History Book: Castle in the Clouds

 

Photos courtesy of Covenant College

Photos courtesy of Covenant College

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Built to impress the leisured set, the Lookout Mountain Hotel reflects changes in 20th century America and the roots of tourism in Southern Appalachia.

by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN
 

I suspect all children are fascinated by castles. Truth to tell, many adults find them irresistible as well. As we travel Europe, we dutifully march ourselves from the romantic castles of Bavaria (which inspired the Walt Disney logo) to the hills of Scotland with their windy, stone castle ruins atop almost every hill. Closer to home, on Lookout Mountain in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, we also can see “castles” built on the brow as private residences and the old Lookout Mountain Hotel – billed in its heyday as the “Castle in the Clouds.”[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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This mysterious structure visible from Interstate 24 intrigued me as a little girl visiting Chattanooga, Tenn., with my parents and as an adult returning to my native South and taking my own family and friends along the same route. Before passing exits to Chattanooga destinations Rock City, Ruby Falls or the Incline, those heading north into the city see the castle up on the mountain and are struck with wonder. Although this castle is more modern in age and intent than those in Europe, it shares with its counterparts the same sense of grandeur and tragedy.

In the years that Lookout Mountain was being developed as a tourist destination, many attempts were made to build premier hotels along the brow. Among those built in the 1880s were the Mentone Springs Hotel in Mentone, Ala., and the Point Hotel near Chattanooga. In 1886 the first incline was built to provide easy access to the Point Hotel, and in 1895 a second incline was added that carries visitors up and down the mountain to this day. Still, transportation up the mountain continued to be a challenge for the emerging tourist industry, and by the end of World War I, the Point Hotel and others built on a similar grand scale were gone; either their owners had abandoned them as unprofitable or they had burned.

After the First Great War and with the increasing popularity of the automobile, the development of a north-south route (U.S. Highway 41) and the heady prosperity of the 1920s, travelers once again came to Lookout Mountain, and with them came a renewed dream of building a grand hotel there. A group of Southern  investors, primarily from Chattanooga, but also including men from New Orleans and Atlanta, were guided by the vision of Paul Carter, whose brother Garnett was the driving force behind the site that later became known as Rock City. They spent nearly $1.5 million dollars building the grand castle, which boasted a novel feature for the time – a Tom Thumb miniature golf course.

Thousands of acres of Georgia mountaintop property were added for developing tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, hiking amenities and stables and bridle trails for horseback riding. A large boulevard up the mountain was built to assist the 2 million tourists projected to visit. Management of the hotel was leased to the Dinkler Hotel Company of Atlanta.

The new hotel, 412 feet in length, was designed by Chattanooga architect R.H. Hunt. It was a model of English country elegance designed in such a way that each of the 200 guest rooms had a spectacular view of the valley and the receding mountains of the Appalachian chain to the west. In addition to the tastefully appointed rooms, the hotel had a central observatory atop the fifth floor that flashed a light beacon that could be seen up to 150 miles away.

The grand ballroom, dining room and large reception areas featured the late Victorian excesses of red velvet carpeting, dark floors and woodwork, elaborate gilt candelabra, rosewood-carved and overstuffed love seats and “fainting couches,” a feature no self-respecting woman of the time could do without should she collapse during those suffocating, hot days of summer (and/or fits of unseemly emotion).

The dramatic situation of the hotel and the theatrical interior made the grand opening a brilliant success. On June 23, 1928, John Loti, vice president of Dinkler Hotel Company, personally directed the glittering assembly of elite society who dined upon South American squabs that had been flown into Tampa and shipped to Chattanooga by refrigerated rail cars. The opening crowd danced to the music of “Sleepy” Hall’s popular dance orchestra and were serenaded by Miss Geneva Butler, star of Schubert productions on Broadway in New York.

The Chattanooga Times reported: “As notable men and women, recognized as leaders in their chosen  spheres of action, appeared, they were pointed out by those who recognized them, and occasionally a ripple of applause would sweep through the thronged lobby as some prominent Southerner who had contributed to the completion of this mammoth hostelry above the clouds was sighted.” It was a grand night, and arguably the last grand night in the hotel’s history.

In just over a year from that fabulous night, Americans awoke to the nightmare of the stock-market crash in  October, 1929, followed by the Great Depression. The hotel and tourism industry – and any business  dependent upon discretionary spending – were hit early on and hard. Dinkler had surrendered its lease before the crash, and American Hotels Corporation had taken it up, but by 1929 the hotel was bankrupt. In April, 1930, Paul Carter and his investors once again resumed control of the property, planning to run it as a private club. This never succeeded, and in 1931 the hotel was tied up in litigation, with three groups disputing its  ownership.

In November of that year, The Chattanooga Times featured sad photographs of disrepair and deterioration resulting from neglect of the structure. By 1933 the hotel was the object of satire, as the fictional Professor Ronald Q. Buncum risked life and limb to explore the hotel and determined that its demise was the result of a horseshoe having been hung upside down over a playhouse on the grounds.

For the next 30 years, the hotel gained a reputation as a white elephant incapable of turning a profit. Twice, in the late 1930s and 1940s, it enjoyed a brief return to prominence and profit under the management of Sam Littlegreen. Littlegreen’s deteriorating health and untimely death in 1954 meant the hotel was once again in foreclosure.

It was purchased on the Dade County courthouse steps by the American National Insurance Company, run by the colorful Moody family of Galveston, Texas, but within two years it had been sold again to a Florida company, officially named “Castle in the Clouds” and reopened on June 28, 1957, with a large charity event. The return to profit was, alas, short lived.

In the early 1960s, out-of-state investors proposed the hotel as a residence for the elderly, but in 1963 Covenant College of St. Louis, facing destruction of its campus by highway development, bought the hotel
and moved to the mountaintop. Enthusiastic students helped raise money toward the purchase price. Today the old Lookout Mountain Hotel is known as Carter Hall, in honor of the early visionary, Paul Carter. It bustles with the life and laughter of young men and women who live and study within its still elegant walls.

The Lookout Mountain Hotel and its tumultuous history reflect many aspects of American social and economic life in the 20th century. It was the child of optimism and prosperity of the early century and perhaps a victim of the technology of the mid-century. With the advent of the automobile, Americans had so many choices for holidays that competition for their highway dollars tended to fall into less imposing, more convenient “motels” along the expanding interstate highway system. Air conditioning made the search for relief on cool  mountaintops less necessary.

Hotels like the Lookout Mountain Hotel, favored by the leisured set who took “the season” at fashionable watering holes, were replaced by the bustle of harried families eager to cover as much ground as possible in their cars on a two-week vacation.

As tourism again blossoms on Lookout Mountain, the “Castle in the Clouds” serves as a reminder of the industry’s roots in the region and of our nation’s history.

This article was originally published in the Lookout View and is reprinted with permission.

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