Iconic Maclellan Building Constructed By Provident Family Turning 100 Years Old

  • Monday, June 10, 2024
  • John Shearer

One of the most eye-catching and historic downtown Chattanooga buildings is what is now known as the Maclellan Apartments at 721 Broad St.

Appearing to look almost like a giant trophy or monument with its wide base, the structure was indeed built to recognize the good standing of the Provident Life and Accident insurance Company and to house its growing office needs. And all that occurred 100 years ago this year.

As a look is taken at its history in connection with the milestone anniversary, old newspaper clippings say the building was designed by noted architect R.H. Hunt and constructed by Parks & Co.

It was originally scheduled to be 12 stories, but a decision was made as construction was beginning in 1923 to make the structure 13 stories instead. Whether that was due to the fact the roughly five-year-old Barnwell and Barnwell-designed Volunteer Life building that housed another local insurance company was 12 stories is not known. In the late 1960s, the American National Bank building (the one now housing Truist Bank) was made slightly taller than the Hamilton National Bank (now First Horizon) building.

A caption with an accompanying photo of the Maclellan/Provident building under construction in June 1923 said that footings for the foundation were constructed 25 to 35 feet below the sidewalk level.

Despite this ugly-looking work initially, the building would grow to be a handsome and beautiful structure by the time it held its formal opening on Sept. 17, 1924. A Chattanooga Times story written a few days before its opening said the first three floors on the outside were in the Greek Ionic style. Above that was a more-slender office tower with a sloping green mansard roof in the French style. The walls were said to have been built of a grayish tan brick with cream terra cotta facing of such designs as an eagle and some seals and crests.

UTC art and architecture professor Dr. Gavin Townsend said the building was designed in the Beaux Arts style by architect Hunt. The latter was also a director of Provident and no doubt had an additional interest in making it a nice building.

“The Beaux Arts style gave the Maclellan Building the look of an enduring temple of financial stability,” Dr. Townsend said in an interview in 2008, adding that it also had an appearance of solidity and timelessness and had a Roman-style arched entrance.

The building is also the youngest of the four on that block that also includes the James Building, the Tivoli Theatre, and the old Fowler’s furniture building that is being remodeled into part of the Tivoli complex.

Dr. Townsend also said at the time that perhaps Mr. Hunt designed the Maclellan building with a narrower upper area to give some visible space between the Chicago-style James Building he also designed and the Tivoli, designed by Rapp and Rapp of Chicago. The decision also allowed all structures to be admired separately.

The 1924 writeup said that the Provident building inside had three gearless elevators, two of which could move at a then-fast 600 feet a minute. It also had modern ventilation systems, including a vacuum low pressure steam heating system allowing for an office to be heated quickly.

Three floors were also set aside specially for doctors and dentists and featured such amenities as hot and cold running water and compressed air.

When the building opened, Provident – which had been started in 1887 to help coal miners in part and was later headed by former Canadian Thomas Maclellan, a native of Scotland – had its accident and health insurance departments on the second floor. Its executive and life department offices, meanwhile, were on the third floor. Mr. Maclellan’s son, Robert J. Maclellan, was heading the burgeoning firm at the time the building opened.

Robert Jardine Maclellan was born in New Brunswick in Canada and moved with his father to Chattanooga in 1892 as a young man. The family earlier lived in Kansas and he attended Washburn College in Topeka. He had worked as an office boy for a period at Provident before being employed in such fields as bank accounting, county government, and with a cotton oil company.

In 1905, he married Cora Llewellyn, whose father, Morgan Llewellyn, headed the Walsh-Weidner Boiler Co. that later became part of Combustion Engineering. She was also related to the Trotter, Boyd, and Oehmig families through nieces and nephews. The Maclellans had three children, Robert Llewellyn Maclellan and Hugh O. Maclellan, both of whom would become involved in Provident, and a daughter, Mrs. Walter (Helen) Hoyle.

Robert Maclellan lived at 28 Bluff View in a Tudor style home that is now an inn that is part of the Bluff View Art District. He also summered on Lookout Mountain. From his home at Bluff View, he could see the Audubon Island in the middle of the Tennessee River, and he helped financially with the Audubon Society’s efforts to protect the island. As a result, it was named for him.

This member of Second Presbyterian Church was at his Lookout Mountain home dressing on June 7, 1956, to go to work a little after 7:30 a.m. when he was suddenly stricken and died. He was 82. His wife died in March 1957, and in 1965 the new Maclellan Gymnasium at UT-Chattanooga was named in their memory due to their philanthropic work.

When Mr. Maclellan’s Provident building had opened on Broad Street in 1924, the first floor was occupied by the Western Union Telegraph company, Elkins Drug Co., the Big Four Barber Shop, and Chickamauga Trust Company.

Among the doctors using the building initially were Dr. Edward Reisman, whose family had a home above the S curves of Hixson Pike, as well as Dr. B.S. Wert and Dr. Stewart Lawwill.

Some insurance agents also used the building, as did Judge and former Chattanooga mayor Alexander W. Chambliss and the General Assembly’s Stewardship office of the Presbyterian Church of the United States.

A look at a city directory from 1940 shows how the building had changed in its first 15 years. Provident now occupied not only the second and third floors, but the fifth, sixth, 11th, 12th, and 13th as well.

Other occupants at the time included lawyer and future Judge M.B. Finkelstein (the father of the late former Chattanoogan Farol Seretean), lawyer and future U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver, several doctors and dentists, multiple insurance and freight agents, and the DuPont dye stuffs sales operation (before a DuPont plant was built in Chattanooga). Also having offices there at this pre-World War II time were insurance agent and noted golfer Polly Boyd, fellow insurance broker Robert Killebrew, yarn broker Henry Crumbliss from the local textile and hosiery mill industry, and Marshall Lasley, among many others.

On the first floor in 1940 were the Provident Barber Shop, the Provident Soda Shop, and the fledgling Pioneer Bank.

In 1960, the expanding Provident moved into a new building in a former parking lot in the Fountain Square area. Of a different, more-mid-century style, the new building still featured craftsmanship equal to that of the Maclellan Building. The architect for the Provident building was Eggers and Higgins of New York City, with the contractor the Turner Construction Co., also of New York. The building features Georgia white Cherokee marble quarried and furnished by the Georgia Marble Co. of Tate, Ga., in the northern part of the state above Atlanta. It also had a nice landscaped courtyard in the front.

Whether Robert J. Maclellan was involved in plans for the new building before his death in 1956 would require further research, but his son, Robert L. “Bob” Maclellan, was heading the company at the time of the move.

The younger Maclellan had reportedly ridden his horse some out to McCallie School at the foot of Missionary Ridge from his Bluff View home as a student before graduating as the salutatorian in 1924 just before his family’s business building opened on Broad Street. A Maclellan dorm at McCallie would later be constructed.

One of several Chattanoogans from prominent families to have attended Dartmouth College, he was editor of the Dartmouth Pictorial publication and was succeeded as editor by future New York governor and vice president Nelson Rockefeller.

Robert L. Maclellan was interviewed in 1958 by Charles Pennington of the Chattanooga Times in his spacious Maclellan/Provident building office and was described as the courtly Southern gentleman. The writer said he was modest, a little shy, was gracious, gave undivided attention to the person with whom he was talking, and was known for his sense of justice and fair play.

Perhaps his only vice was smoking cigarettes. He told Mr. Pennington that he was trying to cut down on the number he was smoking in that era in which smoking did not have quite the negative societal image it does now.

He had met his wife, Kathrina Howze, the daughter of a top military commander, while they were visiting Chattanooga from Minnesota. The family resided at 125 Fairy Trail.

Very active in community affairs, he was particularly interested in downtown redevelopment and renewing its vibrancy during that mid-century era when people were fleeing to the suburbs. He received the 1970 Chattanooga Kiwanis Club Distinguished Service Award for all his work in numerous areas.

Like his father who also gave long service to Chattanooga, death came quickly. He was attending an industry association meeting in New York when he died suddenly on Dec. 15, 1971. He was only 65.

As the Provident company continued to flourish later under such leaders as Henry Unruh, Carey Hanlin and Hugh Maclellan, it would remain in downtown and help reboost the city as Robert L. Maclellan envisioned and hoped. It enlarged its footprint with an expansion, and a desire for more parking did create a somewhat negative side effect in the eyes of historic preservationists in that a number of historic buildings were taken down for parking around the 1980s and slightly later.

The Provident company, of course, would later merge with Unum, and that is the name of the business today.

The old Maclellan Building on Broad Street was also affected by the post-1990s renaissance of downtown Chattanooga following the opening of the Tennessee Aquarium. It had continued as a popular office building on Broad Street, but in 2008, plans were made to turn the building into a boutique hotel.

However, today it is an apartment complex operated by Birmingham-based Arlington Properties. One resident at its website calls it the best place she has ever lived and that its location is awesome, the apartments have character, and the views are incredible.

This structure that was once a workplace is now obviously being enjoyed from the inside 24 hours a day, just as it has been from the outside by lovers of architecture for a century.

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Jcshearer2@comcast.net

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