As a child, Patten was fascinated with the pipe organ at his family’s church, and ended up being the apprentice of the repairman. But after a stint in the Navy during World War II, Patten instead became an x-ray machine installer at hospitals. When he left that job in 1963, he moved to Atlanta, Ga., because he knew the 7,000-seat Fox Theatre there had a magnificent pipe organ. By then it had fallen into disrepair, and he set about restoring it, donating his time to get the job done. The Fox itself was magnificent. Completed in 1929, it was “a quarter-million-square-foot profusion of domes, turrets, minarets, Moorish archways, Oriental carpets, lush draperies, Egyptian bas-relief, trompe l’oeil paintings, fountains, elaborate lighting fixtures, stained glass, gold leaf, tile and gracious banisters,” says the New York Times.
By 1974, Patten was the Fox’s technical director, working 80-hour weeks to keep it going, yet the Fox was slated for destruction to clear space for a phone company building. Patten set up a non-profit and successfully rescued the building, and raised money to restore it, too; it was named a national historic landmark in 1976. In return for his efforts, the Fox’s board granted him free lifetime residence inside the building: Patten spent $100,000 of his own money to restore a 3,640 sq ft storage space into an apartment, allowing him to roam the building whenever he wanted. He lived there for more than 35 years, becoming known as “The Phantom of the Fox” because he knew every nook, cranny, and pathway in the sprawling building. That came in handy when a fire broke out in 1996, and Patten was able to direct firefighters to the right place to attack the blaze, saving the Fox again. Yet in 2010 the board reneged on its promise and tried to evict him, claiming staff would have to spend time looking after him as he aged, which would be “unfair.” Atlantans fought the effort off by picketing the Fox, and Patten lived there the rest of his life. Indeed, Patten hoped to die in the building, but he was hospitalized after a stroke and died there, instead, on April 7. He was 89.