Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: Union Station Hotel (1900), Nashville, Tennessee*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Long before it was a historic hotel, the Nashville, Tennessee Union Station was a key center in America's economy and transportation. Opening on Oct. 9, 1900, for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the building's imposing Gothic design featuring a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling and Tiffany-styled stained glass, was a testament to U.S. ingenuity and energy. During railroading's glory years, Mafia kingpin Al Capone was escorted through here on his way to the Georgia penitentiary. Other fascinating facts surrounding this historic Nashville station include:
- Construction began on August 1, 1898
- Station officially opened on Oct. 9, 1900
- The track level once held two alligator ponds
- The Train Shed was the largest unsupported span in America, housing up to 10 full trains at once
Pulsing locomotives hissed on the platforms, as gravel-throated conductors shouted, "All aboard!" The stunning Nashville Union Station hotel is truly special for the following characteristics:
- Heavy-stone Richardsonian-Romanesque design
- Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977
- Sixty-five foot, barrel-vaulted lobby ceiling, featuring gold-leaf medallions, and 100-year-old original Luminous Prism stained glass
- Marble floors, oak-accented doors and walls, and three limestone fireplaces
- Twenty gold-accented bas-relief angel of commerce figurines
- Two bas-relief panels—a steam locomotive and horse-drawn chariot ̶ at each end of the lobby
Union Station was designed by one of the most famous American architects: Henry Hobson Richardson who, along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright was one of "the recognized trinity of American architecture." Of the ten buildings named by American architects as the best in 1885, fully half were his: Trinity Church in Boston, Albany City Hall, Sever Hall at Harvard University, the New York State Capital in Albany (as a collaboration), and Town Hall in North Easton, Massachusetts. Richardson designed nine railroad stations for the Boston & Albany Railroad as well as three stations for other lines including the Nashville Union Station for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad.
The station reached peak usage during World War II when it was the shipping-out point for tens of thousands of U.S. troops. After the war, it started a long decline as passenger rail service in the U.S. generally was reduced. By the 1960s, it was served by only a few trains daily. Much of its open spaces were roped off and its architectural features became largely the habitat of pigeons. The formation of Amtrak in 1971 reduced service to the northbound and southbound Floridian train each day. When this service was discontinued in October 1979, the station was abandoned entirely. The station fell into the custody of the United States Government's General Services Administration. In the early 1980s a group of investors came forward with a plan to finance the renovation of the station into a luxury hotel which was approved. After extensive renovation, the new investor group who bought the hotel out of bankruptcy were able to operate it profitably.
By the mid-1990s they had restored Mercury to his place atop the tower, albeit in a two-dimensional form painted in trompe l'oeil style to replicate the original. This was destroyed in the 1998 downtown Nashville tornado but was soon replaced.
Frommer's Review reported in The New York Times:
Built in 1900 and housed in the Romanesque Gothic former Union Station railway terminal, this hotel is a grandly restored National Historic Landmark. Following a $10-million renovation, completed in 2007, all guest rooms and public spaces have been updated. The lobby is the former main hall of the railway station and has a vaulted ceiling of Tiffany stained glass [...].
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.