Maclellan Building, full of history, may soon get tenants

Authored By david.morton

Nestled between the Tivoli Theatre and the James Building is a 12-story tower that has sat vacant for 10 years.

For more than 40 years, 721 Broad St. was the headquarters of the Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co.

Now, Memphis-based developers plan to spend $13 million renovating the building into 90 apartments, ranging from small studios to penthouses, along with commercial space on the lower floor.

“It’s a very attractive building with great architecture by a great architect. It has a neat backstory,” said Maury Nicely, attorney and author of “Chattanooga Walking Tour and Historic Guide.”

Provident was the first Chattanooga company to sell insurance policies to uninsured miners, mill and iron workers, and other laborers during the late 19th century.

Construction for the Maclellan Building, named for the prominent Chattanooga family who ran the insurance company, was completed in 1924 with the addition of the nine-story tower jutting out of the base-a symbol of the company’s rapid growth, its history and its future. The company is thought to have been previously located for decades in the building’s lower base stretching 120 feet along Broad Street.

Executives thought their charming yet tiny offices clashed with Provident’s aspirations to be the “largest health and accident insurance company in the South,” according to John Longwith’s 100-year history of the company.

Provident could no longer give the appearance of operating out of a dollhouse, the executives concluded. They felt, as J.O. Carter explained, that “if a man from Tuscaloosa came up to be an agent and saw this little hole-in-the-wall office, why, he’d think there wasn’t much to the company.”

President Robert Maclellan announced plans to build the headquarters during an annual shareholder meeting in 1922.

Reuben Harrison Hunt, the master builder of Chattanooga, was asked to design the company’s new headquarters.

The architect clashed regularly with the habitually thrifty executives, who wanted a “functional but plain” design. Their ideas were considered “blank and [as] characterless as a grain elevator.”

Hunt instead proposed an architectural tour de force with strong lines and “eye-catching design expressing the spirit of a vigorous company moving confidently ahead,” Longwith wrote. The architect prevailed in the internal dispute with a “magnificent and costly design.”

Provident outgrew its downtown headquarters and moved to Fountain Square in 1960. The company sold the building in 1981. It merged with Unum in 1999.

The Maclellan Building, except for a bank on the first floor, now sits empty. During a recent visit, the elevators were turned off. An office directory hanging on the wall was blank. A pedestrian used the lobby as a shortcut between Broad and Chestnut streets.

It has changed hands several times since the 1980s, Hamilton County property records show. Jim Berry, the late CEO of Republic Parking, purchased it in 1993. Henry Luken sold the property for $3.85 million in 2009. InterContinental Hotels Group hoped to turn it into an upscale Hotel Indigo before the economic downturn.

The project’s proposed payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement is one of two going before the Health, Educational and Housing Facility Board Wednesday.

The incentive agreement would save the developers an estimated $94,000 annually in city and county property taxes. They would pay an additional $54,000 a year to the school system and continue paying $46,000 to local governments.

Developer Will Yandell of Heritage Land and Development Co. did not respond to requests for an interview.

Recent housing PILOTs have faced a rocky path through the Hamilton County Courthouse. Some commissioners have begun voting against the projects in response to grassroots opposition. The tax incentive agreements saved housing developments $372,000 in property taxes in 2014. The companies paid $57,474 to local governments.

“The PILOT piece is critical for this one,” said River City Co. President Kim White while discussing the Maclellan Building’s long vacancy. “This is one we need to have happen.”

White said there are a number of challenges with the site. It’s a historic renovation, but Tennessee is one of a handful of states that does not offer historic tax credits. Parking is limited to a small lot on Chestnut Street.

The building is perfectly laid out for apartments, she said. It has windows on all sides, vintage molding and lots of “great character.”

“If it’s renovated correctly, it can be an awesome building,” she said.

Updated @ 1:15 p.m. on 4/22/15 to correct a factual error: The article originally misspelled the name of developer Will Yandell.