Antebellum Rathburn House Fell With The Rest Of Cameron Hill

Monday, June 27, 2022 - by John Wilson


Cameron Hill's most charming residence that dated to the antebellum days was one of the unfortunate casualties of the Urban Renewal of the 1950s and 1960s. The stately Kennedy/Rathburn house at Sixth and Pine, where President Theodore Roosevelt was an overnight guest, was knocked down, though it was out of the pathway of the new freeway.

William F.

Ragsdale, a developer and mayor in the early days of Chattanooga, built the two-story home with white columns in front around 1850. As the Civil War approached, he sold the home in 1859 to Dr. William E. Kennedy for $5,000. At the time the lot was only 150 feet wide. The Kennedy family enjoyed only a few years (1859-1862) in their mansion as they had to flee the Civil War.

Dr. Kennedy sold it to businessman J.C. Warner, then it went to Morris Bradt and then to William Snyder, who owned a distillery in the gorge between Cameron and Reservoir hills. 

During the war, the Confederates had their headquarters here from 1861 to Sept. 9, 1863. General D.H. Hill and General William J. Hardee discussed plans of how to defend against the Federal armies. After the Federal Army arrived, the large home again changed hands. General J.B. McPherson lived there until he moved south with the army. After General McPherson was killed, his body was brought back to Chattanooga. He lay in state in the house, and a large United States flag was draped between the front columns.

While the soldiers were there, they cut down nearly every tree around the sides and top of Cameron Hill for lumber and firewood. But the home at Sixth and Pine was spared.

After the Civil War, Timothy R. Stanley, who had been a general in the Union Army, bought the house in 1865 at a foreclosure sale. However, the next year it was transferred for $5,000 to William P. Rathburn, who moved to Chattanooga from Ohio and joined Theodore G. Montague in establishing the First National Bank. Rathburn was able to purchase a 50-foot lot adjoining the homeplace on the south, making a total frontage of 160 feet on Pine Street. The lot ran through to Poplar along Sixth Street.

In 1870, Rathburn became mayor of Chattanooga. Rathburn died in 1884, but the house remained in the family. In 1891, Annie Grace Rathburn, daughter of William P. and Katherine D. Rathburn, married Clarence Crawford Nottingham at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church next door to the house. The elaborate wedding reception was held at the Rathburn home.

C.C. Nottingham was the son of an Englishman who had been engaged in the iron manufacturing business in Ohio. He came to Chattanooga in 1887 as the teller for the First National Bank. He later became vice president of the First National Bank and president of the Spencer Medicine Company and the Chattanooga Wheelbarrow and Wagon Company.

The house featured four tall columns that adorned the exterior. A balcony extended from a second-floor room. There were steps leading to the large front porch, making the home seem even more imposing to the visitor. A double row of cedar trees provided a graceful approach to the house. Cathedral stained glass was mounted under the arched front doorway. Entering the front door, there was a large parlor and observatory to the left and a library on the right. The ceilings of each of the rooms were grandly decorated in various colors and designs. The dining room was described as having a ceiling of “Pompeian red.” The mantels throughout the interior were of the finest carved walnut, with elaborate tiling. The tiling in the parlor depicted scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. Other special features included built-in cherry wood cabinets, Empire urns, a Sheraton writing table, chairs of English Chippendale, pieces of Hepplewhite, an Empire console table, and mirrors of colonial design. The Rathburns added a conservatory as well as a grotto and a fountain. A gardener, who had previously managed the Imperial Gardens in Germany, was hired to transform the large grounds into a showplace.

“History of Homes and Gardens of Tennessee” in 1936 described the house as having been “the seat of notable hospitality and many persons of eminence.” At that time, the house was one of only four residences still standing in Chattanooga that had been built before the Civil War.

The Nottinghams lived in the same house in which Annie Grace had grown up. They were very generous, inviting many people to enjoy the charming home. It was traditional in Chattanooga to go to the open house at the Nottingham home on Christmas Day. There were no formal invitations, but everyone who had been inside the spacious halls and parlors of the beautiful home was welcome, along with their friends. The guests were met by an old family servant who admitted each one and called them by their names. His friends called him "Mr. Rathburn" since he had been opening the door so long for the Rathburns and Nottinghams. Inside the house each Christmas there were long tables laden with traditional Christmas foods and decorated with lace and embroidered covers. The debutantes of the year would be standing in line with their white, ruffled dresses and their arms full of colorful poinsettias.  

The Nottinghams, though from Ohio, hosted the veterans of the Confederate Army during their reunions. Prince Henry of Prussia and President Theodore Roosevelt were among the prominent guests who stayed there. The Nottinghams were also involved in supporting the nation's troops during World War I. Mr. Nottingham was vice-chairman of the Victory Liberty loan campaign, while his wife volunteered with the Red Cross to serve food and coffee to soldiers at the local train stations. Mrs. Nottingham also helped to establish the Junior League and Little Miss Mag Day Nursery in Chattanooga.

The house suffered a devastating fire in 1882, and would have been torn down if it had not been for Mr. Rathburn, who insisted that it be repaired. The work was carried out by Holt & Frisbie of Louisville and supervised by Thomas E. Tracey, described as "one of the most artistic decorators in the country." 

In April 1929, just six months before the stock market crash, Clarence C. Nottingham died. In 1933, the First National Bank failed, and the Nottingham fortune was lost. Mrs. Nottingham continued to stay at the big house while the creditors sorted things out. In 1939, Mrs. Nottingham died. Her will left the house to a cousin, Louise Whiton. In the will, Mrs. Nottingham directed that two old servants, John Parks and Margaret Hammond receive "$12.50 per month as long as they live."  

Various civic groups attempted to carry out what the Nottinghams had willed, that the house and grounds become a city park. However, in 1941, it was announced that the Cosmopolitan Funeral Home, which operated locations in Memphis and Nashville, was buying the house. It spent over $25,000 for renovations. Roscoe D. Cole became the only manager that the Cosmopolitan Funeral Home in Chattanooga would ever have.

Then, when Cameron Hill's fate was sealed, the Chattanooga Housing Authority purchased the priceless home for $110,000.

There was an auction of coveted items from the home held at the mansion. Attorney Charles A. Noone and three assistants took a full day to sell it all. Mrs. Z.C. Patten and Mrs. Joseph W. Johnson were among the rival bidders for a silver epergne with crystal containers for flowers or fruits. It was located in the center of the table where it was always positioned during Mrs. Nottingham's entertainments. Mrs. R.B. Davenport was the eventual winner at $225.  

Another auction determined who would be awarded the rights to tear down the house and get its valuable doors, windows and ornate woodwork and fixtures. R.R. McKnight was selected to salvage it.

The oak mantel from the house is now in the residence of the Merrill Sextons and the front door fanlight is in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Yoder. Both houses are on Lookout Mountain.

The cast iron fence that was around the home when the Kennedys were there was later replaced by a handsome wall of cut limestone. Robert V. Curtis in 1959 purchased this wall and one on East Fourth Street. He hauled it to be made into a wall at his home on Lake Chickamauga at 9007 Old Hixson Pike, Soddy Daisy. Mr. Curtis said the result was he had “the best wall on Chickamauga Lake.”

The St. Barnabas nursing home and apartments were built where the Nottingham house had stood for so long.

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