Hidden in Plain Sight: Chattanooga's History is Everywhere - Martin Hotel Edition

In 1906, attorney Richard Kimball came to own the lot where the lawn of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center stands today. Kimball entrusted Robert Martin, an African American former porter of the local railroads, to build on the site.  Martin was no stranger to hospitality, as the role of a porter often included assisting passengers with their luggage, ensuring their comfort and safety, and providing customer service during long train rides, in addition to the operation of passenger trains. Martin worked on developing the site and by 1924, he was ready to unveil his establishment. It was a brick, warehouse-style building that faced outward to MLK Boulevard.  

 For six decades, the Martin Hotel bloomed as a gathering place for African American residents and travelers in Chattanooga. Its magnetic charm effortlessly drew in luminaries, while the chic environment and impeccable service impressed its guests. The Martin Hotel showcased fifty rooms warmed by the gentle breath of steam, and its restaurant was a haven for both patrons and passersby, serving them three lavish, full-course meals each day. 

In 1930, Mayme Martin, Robert's niece and a former South Carolina schoolteacher, arrived in Chattanooga to help with her uncle's business. Americans raised a glass in 1933 as prohibition ended. That same year, the Martin Hotel became Chattanooga's first hotel to receive a liquor license. Three years later, Robert passed away and Mayme took over operations of the Hotel. 

Mayme Martin was a tough and well-respected hotelier. She guarded the privacy of her celebrity guests and kept the standards of the Hotel very high.  In a previous publication by Gay Moore titled 'Chattanooga History Column: Mayme Martin -- Businesswoman and Community Leader,' Dr. Martin reminisces about her time working Saturdays at the hotel with her aunt Mayme as a girl. She fondly recalls her aunt's meticulous attention to detail, ensuring the hotel's image was impeccable by insisting on 'starched white linens on the tables' for special occasions and maintaining polished floors. 

Mayme Martin with Guests at the Martin Hotel restaurant

The Martin Hotel was in its prime in the 1930s and 40s. In the dark din of World War II, many African American soldiers would pass through Chattanooga on their way to deployment. The Martin Hotel basked in the allure of soldiers bound for the distant echoes of Europe. Amidst the wartime hustle and the rhythmic hum of anticipation, the hotel's corridors whispered tales of transient dreams and unspoken aspirations.  

Under Mayme’s guidance, the Martin Hotel grew in notoriety and was a stopping point for significant African American figures on their visits to Chattanooga. This destination drew a procession of stars including Willie Mays, Cab Calloway, The Platters, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, Satchel Paige, the "original" Harlem Globetrotters, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

The Martin Hotel continued to shine with Mayme at its helm until it closed its doors in 1985. The landscape of the city had changed, The Big Nine (MLK Blvd) was transformed into a one-way boulevard, and the city was less than friendly towards African American business. Additionally, Mayme was worn out. She is quoted in a Chattanooga Times interview from that year, saying “I've been here for so long. I'm just about tired of it. It's hard work " (Gay Moore, Chattanooga Times Free Press, 11/1/1985). The building was demolished within a year, despite conservation efforts by the Chattanooga Times. 

Mayme relocated to a spot several blocks away on Martin Luther King Boulevard, where she operated a rooming house for some of her previous hotel tenants. Tragically, just one year later, she perished in a fire that broke out in her ground-floor apartment. Mayme was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, alongside many others who greatly impacted the community of Chattanooga.  

A historical marker from the Tennessee Historical Commission stands at the edge of the lawn of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, denoting this historic site.

Hidden in Plain Sight

History Blog Series

Chattanooga's history is everywhere! Welcome to a blog series delving into the intriguing historical gems scattered around Chattanooga. Explore the stories that make up this city’s rich past and form its culture of today.