Country Music’s Capital Shows Penchant for Classical
By Karen Rubin
On the trail to discover how Nashville earned the moniker “Music City,” I found the Frist Museum of Visual Arts, displaying a fascinating exhibit of the Cone sisters of Baltimore’s collection of Impressionist art; the Hermitage Hotel, from where the suffragists and the anti-suffragists lobbied the Tennessee Legislators in the State Capital, a stone’s throw away, and a full-sized replica of the Parthenon, constructed in its Centennial Park, in 1897, when Nashville was back on track to economic boom, as a symbol of classical learning.
In fact, Nashville may be known for cowboy boots and the Nashville Sound, but it has quite a penchant for the classical. When deciding on architecture for its new Schermerhorn Symphony Center (named for a beloved conductor), Nashvillians chose Greek revival style and though the $120 million building opened only last September, you would think it had been standing for 100 years.
That says a lot about Nashville, where tall, modernistic skyscrapers are rising up at breakneck pace, reflecting its growing importance as a hub for finance, medical care and as the state’s capital city. Even Printers’ Alley, the original site of Nashville’s printing industry, barely holds on to its bad-boy image of Prohibition-era speakeasies, with new professional suites opening.
The most identifiable structure in Nashville now is the Bell South building – a double spire that looks like it could have had a part in a Batman movie, towering over the honky tonks below that line Broadway.
Architecture, as Ada Huxtable says in a 1973 New York Times article decrying the plan to raze Ryman Auditorium, like rings in a tree, is a record of the cultural climate of the time. “Scratch almost every major happening or trend and there’s architecture behind it,” she writes.
In Nashville, architecture tells of ups and downs, business booms and busts, of glory and defeat and glory again. It tells a lot about what Nashvillians thought about themselves.
I realize this very shortly after I arrive at The Hermitage Hotel, which has reined for nearly 100 years as “Nashville’s Hotel.”
It was Nashville’s first $1 million hotel when it grandly opened in 1910, but it wasn’t built by an oil baron, railroad mogul or industrialist. It was commissioned by 250 Nashvillians in 1908, and named after Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate, located just outside the city.
At the time, Nashville wasn’t yet Music City or the Country Music Capital of the World. It was a city the Bible built – its biggest industry was printing religious materials and music.
The Hermitage Hotel was designed by John Edwin Ruethven Carpenter, a Tennessean who studied at the Les Ecole de Beaux Arts de Paris, and incorporated his knowledge of industrial structures and the beauty of Beaux Arts classicism.
When The Hermitage Hotel opened in 1910, it became a symbol of Nashville’s emergence as a major Southern city. It was the social center for Nashville, and over the years, hosted six presidents, war heroes, Hollywood actors like Greta Garbo, country music stars like Gene Autry, gangster Al Capone and characters like the famous pool-player Minnesota Fats (who lived at the hotel for eight years and had his own pool table on the Mezzanine above the lobby).
The Hermitage Hotel also was the focal point for powerful businessmen and legislators, especially since the State’s Capitol building is a stone’s throw from the hotel.
Staying here is more than just staying in a historic – albeit luxurious – hotel. You cross the threshold into a century’s worth of Nashville life. You feel a connection to the important events, decisions, encounters.
You can only imagine what it was like in 1914, when The Hermitage Hotel hosted the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s national convention. By 1915, news reports predicted that Tennessee’s powerful suffragists might win the vote for all American women.
In 1920, the hotel was the headquarters for both the Suffragists wearing yellow roses and the anti-Suffrage forces wearing red roses. The anti-Suffrage movement used the hotel as a platform for decrying the loss of womanhood and motherhood, certain results if suffrage passed, they believed.
After weeks of intense lobbying by national leaders, on August 18, 1920 at the State Capital Building, Tennessee passed the measure by a single vote, becoming the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and thereby giving all American women the right to vote.
I first come upon this story because of a marker around the corner from the entrance to the hotel. I go back inside and take a closer look at a black-and-white photograph on the wall that shows women with banners, standing outside the Anti-Ratification Headquarters.
I make my way along the plaza in front of the War Memorial, another exquisite example of classical architecture, up to the State Capital building, atop a hill.
The Tennessee State Capital building, constructed 1845-77, was designed by architect and engineer William Strickland (who also did Independence Hall tower). Slaves and convicts quarried and transported the limestone. It is a National Historic Civil Engineering landmark – one of the first built in US with structural iron roof trusses. The capital grounds set standard for park development in region. President James K. Polk, one of three presidents to be natives of Tennessee, and his wife are buried here.
By the time the Capital building was built, Nashville already had a long history, starting with ancient mound-builders and wandering Shawnee of Algonquin stock who occupied modern Nashville’s Cumberland river bluffs. Europeans first settled the area in 1779 as Fort Nashborough. The famous frontiersman Daniel Boone had a hand in it, and his Wilderness Road brought pioneers over the Appalachians from Virginia, the Carolinas and the northeast. Nashville developed rapidly as a trade and manufacturing center, was chartered in 1806 and became the state capital in 1843.
The city found itself at a strategic point during the Civil War – on the Cumberland River, linking to the Mississippi navigation system, and at the crossroads of important rail lines. With federal troops advancing upriver, the state legislature relocated to Memphis, and Nashville surrendered. Tennessean Andrew Jackson, then a US Senator and eventual President, was appointed military governor; he installed Union loyalists to occupy the city and impose martial law. As a result, Nashville emerged from the Civil War intact.
Atop the hill, overlooking the city, I find the words of Edward Ward Carmack, former Congressman from Tennessee, excerpted from a speech he delivered in the United States House of Representatives and cast in bronze on the base of his statue: “The South is a land that has known sorrows; it is a land that has broken the ashen crust and moistened it with tears; a land scarred and riven by the plowshare of war and billowed with the graves of her dead; but a land of legend, a land of song, a land of hallowed and heroic memories.”
By the time of the Centennial Exposition, in 1897, Nashville’s economy had rebounded. As a reflection, the city built The Parthenon, the world’s only full-sized reproduction of the Greek Parthenon. Located in Centennial Park, it houses Athena, 42 feet high, the tallest indoor structure in the Western world, and the city’s art museum, including a rotating gallery featuring the museum’s collection of American art (closed Monday; fee, www.nashville.gov/parthenon).
During this time, the city built some other imposing buildings, like the Custom House and the awesome Union Station, now a Wyndham historic hotel and a member of Historic Hotels of America.
The city took on a new persona in 1925, with the launch of a live broadcast Barn Dance – later sarcastically nicknamed the “Grand Ole Opry.”
President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Nashville – and the Hermitage Hotel – in 1934, to promote the “New Deal” programs, many of which were pushed through Congress with the help of Nashville Congressman and US Speaker of the House Joseph W. Byrns.
The Depression arrived in Nashville about a year after the rest of the country. One of the New Deal projects to help the city get back on its feet was the U.S. Post Office, a stunning, grand Art-Deco building that opened in 1934, which another important Tennessee legislator, U.S. Senator Bill Frist, the former Majority Leader, in 2001 helped acquire for the Frist Museum of Visual Arts (a small post office continues to operate in the building).
Frist Museum of Visual Arts
The building is as exquisite as the art work that is displayed – and that is saying a lot.
The museum does not have its own collection, but features important exhibits from museums and collections all of the world, so there is always something different on view.
When I visit, the featured show is “Matisse, Picasso and the School of Paris,” masterpieces from the famous Cone Sisters collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I join a docent-led tour; she provides fascinating insight into the works, and the Cone Sisters, whom I have gained some acquaintance with on a prior visit to Baltimore, as well as the building itself (there are still paper clips ground into the original wood floor, and the walk way at top from which Supervisors would peer down on the postal workers).
The Impressionist exhibit is enhanced with an innovative “Walk in Paris,” which through photos, mainly, recreates Paris circa 1905, when these masters would have lived there and produced their great art.
Also on view, “Mexico and Modern Printmaking – a Revolution in the Graphic Arts, 1920-1950,” provides a fascinating counterpoint to the mostly Impressionist show.
The Frist also offers a marvelous selection of family activities like Art Quest with 30 interactive stations where families can create works of art together, art-making workshops, family days and informative public programs (The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway, Nashville, 615-244-3340, www.fristcenter.org; admission, open daily).
The Hermitage Hotel
It’s easy to think you have stepped back in time – or at least to an era of gentility that seems to have long passed.
As you enter The Hermitage Hotel, in Nashville, Tennessee, you are greeted (repeatedly, it seems) by doormen wearing what I surmise is Edwardian style hat and coat, appropriate for the 1910 era when the hotel was originally opened. They are extremely pleasant, most helpful.
You catch yourself smiling a bit and thinking, “I could get used to this.” You may even forget what era you are in, but most certainly know what place you are in.
You arrive fatigued from travel, to find refreshments laid out just beside the concierge desk – fresh lemonade and cider, baked cookies and fresh fruit in the afternoon; coffee, tea and muffins in the morning.
You forget what it is like to find stationery with your name imprinted, waiting for you in your room, to have everything laid out as if an invisible valet had attended you for years and knew just how you like everything.
The bath has a silver tray; a “bath concierge” will provide just the right combination of lotions, creams, and bath oils.
In the afternoon, there is a lavish tea and sandwich service in the even more lavish lobby lounge.
At night, you return to your room to find a terry robe laid out on the bed, chocolates on the night table, and a wicker basket with slippers, a shoehorn, and a place to put your shoes for the complimentary overnight shoeshine.
The morning newspaper is delivered in a black sack on the doorknob, instead of thrown on the floor. In the lobby, you find silver coffee service with fresh muffins.
The Hermitage, now a member of Historic Hotels of America, is utterly magnificent – a five-diamond, five-star luxury hotel.
But more than that, it provides a unique connection to Nashville’s past, its traditions – its “stories.”
The Hermitage Hotel was Nashville’s first $1 million hotel when it grandly opened in 1910, commissioned by 250 Nashvillians in 1908.
A symbol of Nashville’s emergence as a major Southern city, it reigned for decades as “Nashville’s Hotel” and the social center for the city’s elite.
Then the hotel went through some hard times. As Nashville’s downtown business district went into decline in the 1960s, so did the hotel, and by the mid-1970s, the grand structure fell into disrepair and shut its doors in 1977. It was reopened as a hotel in 1981.
The hotel changed hands several times in the 1980s and 1990s, and then, in June 2000, it was purchased by Historic Hotels of Nashville, LLC, which also owns the magnificent historic Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, and the Kiawah Island resort. The company shut the hotel and launched an $18 million renovation of the guest rooms and public areas, transforming the hotel back to its original glory; it reopened in 2003.
Walking in to this grand lobby takes your breath away.
In fact, it was only after the latest renovation that the skylight was revealed to be glass – not mosaic.
The skylight is the original. Several artists were commissioned to come from Italy to work on it; they incorporated faces of people they knew into the scenes. With the renovation, the designers chose the palate of colors and design for the rest of the interior decoration from the skylight.
Artisans on scaffolding hand-cast the plaster reliefs; Italian Siena gray marble and mustard-color marble from Greece were imported for the walls and front desk, and Tennessee marble, quarried two hours away, was used for the floor.
The walnut paneling in the Grand Ballroom was so blackened with nicotine stain over the years, a team of women worked painstakingly with cotton balls and mineral spirit, cleaning according to the grain to reveal the stunning woodwork.
When the Hermitage originally opened, it was the most lavish, and state-of-the-art, boasting a “private bathroom in every room.”
It also manifested the mores of the time.
A woman traveling alone could not register herself; she would wait on the Veranda. In the evening, the ladies would gather there while the men retired to the Oak Bar, which was gentlemen-only.
There is a mirror where there had been a window through which women would order their drinks at the Oak Bar.
The Oak Bar is no longer a gentleman’s club, but still offers a rich, clubby ambiance that has often earned it the title “best bar in Nashville” (and that is saying something). You can easily imagine the days when the Francis Craig Orchestra entertained from here from 1929-1945 – the longest running hotel “gig” on the books. The orchestra was also the first to broadcast over WSM (the same station that broadcast the Grand Ole Opry show) and had a 12-year show that aired over the entire NBC network. In 1949, Craig introduced a newcomer, local girl Dinah Shore.
The Men’s Room outside the Oak Bar is actually an attraction that even ladies, today, are invited to see because of its stunning 1930s Art Deco d�cor with emerald green and black painted glass tiles.
Just next to the Oak Bar, the Hermitage offers an award winning, AAA Four-Diamond rated Capitol Grille restaurant (no relation to the chain restaurants), featuring Southern fusion cuisine, with an emphasis on certified Tennessee Black Angus Beef, market fresh seafood and the freshest and best available local products. The emphasis is on freshness – nothing, except ice cream, has been frozen (and even the ice cream is handmade).
The Veranda, today, no longer is a sitting room for ladies, but has been enclosed, the ceiling painted with clouds and sky, and makes a stunning setting for weddings and functions.
Today, we find a real eclectic mix of guests – families coming for weddings and special occasions, business travelers, tourists eager to get out to the honky tonks and the iconic landmarks of Country Music.
During the renovation, everything was done to make The Hermitage a Five-Star, Five-Diamond hotel (it was Tennessee’s only AAA Five Diamond hotel in 2004, 2005). The rooms were completely rebuilt to be larger. Each of the 123 oversized guestrooms and suites has luxuriously designed, and furnished with custom made beds from Omaha Bedding, five-fixture marble baths; complimentary high-speed Internet and wireless Internet access, CD/DVD players, cable television and refreshment center.
There is a sunlit fitness room with free weights, treadmills, cross-trainers and stationary bikes with personal television; The Spa at the Hermitage offers a variety of signature services.
The hotel may also be one of the first truly “pet-friendly” – indeed, a photograph on the wall shows Gene Autry checking into the hotel with his horse (which stayed on the fourth floor).
The hotel now offers a Very Important Pet program, a pet room service menu, and when you check in, lists VIP Entertainment options (where to walk, where the parks, pet day care, pet stores, restaurants that accept pets like Dog Day Caf� & Spa, and vets); it also provides pet-walking service.
The Hermitage Hotel commands this wonderful location between the State Capital building, the big office buildings of the business district, and the honky tonks and entertainment places – all a comfortable walk.
My first evening, I follow the route mapped out by the concierge, past the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, over the pedestrian bridge that goes over the river for a magnificent view of the city at twilight, and back again through the music district, Printer’s Alley, and then back to the hotel.
For further information, contact The Hermitage Hotel, 231 Sixth Avenue, Nashville TN 37219, 888-888-9414,www.thehermitagehotel.com. The Hermitage Hotel is a member of Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and can also be booked by calling 800-678-8946, or atwww.historichotels.org.
For more trip planning information, contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 150 Fourth Avenue North, Suite G-250 Nashville, TN 37219, 800-657-6910, www.visitmusiccity.com.
See also: Nashville Sound
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