One of downtown Chattanooga’s grand old buildings – the current Patten Towers and former Hotel Patten – quietly turned 100 years old earlier this spring.
Although building officials are tentatively planning a celebration and open house for late summer, the actual 100th anniversary on April 1 was much quieter than the 1908 dedication, when many Chattanoogans gathered to celebrate.
Because the building was the first skyscraper hotel for Chattanooga, the event was considered a watershed moment in the city’s history. The most recent such event – when the entire citizenry was aware of a significant and changing moment in the city’s history – was probably the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium in 1992.
After the Hotel Patten opened, the eyes of many Chattanoogans continued focusing on it as well because of the numerous familiar people who passed through its doors.
President William Howard Taft attended a banquet there in 1911, and Warren G. Harding held a reception there during his successful 1920 run for the presidency. In contrast to many presidential receptions held today that are open only to those with deep pocketbooks, the Harding event was open to everyone.
John F. Kennedy also addressed the Rotary Club of Chattanooga there in 1953 shortly after he began serving as a senator from Massachusetts.
A number of other well-known Americans have also stayed there. Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa did during his famous 1964 trial at the nearby Federal Building, as did evangelist Billy Graham during his famous 1953 crusade at the Warner Park Fieldhouse.
Countless entertainment personalities also stayed there. When the Tivoli opened in 1921, silent screen star Mae Murray gave a newspaper interview at her Hotel Patten room. Unfortunately for her, she later disappeared from celebrity status following the advent of talking movies.
The Hotel Patten stayed in vogue much longer, however. The idea for the building had come from J.B. Pound, who in the early 1900s owned the Chattanooga News newspaper. He had tried to push for a large hotel for Chattanooga for years along with others and decided to go about getting one built himself.
As he related in his memoirs, Mr. Pound went to visit Sam Read, the owner of the Read House. At the time, the Read House was at its current location, but it was located in a smaller structure built in the 1870s where the Crutchfield House had been. The current brick Read House was not built until 1926.
Mr. Pound initially wanted Mr. Read to build the new hotel of a grand size and standard envisioned by Mr. Pound.
While the conversations were amicable, Mr. Read told him that his current Read House provided all the accommodations Chattanooga needed, and he had no plans to build a new hotel.
Frustrated, Mr. Pound decided to build one himself, even though he had no experience in building a hotel until that time. He also did not have the money for such an undertaking.
However, with the help of Charles Alexander of Dallas, who had been talking with Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce officials about the idea of a new hotel, Mr. Pound went and approached wealthy industrialists Z.C. Patten Sr. and nephew John A. Patten of the Chattanooga Medicine Company about financing a hotel.
Although they were at first reluctant, they eventually decided to put up $650,000 for the construction.
Ross Faxon, who had lived in the current Hunter Museum of Art mansion, also became an investor, although he had to back out because of some property damage to his wife’s real estate holdings in San Francisco after the famous 1906 earthquake hit that city.
Coca-Cola bottler J.T. Lupton, the son-in-law of Z.C. Patten, later bought John A. Patten’s interest.
The hotel was built on 11th Street on the site of a large limestone outcropping, which was owned by the Stone Fort Land Company
The architect was W.T. Downing of Atlanta, who designed such structures as Z.C. Patten’s Ashland Farm mansion in Chattanooga Valley, J.T. Lupton’s Lyndhurst mansion in Riverview, and some of the older, Gothic style buildings at UTC and Baylor School.
Downing’s familiar pointed arches are evident on the Hotel Patten/Patten Towers.
Mr. Alexander served as the general manager originally. John Lovell, who was also a prime mover in getting Lovell Field/Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport built, came to work at the Hotel Patten as auditor in 1910 and served as manager from 1918 until his death in 1947.
The general contractor was George Baker Long. The newspaper at the time said he was from Buffalo, N.Y., while Mr. Pound in his memoirs said he was from Boston. He had also constructed the terrace around the Kentucky state capitol
Among the Hotel Patten’s interesting initial features were a billiard room, a bowling alley, a barbershop and manicure parlors in the basement.
The lobby featured a main dining room, a men’s café, a bar and a kitchen.
The second-floor mezzanine featured a ballroom and orchestra room.
The hotel opened to the general public and overnight guests at noon on April 1, 1908, and nearly every one of the 251 rooms – 225 of which had private baths – was occupied by late in the evening. The rate started at $1.50 a night.
Hundreds also simply toured the building that first day.
A celebration banquet that went well into the night took place in the ballroom. On hand were Tennessee Gov. Malcolm R. Patterson and Mississippi Gov. Edmond Noel.
The Chattanooga Times sensed the significance of the moment in an editorial in that day’s paper.
“The opening of the Patten hotel, admitted by all who have seen it to be the most elegant public house in all of its appointments to be found in any city in the South, is one of the important events in the history of Chattanooga,” it stated, “For, in companionship with the James office building, it marks the transition of the big town to the modern city.”
In the 1920s, an addition was made to the Hotel Patten, changing it from an L-shaped structure to a U-shaped one.
In the 1970s, it closed as a hotel and became a residential facility for the elderly.
And in the early 1990s, the familiar and attractive black cornice work was removed at the top of the building because of problems with pigeons.
The building is currently operated by Professional Property Management of Illinois and serves as a Section 8, project-based residential facility for the elderly and disabled.
One person aware of the anniversary is Chris Mack, manager of the facility.
“We are going to have a big celebration and open house in late August or early September,” she said.
Ms. Mack said much of the older part of the structure remains, including the lobby. The ballroom was recently reopened after being closed for a period. It hosts ball parties for the residences and meetings, she said.
She said the building also has an old tunnel where celebrities used to enter, but it has been closed for some time.
She leaves no doubt by her enthusiasm that she enjoys this elderly resident of Chattanooga along with the others.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s a great structure.”