was meticulously drawn on pure linen paper! Even the ornate vent-gratings for air circulation were drawn by hand. Where today an architect would search through printed or online catalogs for a suitable mass produced grating, those of our post office were designed, drawn, sculptured and cast locally to suit each exacting need! (The casting may have been done elsewhere, but all the design work was done in Chattanooga). I loved that building, as I knew every part of the public areas, including some of the people who worked behind the barred windows selling stamps. I knew the blind man who ran a refreshment stand (of candies, chewing gum, etc.) whose stall was in a kind of alcove under a stairway near the north entrance to the building. Ask him for a specific item and he would hand it to you instantly although obviously totally sightless. This was in the marble-floored public part of the building (and one of the rare buildings in town which was air-conditioned in those days). But since my dad worked there I also knew the large work area in the back where the vast amount of mail was received and disseminated. I knew all my dad's friendly co-workers - and I also knew where to find the ominous peep-holes where postal inspectors could secretly spy on the men at work. These were eliminated from all post offices years later when complaints arose by postal workers - nation wide - and Congress passed laws against Government spying. Flooring in the work areas, however, was wooden and like a very coarse parquet. When the ceiling occasionally would leak, large areas of this wooden parquet would swell up and hinder the use of hand-pushed mail carts.

All the work lavished on this "new" post office was done under FDR's WPA program, of course, to provide work for artisans and laborers who had suffered during the recent Great Depression. I understand that there is a WPA mural in one of the Federal courtrooms which I have unfortunately never seen, and I always liked the larger-than-lifesize aluminum sculpture of the postman carrying his leather shoulder-pouch of mail which stands near the south entrance to that building. Recent newspaper stories have shown how certain parts of that building have deteriorated from their original glory, but it IS 80 years later, after all! I understand that the mural has been cared for through the years, and is available be be seen when court is not in session.

Before leaving this post office I have to give a nod to the four white granite eagles - two at each entrance - which I thought were so "cool" back in my day - and to the paper-boys crying, "paper, paper, Free Press paper" from its steps. This was then a very lively area, with a movie-house directly across Georgia Avenue, called the Dixie Theater, a "Quickie" restaurant (subsidiary of Krystal) next door, and the Millard Reece Cafe on the corner of 9th and Georgia Avenues. The Millard Reece restaurant, with its ornate 2-shade gold leaf doors, was demolished to make way for a new First Federal Savings and Loan building, which housed George Little's locally famous mural, still preserved at Girls Preparatory School (GPS) in North Chattanooga. And the First Federal building was in turn demolished to make way for Miller Park! Lots of vanished history in that area, folks! Adding to the "lost" excitement of the area was the daily noise of the Chattanooga Times' and Free Press' loud-whirring presses which could be heard loud and clear from the post office's shipping and receiving dock on the east side of the building. (The two separate newspapers shared the same press in those days).

I have already written stories about other well-liked Chattanooga buildings, such as the Tivoli theater, and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, built to replace a really desolate earlier venue of my mother's day (of a century ago), which was so shabby a building that famous Irish tenor John McCormick refused to perform there back in the 1920's.

When I was just a toddler, my mom opened a bank account for me in the old "American Trust and Banking Company" building, today having morphed after many changes into Suntrust Bank. The lobby of that building preserves the old American N.B. eagle. I was in that facility many times and can even remember the pleasant odor of the place, which identified it instantly as you walked in.

Chattanooga's two main hotels have always been the Read House, whose predecessor at the time of the Civil War was the Crutchfield House, and the Patten. I personally have more experience with the Hotel Patten than with the Read House, so can only describe the landmark created by Mr. Zeboim Cartter Patten, and one of his four businesses which lasted 100 years or more. Although no longer a hotel, the Patten name continues in its present capacity as "Patten Towers Apartments". Its original broad parapets have long since been demolished - a feature which gave the building its own easily identifiable character. Also, the WDOD radio transmitter towers have been removed as well. Otherwise, the building looks just the same as always, despite the addition of air conditioning throughout. In the old hotel some windows would be open and some closed. Now they have a uniform "closed" appearance. In the 1950's I attended many pan-hellenic (sorority and fraternity) dances there, many play rehearsals, and many banquets. Best word to describe the interior as a whole was, "solid"! For, like the Tivoli Theater, no corner had been cut in its construction. Any visitor entering the Patten's lobby felt himself in a world-class environment. I would imagine that the Read House was similar in top-notch construction. Being across the street from a major train station (Union Depot), it attracted many a weary traveler - including Miguel Aleman, president of Mexico, and Winston Churchill, the one-time Prime Minister of Great Britain. Both hotels were home to Broadway and Hollywood stars when they came to town for a brief stint here.

The Pound Building on East 11th Street, now demolished, was home to J.B. Pound's, "Chattanooga News". That newspaper was bought by Roy McDonald and moved to other headquarters where the name "Free Press" was added. An excellent, well-constructed building, it served the TVA for a long time, and my wife worked there for several years. The FBI took over an entire floor in it during a famous trial of the 1960's.

(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 cymppm@comcast.net )



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