04 Jan Western Landmark: Music City Masterpiece
On September 17, 1910, the Hermitage Hotel opened in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, hosting a celebration and feast for hundreds of distinguished guests. After two years of watching the Beaux-Arts-style structure rise 10 stories tall, the crowd eagerly entered the lobby, and an orchestra played while they took in their surroundings: Tennessee marble flooring, Italian marble columns, decorative carvings, elegant chandeliers, high-end furnishings and décor, and, most notably, a skylight of painted glass.
Conceived by a group of businessmen with funding through the local Board of Trade, the hotel — designed by architect James Edwin Ruthven Carpenter Jr. — would become Nashville’s first million-dollar building and luxury hotel.
“Carpenter, who went on to design over 40 luxury high-rise apartment buildings in New York City, was a brilliant architect,” says the Hermitage Hotel’s director of finance and historian Tom Vickstrom. “He put his best effort into the lobby and all the public spaces. The hotel is a Beaux-Art masterpiece.”
Today, more than 100 years later, the architectural integrity of the building has been faithfully maintained. Just off to one side of the lobby is an elegant, light-filled veranda with vaulted ceilings, where Southern-style afternoon teas take place on the weekends. On the other side, a grand ballroom features rare Circassian walnut paneling, a lofty ceiling made of ornamental plaster, and original chandeliers.
The lower-level dining room — initially designed as a Rathskeller-style grill — was extensively remodeled in 2021 before opening as the hotel’s signature restaurant, Drusie & Darr, named after a longtime hotel manager’s kids who were said to run the halls in the 1960s. With celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the helm, the menu features an eclectic mix of Asian and European cuisine made from local ingredients.
With many historic elements still intact, the restaurant is set amongst massive columns and vaulted arches, while the interior design embraces simple, modern colors and furnishings. And, strange as it may sound, the hallway restrooms are not to be missed; the ladies’ room is covered in lavish pink, and the men’s is Art-Deco themed, with black-leaded and lime green glass tile stripes and a two-seater antique shoe-shine station that’s been the site of numerous selfies.
In 2022, New York City interior design firm ForrestPerkins — known for working with luxury landmark hotels and resorts — oversaw the refresh of the 122 guest rooms and suites, lobby, and ballroom. ForrestPerkins replaced the traditional red and brown palette with a bright white hue that spotlights the Beaux-Arts elements and decorative touches. Along with blue and silver accents in the rugs and furnishings, the update has resulted in a lighter look that is also undeniably elegant.
While the stately ornamental style is a draw, the history and guest list add color. “The Hermitage Hotel’s first 20 years were sensational; Nashvillians flocked to the hotel. ‘Meet me at the Hermitage’ was a popular phrase, and one that has been perpetuated,” Vickstrom says. Named after former U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s nearby estate and just a block from the Tennessee State Capitol, the hotel was also used as a political headquarters. “In August 1920, the governor called a special legislative session to try and pass the 19th Amendment. … It was very hotly debated, and colorful too, named ‘The War of the Roses.’ The Hermitage was the headquarters for both the pro- and the anti-suffragists,” says Vickstrom. “Due to the fact that we were the 36th and final state needed to ratify — thus 20 million women were gaining national voting rights — the hotel [was] recognized [on the 2020 suffrage centennial] as a National Historic Landmark, a place of importance in the history of the United States of America.”
Vickstrom explains that a significant music-related period was from 1925 to 1947 when the Francis Craig Orchestra served as the house orchestra. “This brought a special identity to the hotel as a place for refined dining and pleasant music. On the eve of his retirement, Mr. Craig recorded a song named ‘Near You,’” Vickstrom says. “It became America’s top-selling record, with 2.3 million sold. This was the first hit actually recorded in Nashville. Its success helped compel the major companies in the record industry to set up offices in Nashville, soon then to blossom into ‘Music City’.”
Adding to its lore, the Country Music Association (CMA) was formed at the Hermitage in the late 1950s, and the first Nashville Symphony office was located there more than 75 years ago. Over the years, celebrities of all kinds have stayed at the Hermitage, including country music legends Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and Johnny Cash; actors Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, and Charlie Chaplin; modern-day stars Beyoncé, Sheryl Crow, and Keith Urban; and presidents, including Woodrow Wilson, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Bush.
“Babe Ruth was reported to have ordered a double room service breakfast, topped it off with a cigar and some whiskey, and then hit two home runs that afternoon at the ballpark,” Vickstrom says. “Then there was the singing cowboy Gene Autry, who checked in with his horse Champion. We have the photo framed near our concierge desk to prove it. Today, we are pet-friendly, by the way, including a room service menu for pets.”
Like many hotels, the Hermitage faced some more challenging times and risked being converted into the headquarters of an insurance company or demolished over 50 years ago. “Fortunately, it’s an extremely strong and durable building,” Vickstrom says, “and its distinctive Beaux-Arts style makes it a classic.”
The Hermitage was saved by a historic non-profit and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Since that time, the landmark hotel has endured as a legacy and fixture in downtown Nashville. “Everyone feels a special sense of grandeur and elegance — a comfortable elegance — when they visit the hotel,” Vickstom says. “The history is icing on the cake.”
Corinne Gaffner Garcia is a freelance writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana. Her work has appeared in Marie Claire, Country Living, Martha Stewart Living, and many other publications; corinnegarcia.com.