“Meet me at The Hermitage Hotel” may have been one of Nashville’s most popular phrases during the 20th century. When spoken or heard today, those words evoke a timeless sense of quality, excitement, a touch of glamor and class, and the assurance of a memorable experience amongst friends. The Hermitage Hotel’s status as a cherished landmark has been earned by its dedicated employees, and its history has been created by thousands of events and millions of guests served over more than a century.
The distinctive architecture of the hotel, Beaux-Arts style, offers an old world blend of classical Italian and French Renaissance features. The spacious lobby, the grand staircase, ballroom, mezzanine, Veranda, the downstairs Grill Room, and all the public areas are a masterful work credited to Tennessee native James Carpenter, who completed his formal education in Paris. JER Carpenter went on to be one of New York’s premier designers of luxury high-rise apartment buildings. More than forty of his buildings remain today as sought-after residences along Park and Fifth Avenues.
Construction began on The Hermitage Hotel in 1908. Local Nashvillians, led by the Board of Trade, proudly led a civic campaign to raise $300,000 in financing through the sale of stock. Downtown residents watched in awe as Nashville’s third skyscraper rose to a height of ten stories while the downtown antebellum neighborhood was in the process of transforming from residential to commercial properties. No effort was spared to develop what became known as Nashville’s first million-dollar hotel. Guestrooms were paneled in mahogany, and offered running ice water, a telephone in every room, and a private bath. Tennessee marble adorned the lobby floors while Italian marble graced the soaring columns. A magnificent painted glass skylight, as seen today, was a crown jewel of the lobby. The main dining room featured Circassian walnut cabinetwork and ornate chandeliers still in use today. The ornamental plasterwork was said to be the largest contract of its type south of the Ohio River, and the terra cotta tiles, interior and exterior, provided a refined display of classical craftsmanship. An assembly hall graced the top floor of the hotel, and the eighth floor was dedicated to sample rooms for traveling salesmen to exhibit their goods. At street front were a series of shops.
In the basement, a German-styled rathskeller served as the Grill Room with a vaulted ceiling on massive columns. The adjacent taproom is known today as the Oak Bar. A mens' barber shop provided convenient service, and behind the men’s room, a small exercise room existed with optional showers for guests. At lobby level sat a grand ladies entrance on the Union street side, with marble-clad hallways leading to the Loggia (Veranda today), main dining room (grand ballroom today), or upstairs to reading and writing parlors on the mezzanine level overlooking the lobby. A newsstand and cigar store offered its specialties to gentlemen in the main lobby.
On grand opening night, September 17, 1910, The Hermitage Hotel filled with the luminaries of the Nashville community, who dined while enjoying music from an orchestra brought in from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The culinary tradition of excellence begun that day has remained vibrant and alive throughout the years. Fine cuisine and service has flourished as a hallmark of the hotel. As one former manager put it, “There was an air there, something not so much seen as felt. Nothing was ever handed to a guest in the hotel unless it was on a silver tray.”
The Hermitage Hotel quickly established itself as a favorite for politicians. Over the decades, campaign headquarters were regularly established in the hotel. Governors lived here before taking office. Legislators, lobbyists, and news reporters congregated in the lobby. Many political discussions were held and many deals were made in the restaurant ... or sometimes in a smoke-filled suite. The women’s suffrage movement reached is successful conclusion in 1920 when The Hermitage Hotel was the national headquarters for both pro and anti-suffrage causes, while the state legislators cast their votes that brought about the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Its passage was celebrated with as much intensity as the fight to achieve it and mourned with all the drama and sensationalism used to fight it. At The Hermitage Hotel, emotions ran the gamut. In March 1995, a celebration marking the 75th anniversary of women's suffrage was held at the hotel.
Presidential visits brought fame and excitement to The Hermitage Hotel starting in 1911 when President Taft spoke at a banquet held in his honor in the hotel ballroom. In subsequent years, Woodrow Wilson, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Bush each made visits. Military heroes have been honored at The Hermitage Hotel, Sergeant Alvin York being an outstanding example. Charlie Chaplin visited. History's greatest characters- including sports legend Babe Ruth and even bank robber John Dillinger- have stayed overnight at The Hermitage Hotel.
Musical legends were also born at The Hermitage Hotel, in whose meeting rooms the formation of the Country Music Association was officiated, evolving from the annual DJ conventions of the 1950s. The Hermitage Hotel hosted the greats, from Hank Williams to Owen Bradley to Patsy Cline to Johnny Cash. Years before, the leader of the hotel orchestra, Francis Craig, composed and played a song named “Near You” in the Grill Room. It became America’s top selling record in 1947 and made Mr. Craig a celebrity. Seeing that independent artists were being signed in Nashville, the major record labels determined they needed a Nashville office as well, thus helping to cast the die in the formation of an early Music City. The Francis Craig orchestra performed in the hotel dining room regularly from 1925 until 1947, and was also broadcast on WSM radio.
The affectionately used term “grand dame” fits The Hermitage Hotel well when considering its success as a preservationists’ victory. After a gradual fall from grace during the 1960s and 70s the hotel was closed, sold and reopened. She was welcomed back with joy by Nashvillians as a Park Suite Hotel, with her refined and comfortable elegance restored. The era of the '80s ushered in country music celebrities and pool playing legend Minnesota Fats, who lived in the hotel for more than six years.
Through the 90s the hotel maintained its popularity while downtown Nashville was steadily building its greatness. Three ownership changes occurred in this decade. In the year 2000, Historic Hotel of Nashville acquired the hotel, which by then was operating under the Westin Hotels flag. A new era has been ushered in with The Hermitage Hotel once again being independently operated, and restored to a level of grandeur that graced its inception. The hotel was completed renovated in 2002-2003 and stands, greeting the public with a heritage of warm hospitality experienced from the first moment of stepping through the front doors. The Hermitage Hotel has come full circle, beloved by Nashvillians, offering the finest to our guests. Today we make new memories, as the pages turn open to new chapters yet evolving in our second hundred years.