Chattanooga History
The Richardson Building

A 128 year-old photo

The photo below is from a recently identified glass plate negative featuring downtown Chattanooga as viewed from Cameron Hill. In the foreground, the ground appears to be freshly upturned for development. Blurring on the outer edges hints it was taken with an amateur camera with a lower-quality lens.

We know the photo was taken before April 3rd, 1897, the day a notable downtown edifice would burn to the ground – taking the lives of prominent businessmen with it.

The 6-story Richardson Building was erected in 1888 by John P. Richardson. It was reported to be the largest and most costly in the city, boasting 240 offices.

The Miller Brothers Building was built on the same site in 1898 and remains today.


3am, April 3rd, 1897

Ed Richardson, owner of the building (cousin of John P. Richardson), businessman Boyd Ewing, and the building’s architect, Samuel Patton, were sleeping on the fifth floor when a fire began eating its way up the stairways and elevator shafts.

The night watchman alerted residents.

At just 39 years-old Patton was one of the most successful young Chattanoogans during the booming 1890s. Patton delayed his escape – some believe he returned to his office to retrieve the design for what was to be his masterpiece, the Mississippi State House. No trace of his body was found in the ruins of the building.

Samuel Patton
S. M. Patton

Ironically, Patton had designed the Richardson building with no stairs on the side corridors and only one exit down the front stairway and door of the building.

Richardson and Ewing made their way to the 5th floor windows in hopes that they would be rescued.

Fireman Tom J. Warren stood on top of a ladder by the burning building, but he was still several feet short of the window. Overcome by smoke, Boyd Ewing feel to his death. Ed Richardson was able to wait until the ladder was closer - and dropped from the window ledge into the outstretched arms of Warren, who held on to him and brought him down to safety.

Ed Richardson
Ed Richardson
Boyd Ewing
Boyd Ewing

The Chattanooga city officials held a ceremony in the new auditorium on East Ninth Street to present fireman Tom Warren with a gold medal. It was inscribed: "He risked his life to save another." Ed Richardson presented a gold watch to the fireman who had saved his life. Imprinted on the watch were the words: "A slight token of appreciation for heroic assistance rendered April 3rd, 1897, E.E.R."

Front row, left to right: T. J. Warren , W. H. Hackett, W. M. Toomey, T. S. Wilcox, Sr., J. H. Gillespie, A. M. Hicks and Dave Davies. Back row: A. M. Moore, A. J. Hicks and John Kean.
SOURCE: Chattanooga Yesterday & Today, Vol. 1, Hiener.

Lost Law Library

'The Richardson Building was a nest of homes of a majority of the members of the Chattanooga Bar and in its destruction were washed many thousands of volumes of valuable law books.' The lawyers occupying this building had evolved a neighborly and convenient custom of mutual sharing of libraries with resulting substantial individual savings. But with the total destruction of the building, few lawyers could afford to duplicate their lost libraries.

Moore, Gay. "Talented architect’s life cut short by tragedy" Chattanooga Times Free-Press, March 18, 2018

John Wilson, Chattanooga's Story.

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