By Christine Kreyling
For years I’ve been waiting to exhale about the Hermitage Hotel. After a recent tour, I’m breathing more easily. Nashville’s first million-dollar hotel is flaunting the benefits of a $17 million renovation. The apparently interminable scaffolding is gone, and the welcome mat is out—in the form of a granite “carpet” inlaid by the front door.
A decade ago, the facades were shedding their glazed terra-cotta ornament after years of zero maintenance. A lack of caulking had allowed water to penetrate the steel anchoring system, which was all but dust. To keep pieces from bonking unwary pedestrians, the signature lion-head cornice was removed and replaced with plywood. The surrounding sidewalk was covered with scaffolding. Giant “hair nets” restrained loose segments.
The condition of the interior was not as obviously dire. But the rooms were smallish, the bathrooms not up to American super-plumbing standards. The whole place felt as tired as a John Jay Hooker campaign.
Nashville has witnessed far too many cases of demolition by neglect of its historic architecture. The phenomenon is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which deferred maintenance turns into “too expensive to fix,” followed by the conclusion that said structure is outdated. Preservationists had precedent for worrying about the Hermitage Hotel.
When the beige brick hotel opened in 1910, class in architecture meant quoting from the Classical. This was the architectural language of the Greeks and Romans, the Italians of the Renaissance, the Europe of the self-styled Enlightenment, the 19th century Ecole des Beaux Arts. It used a vocabulary of columns with scroll or acanthus leaf capitals, ornament with the heads of lions and bulls, urns and garlands. It was an aesthetic language as universal as any ever spoken in the West.
As a Beaux Arts version of the Italian Renaissance palazzo, the Hermitage Hotel stands for all that history. Designed by J. Edwin Carpenter, a Tennessee native who attended the Parisian Ecole, its facade and public interiors are a 3-D textbook of the style. Not that it was designed to be a textbook. It was designed to attract customers, which in the early 20th century meant suggesting that accommodations were princely enough for a modern-day Medici.
Today, an Old World prince would feel right at home at the “new” Hermitage. “We went for a private mansion feel, a residential rather than commercial style,” explains general manager Greg Sligh, describing the renovations. There may be no place like home, but the new Hermitage is a place like no home you’ve ever seen.
Starting with the iron and glass canopy over the entrance, which pipes classical music—and heat on wintry days—to the sidewalk, the patron is swathed in luxury. New bronze doors lead to the grand staircase, whose walls of tawny Sienna marble have a fresh patina.
The stained-glass ceiling hovering over the lobby also received a much needed cleaning. Flamboyantly ornate architectural moldings have been re-tinted and re-gilded. The lobby’s interior design, by the Dallas-based Deborah Forrest, meticulously complements the classicism of the architecture. Lighting fixtures are in forms Pericles would recognize, with alabaster chandeliers, Nike (winged victory) wall sconces and table lamps in the shape of Greek tripods. The custom Axminster carpet, imported from England, has the appropriate period feel. The potted palms are worthy of a turn-of-the-last-century parlor.
The Grand Ballroom—which once hosted banquets for Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson—is again ready for “Hail to the Chief.” The Circassian walnut paneling—”the same paneling type that was in the Titanic’s ballroom,” Sligh says—has been cleaned and polished by the local Republic conservation and restoration firm to reveal the intricate, mirrored grain. The art on the walls—Tennessee’s three presidents and traditional landscapes—will be familiar to anyone who’s ever kissed a bride or cheered a politician here.
On the Veranda, the arcaded loggia overlooking Sixth Avenue, the white tile walls have been cleaned, their antique cracklure preserved. Terra-cotta medallions sport the bright pigments of a Della Robbia. The painted ceiling, new and by Republic, features a sky in sunset motif—with a lone swallow suggesting the playful verisimilitude favored by Baroque masters of trompe l’oeil.
The entrance to the Capitol Grille has been expanded, with a baronial oak staircase by Sledgecraft to match the oak paneling in the room and the adjacent Oak Bar. The Grille itself has new banquettes and glowing alabaster lights. The gents will be pleased to know that the famous men’s room—with its emerald and black glass tiles—has been respectfully restored.
According to Ron Gobbell, the lead architect for the renovation, the private sections of the hotel—floors two through nine—were completely gutted to enable a luxe, five-star treatment. “In 1982, a lightweight renovation blew out the historic guest rooms in favor of an all-suite format: two small bedrooms and a small bath,” Gobbell says. “We blew it out again” to expand individual room size and facilitate the accoutrements of five-star bathrooms: two sinks, separate shower and tub, water closet in a room of its own—and marble everywhere.
Single guest rooms—which in 1910 went for $2 and up—feature ample sitting areas and retail for $225-$365. Suites occupy the Union Street side of the hotel, thus offering classical sightlines—to the War Memorial and the State Capitol—for prices starting at $650. The two-bedroom Presidential Suite—in which even the master bath has splendid views of the Capitol—is 2,000 square feet and priced accordingly, at $1,500 a night. The hallways, usually the bleakest part of a hotel, have been detailed with moldings and coffered ceilings with uplights for vertical lift, visually expanding the narrow space.
The Hermitage Hotel deserves star treatment, not just because Western architectural history is embedded in the walls, but because a lot of Nashville history happened within them. In August of 1920, the hotel served as headquarters—and lobbying territory—for supporters and opponents of women’s suffrage, then a hot topic in the State General Assembly. Tennessee’s vote to ratify the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, by the narrowest of margins—49 to 47—gave women all over the country the right to vote. The infamous Memphis politician, Boss Crump, also lodged his statewide machine in the hotel, his candidates emblazoning their banners across the north facade.
The hotel has on display photographs of some of the Hermitage’s most famous guests, but a venerable face is missing from the walls—that of the Hermitage lions. And the cornice that once held them is still plywood. Workers have cleaned and caulked the exterior, and reaffixed loose ornament, but the terra-cotta that was removed has never been restored.
In 1995, Historic Nashville Inc. (HNI) received a preservation easement for the hotel—which means the organization can legally enforce the preservation of the exterior—in return for a tax break for the owners. Part of the agreement, according to HNI director Susan Richardson, was that whoever owned the hotel would return the facade to its original appearance. “The owners have a complete run of the missing design elements—lions, rosettes and cove moldings—enough to make fibercasts,” Richardson says. Some of the originals were damaged with their removal from the facade and others were later sold by HNI as a fundraiser, making a full restoration impossible. “But they have to put the fibercasts back up, in a timely manner,” she explains.
Now that the Hermitage Hotel is back, it’s time to bring back the lions as well.
Now that the Hermitage Hotel is back, it’s time to bring back the lions as well.
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