John Shearer: Hotel Twin Of Covenant College’s Carter Hall Once Proposed In Alabama

Monday, December 7, 2020 - by John Shearer

The romance of its days as a former hotel is still easy to grasp by gazing at Carter Hall at Covenant College atop its high point on Lookout Mountain.  

 

The picturesque structure, which has seen the original look of its tower brought back during a renovation of recent years, also almost had a twin, or at least a close architectural sibling.

 

Apparently little documented in Chattanooga historical stories or records over the years is the fact that a similar hotel structure was also proposed for the elevated Monte Sano area by Huntsville, Ala., about the same time, but it was not built.

 

The recent discovery was made about a decade ago and was included in a small book that the late UTC art and architecture professor Dr.

Gavin Townsend put together on architect R.H. Hunt. 

 

Titled “R.H. Hunt: Master Architect of Chattanooga,” and published in 2010 in association with Cornerstones Inc., the book devotes a chapter to the old Lookout Mountain Hotel, which was opened by Paul B. Carter and other investors in 1928.

 

In the book, Dr. Townsend, who died in 2018, said that Mr. Hunt also designed the Monte Sano Manor hotel for the then-resort area on top of a lower, plateau-like mountain that means “Mountain of Health.”

 

He said the planned Alabama hotel also included many of the same elements as the Lookout Mountain Hotel, such as a Giralda-style tower, some half timbering, a stone arcade over the entrance and a circle driveway in the front.

 

And it might have been just as neat or even neater to view up close.

 

“With its angled wings and lower overall height, the Monte Sano project would have been even more picturesque than the Lookout Mountain Hotel,” Dr. Townsend wrote.

 

Further research would be required to see whether plans for the hotel’s look were already finalized before the project was halted, or if R.H. Hunt was sending a proposal to developers along with other architects. It is also not clear which of the two Hunt design projects was started first.

 

While obviously similar in style and with a tower, the Alabama hotel had two slanted wings sticking out of it and also appeared to have more half timbering to give it a Tudor look reflective of the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club clubhouse.

 

The Covenant building’s north wing is also angular, although less than the Alabama building.

 

Dr. Townsend said in the book that the drawing of the Alabama hotel was found in a scrapbook of Hunt memorabilia belonging to the Street family, who are descendants of the architect and ended up going into architectural practice, too, in Nashville.

 

Mr. Hunt, a virtually self-taught architect who died in 1937, designed dozens of other commercial, government, school or church buildings in Chattanooga and around the South. Among his Chattanooga structures still standing are the Hamilton County Courthouse, Memorial Auditorium, Second Presbyterian Church, and the James and Maclellan buildings.

 

Some information found in a 1980 Historic Huntsville Quarterly of Local Architecture and Preservation now posted online said that the plans for the hotel came to the forefront in 1926. That was when a group of about 10 Huntsville-area businessmen purchased 2,200 acres of mountain property for $42,000. 

 

They included D.C. Monroe, Her­bert Johnson, Morton M. Hutch­ens, Sam S. Thompson, J. E. Pierce, W.P. Dilworth, I.A. Burdette, E.A. Terry, Raymond Jones and Ira M. Terry.

 

They began to market summer homes and also wanted to build the new hotel with a golf course and swimming pool. An older hotel had also been at a location away from the pinpointed site of the planned Hunt structure.

 

It was a grand plan typical of what was taking place in the 1920s throughout the United States, but due to the Great Depression that was brought on by a number of factors, the dream development dissolved without the hotel construction, the article said

 

Some historic homes are there today, and the Monte Sano State Park was also later opened in the area. 

 

Herndon Elliott, who grew up in Chattanooga and worked and lived in the Huntsville/Madison area of North Alabama before relocating to Signal Mountain at the start of the pandemic, said Monte Sano is somewhat like Signal and Lookout mountains.

 

There are two roads into the area and it also features some homes, with some of the older ones being replaced with newer ones, he said. Wernher von Braun and some of the early rocket pioneers in Huntsville were initially housed on Monte Sano, Mr. Elliott said, and this fact was mentioned in the well-known James Michener book, “Space.”

 

The Burritt Museum and venue center is also on Monte Sano, and the park area is a big draw, he said.

 

“The park itself has a lot of trails, karst features, and other interesting stuff,” said Mr. Elliott, who graduated from McCallie School in 1978 and used to enjoy mountain biking on Monte Sano. “And the park has some nice overlooks, cabins to rent, and RV and rough camping areas.”

 

He added that the trails have almost a backcountry feel to them away from the parking areas.

 

Like the Monte Sano hotel project, the Lookout Mountain Hotel suffered as well due to the Depression but later was revamped as the Castle Above the Clouds Hotel before being closed in 1960, with Covenant College opening there in 1964 after relocating from St. Louis. During the building’s waning years as a hotel, actress Elizabeth Taylor and husband Eddie Fisher reportedly stayed there.

 

In the book, Dr. Townsend called the former Lookout Mountain Hotel an eclectic edifice that combined Medieval and Renaissance elements to create a modern resort hotel.

 

“The most striking feature of the building was the tower, which Hunt borrowed from the famous 16th century Spanish bell tower in Seville, the Giraldi,” he wrote of the Chattanooga building. “The bulk of the hotel, though, was more 16th century English in flavor, with steeply pitched gables accented with half-timbering.”

 

Since the Alabama hotel was never built, Mr. Hunt’s hotels of varying styles could not be found in different locations. And the Lookout Mountain building does not have its own doppelganger of sorts, and students of historic architecture do not have stone mountain bookends to study on two elevated areas separated by a major valley. 

 

But Carter Hall by itself is still enough to demonstrate Mr. Hunt’s skill with a drawing instrument and a ruler, many might say. 

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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