The Read House Hotel in Chattanooga is the oldest continually operated hotel in the South with a storied history nearly as long as its host city.
The budding river town of Chattanooga was only 33 years old in 1872 when a couple from McMinnville, Tennessee - John and Caroline Read - first opened their hotel along what is now M.L. King Boulevard in downtown Chattanooga after the Civil War ended. The couple ran the initial 45-room hotel across from the Union Square rail terminal for seven years before turning the business over to their then 19-year-old son Sam, who helped expand and transform the inn into one of the region's premier lodging facilities a century ago.
The Silver Ballroom has been the site of hundreds of weddings, dances and special occasions, while the Green Room is famous for its frog legs, peppermint ice cream and special dinners. Through its history, the Read House has housed such guests as Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey, and several politicians who went on to become president of the United States.
But legend has it that at least one of its guests never left the hotel. In the 1920s, Annalissa Neverly was reportedly murdered in the tub by her husband after he found her with a gentleman suitor in room 311. Those who who have since stayed in the room, which is now rented only around Halloween, report they've seen the ghost of Neverly in the mirror or witnessed other strange occurrences.
Read House hotel celebrates 150 years
The history and stories about the Read House are what attracted its current owners to buy and restore the hotel in 2016.
Jon Weitz, a Charleston, South Carolina attorney, developer and hotel manager who founded Avocet Hospitality in 2006, said the Read House "had fallen down on its luck and was in disrepair" when Avocet acquired the Read House after previously announced redevelopments of the 6-story hotel fell short.
"This is not just another hotel," Weitz said in a telephone interview from his Charleston office. "It has a famous history and there is no other place like it. We also knew it is well situated in a growing and dynamic city."
Under a series of owners, the hotel had operated under the Sheraton and Radisson brands "and lost its way as the grand dame of the city." Weitz said.
"We saw an opportunity to marry up a historic hotel with great bones in a city that was developing a phenomenal personality," Weitz said.
After spending the first year assessing the property, Avocent launched a $28 million renovation effort in late 2017 to restore the hotel its its 1920s grandeur when the original hotel hotel was expanded.
To help celebrate the 150th anniversary this year of the Read House, the hotel will have a series of “Throughout the Decades” dinners. Each of the four dinners this year will begin with a cocktail reception followed by a four-course, era-inspired dinner menu with wine pairings. The first dinner will take place on Saturday, March 26 and pay homage to the 1970s culinary scene. Tickets will be priced at $150 per person, per event. More information will be available on the Read House website at thereadhousehotel.com.
"It was a rebirth, not just a renovation," Weitz said.
The hotel's refurbishing included a 10th floor penthouse, a room that can serve as luxury space or a hospitality suite, and the addition of an upscale steakhouse called Bridgeman's Chophouse, named after Peter Bridgeman, who was a well-known employee of The Read House for 47 years and called "Peter Rabbit," according to Read House General Manager Jim Bambrey.
Bambrey, who has worked at the hotel since Avocet since 2016, said Avocet has "restored the luster" of the entire 241-room hotel.
"People love to stay here because it is a truly unique property and we do our best to help our guests experience something special while they are here," Bambrey said during a recent tour of the Read House.
According to its website, the Read House has two distinct areas: the more elegant "tower" rooms, which were gutted and built from scratch during the recent renovation, and the "manor" rooms, which received a refreshed look four years ago.
The hotel still features some of its menu items of the past century and the facility displays pictures of its founders along with historic telephone booths, paintings and decor of a the roaring 1920s.
Room 311 that some claim is still haunted has been restored with the same furnishings and look as when to look as it did when Neverly occupied it a century ago. Although the famous room is rented only in late October for overnight stays, it is a frequent tour site for those visiting the Read House.
Tyler Logue, a board member for the Chattanooga Area Historical Association, is the historian of The Read House who has reviewed its records, letters and other accounts by visitors through the years.
Oldest businesses in Chattanooga
1. T.H. Payne Company – 18652. Miller & Martin law firm – 18673. Chattanooga Times Free Press – 18694. Chattanooga Gas Company – 18695. Fischer-Evans Jewelers – 18696. Read House Hotel – 18727. Steward, Inc. – 18768. Chattem, Inc. – 18799. Franklin-Strickland Funeral Home – 188110. Leitner, Warner, Moffitt law firm – 1882Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press archives
"This hotel is like a hidden vault full of priceless treasures to uncover, and I've spent countless hours pouring over photographs, newspapers, and other hotel ephemera," Logue said in an interview."In my role, I've read about the hotel's deep connection to the history of Chattanooga and asked myself if Samuel Read would be happy with today's hotel. He always looked toward the future and how to make The Read House a place where guests truly feel at home. Knowing that, I think he would be extremely proud of where we are today."
Weitz said Avocet specializes in hotels with historic and distinctive appeal, buying the Tides Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007 and a boutique art hotel in Charleston known as The Vendue, in 2012.
""What attracted us to the Read House, like our other hotels, is it had a history and a story that we recognized we could use in developing the brand," Weitz said.
The current owners are intent on keeping the Read House under its own flag and are using the 150th anniversary of the Read House this year to help highlight the hotel's history.
"Sometime later this year they will be doing a time capsule and we will be asking the community to offer up anything that they might have that's historical for the Read House so the community can be a part of it as much as we are," Brambrey said.
Through the year, the hotel also will offer special menus from each decade, a party in the summer for local dignatories and a history display in collaboration with the J.W. Kelly Bourbon Brand, who was the original owner of the in house bar of the hotel. The first of four "Dinners through the Decades" is scheduled for March 26 to feature 1970s cuisine.
"So many people from around the country and the world have experienced the hotel over the years, and we look forward to it being around for another 150 years," Bambrey said.
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.