What Did That Building Used To Be? - Hamilton National Bank

  • Saturday, August 3, 2002
  • Harmon Jolley
This is what the Hamilton National Bank looks like under its modern skin. Click to enlarge all our photos.
This is what the Hamilton National Bank looks like under its modern skin. Click to enlarge all our photos.

Reuben Harrison Hunt was a local architect who became well-known for stately, artistic designs. Among the buildings which remain as testimonies to his talents are the Hamilton County Courthouse, the Federal Courthouse, the James Building, the Maclellan building, and the former Miller Brothers building (now Blue Cross/Blue Shield).

Some of his works are sadly no longer with us, such as the First Baptist Church at Oak Street and Georgia Avenue and the No. 1 Fire Hall on Carter Street. One of his structures is still with us - though disguised as a more modern building. It was originally the home office of Hamilton National Bank, and is now the downtown branch of First Tennessee.

Hamilton National Bank was founded in 1905 with Thomas Ross Preston, Harry Olmstead, and Gus Miller as its leaders and capitalization of $250,000. The bank was an outgrowth of the old South Chattanooga Savings Bank, and Mr. Preston had taken his banking career there from messenger to president. In November, 1909, plans were announced for new offices for the bank at its location at Seventh and Market Streets. This would become Chattanooga’s third skyscraper – the James Building and the Patten Hotel preceding it. While the new building was under construction, temporary offices were set up across Market Street in space above The Palace, a popular restaurant and soda fountain.

The new, 15-story Hamilton National Bank opened to the public on June 8, 1911. In the dedication ceremony, John Patten of the Chamber of Commerce said, “This is not the last, merely the latest skyscraper for Chattanooga.” The lobby was furnished in Italian marble with bronze grills at the teller windows. Its safety deposit vault was secured by a massive door weighing over two tons. The total cost of the building was an estimated $400,000.

Over the next six decades, Hamilton National Bank grew to become one of the larger banks in East Tennessee. It grew primarily by attracting new customers rather than through acquiring other banks. The bank had many years of stability through times when bank failures were common. The downtown location was first expanded in 1940 and again starting in 1965. In this remodeling, the building would be covered by a modern granite and aluminum façade. It was at that time the popular notion that old buildings needed such face lifts to bring them in line with modern designs. Similar projects would be carried out at the Lovemans and Miller Brothers department stores, though both have since had their disguises removed to reveal the original beautiful architecture.

The stable image of Hamilton National Bank vanished in 1976 as it was revealed by Federal officials that the bank was insolvent. Through a subsidiary, the bank had suffered substantial real estate loan failures. The assets of the bank were sold at auction, with First Tennessee Bank of Memphis being the purchaser. It was said to be the third largest bank failure in the United States.

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