Rendezvous at Hotel Patten

Blog Post #28

by Jane Van Ryan

Joseph Mabry at Lookout Mountain
ca. 1850

Last summer, my sister and I finally visited Rock City. As kids on family vacations, we had seen “See Rock City” painted on barns in East Tennessee, but our family had never made the trek up Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga. Now in our 60s, we joined the legions of other travelers who have walked through the rock formation that became a top tourist attraction in the 1930s.

We also drove through Chattanooga on our way to Knoxville. The two cities are separated by a distance of about 115 miles along the Tennessee River. In the early Twentieth Century, businessmen in both Knoxville and Chattanooga were anxious to modernize their cities by building “skyscrapers.” So in 1907, Knoxville completed the Burwell Building which was the city’s first high-rise office building. A year later, Chattanooga opened the Hotel Patten, a multi-story Gothic Revival (also called Sullivanesque) structure that was said to offer some of the finest accommodations in the country.

Old photographs show an elegant two-story main dining room studded with columns and tables set far enough apart to allow for private conversations. The hotel also housed a billiard room, a manicure parlor and barbershop in the basement, a bowling alley, a men’s café, and 251 sleeping rooms of which 225 had private bathrooms.  When the hotel opened on April 1, 1908, rooms cost $1.50 per night.

Hotel Patten, ca. 1930

Hotel Patten fostered an enhanced sense of pride among the city’s residents. The Chattanooga Times heralded  the hotel’s opening as launching Chattanooga’s “transition of the big town to the modern city.” It also called the Patten “the most elegant public house in all of its appointments to be found in any city in the South.”

In the early 1920s, Evelyn Hazen, who was the last resident of the Mabry-Hazen House, visited Hotel Patten with her fiancé Ralph Scharringhaus.  She thought they would simply have dinner there, but Ralph had other ideas. As she waited in the car outside, he checked them in to the hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Yates, borrowing the name of a former Army buddy.

When Ralph returned to the car, he told Evelyn they should go inside to freshen up and then go back to the car and drive around Chattanooga until dinner time. She walked with him into the lobby and onto the elevator, assuming he was leading her to the ladies’ lounge. Instead he took her to a private room.

As Evelyn wrote later, “…[I]t was too late to do anything but go on, as the wife he had represented me to be would have done, or make a scene by refusing, which would have been the worst thing I could have done.” She added that Ralph took advantage of her in the room. Then she “proceeded to fix my hair, powder my nose, etc., and insisted on leaving the room and riding in town until dinner time.”

Ralph took quite a risk when he checked them into Hotel Patten and escorted Evelyn through the lobby. It was entirely possible that people from nearby Knoxville were staying there and could have seen them together. Being unchaperoned at a hotel could have raised eyebrows and given the rumor-mongers in Knoxville plenty to talk about. Years later, their relationship caused quite a scandal when Evelyn filed suit against Ralph for breach of promise to marry and seduction.

Evelyn and Ralph as well as several nationally-known people visited the Hotel Patten in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. Warren G. Harding held a reception there during his run for the presidency in 1920. President Howard Taft held a banquet at the Patten. Jimmy Hoffa, leader of the Teamsters Union, stayed at the Patten during his trial at the Chattanooga Federal Building in 1964, and evangelist Billy Graham was there in 1953 during his crusade at the Warner Field House. John F. Kennedy Jr., addressed the city’s Rotary Club at the Patten in 1953 just after he won election as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

To accommodate celebrities and their need for privacy, a tunnel was available allowing them to enter the building unseen by spectators. According to reports, the tunnel has been closed for several years. No doubt the tunnel was not made available to Mr. and Mrs. Yates, the young couple from Knoxville.

For Evelyn, the trip to Hotel Patten was one of several examples of how Ralph tricked her into untenable situations. During the trial, she testified that Ralph also carried a ring in his watch pocket and insisted she wear it as a wedding band when they were in guesthouses together, including some of the finest hotels in New York City. Although she said she did not want to continue having relations with Ralph, she acceded to his demands to avoid making “a fuss” in public and in the false hope that he would marry her eventually.

Like so many of America’s celebrated structures that have grown old and worn, Hotel Patten no longer caters to the rich and famous. It has been repurposed as a Section 8 housing project for the elderly and disabled. But Rock City continues as a curiosity on top of Lookout Mountain.