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The Other Side of Nashville

Hermitage Hotel, Nashville

By Marian Betancourt

Nashville is the home of country music, but this sophisticated city has a lot more going on, such as a world class symphony, thriving art scene, and the world’s only exact replica of the Parthenon, built to honor the intent of the 1779 city founders that this be a city of culture and education. It is also the city that made woman suffrage a reality.

This sophistication is reflected in the historic Hermitage Hotel, the sixth best hotel in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report, and Tennessee’s only five-diamond, five-star hotel.  This Beaux aAts beauty was built in 1909 by the financial leaders, who felt their city should have a million dollar hotel. Named after Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, (a Russian word for place of rest), it was Nashville’s first modern hotel to have electricity as well as a bath and a phone in each room.

Lobby of Hermitage Hotel, Nashville

In 1914 the hotel hosted the national suffragist convention and then in 1919, when Congress finally passed the suffrage act. But it would not become law until ratified by at least 36 states, a number that would be reached if the Tennessee legislature said “Yes.” Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, arrived by train six weeks ahead of the vote and checked into suite 309 at the Hermitage. Her presence galvanized the opposition, who also checked in and reserved the hotel’s entire mezzanine for their campaigning. As July sizzled into the hottest August in recorded history, the magnificent hotel lobby, festooned with vases of yellow roses (for suffrage) and red (anti), became the center of what became the war of the roses. The antis gave out free liquor in the lobby, there were spies among the bellhops, and Catt was convinced her phone was tapped.

Harry “Baby” Burn, 25, the state’s youngest legislator, wore a red rose in his lapel signifying his place among the antis. However, when his mother wrote, pleading with him to “Be a good boy and help Miss Catt put the rat in ratification,” he changed history. Nashville considers the success of suffrage one of the most important events of the 20th century.

Suffrage banner

You can see suffrage banners and other memorabilia two blocks away at the Tennessee State Museum, a treasure trove of collections, from pre-historic times to the present on three lower levels of the James K. Polk state office building. (The Civil War holdings are among the best in the nation.) In March, the museum will open a bicentennial exhibit of the War of 1812, which made Andrew Jackson a hero at the Battle of New Orleans.

The Hermitage Hotel was not the only grand edifice the city built. In Centennial Park, visit the Parthenon, the Greek Temple with a 42-foot Athena inside. Originally built for the 1897 centennial exposition the temporary structure was made permanent in 1931, as a symbol of the city’s purpose. (Athena, created by Alan LeQuire, was added more recently.)

Another must-see is the Frist Center for the Arts, housed inside a landmark post office built in 1933 in classic Art Deco style. The upper levels are now elegant galleries but do stroll along the first floor and try to imagine any American post office being this elegant. The exhibitions are from premier loan collections and American art from the Phillips Collection in Washington DC with works by Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and others is now on display.

After World War II, the Nashville Symphony was organized and recently completed its brand new home, Schermerhorn Hall, with spectacular acoustics. The 85-member symphony’s 2011 recording of Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony earned three Grammy Awards and in May they will perform Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

"The Sources of Country Music,” by Thomas Hart Benton, 1975

When Nashville’s earliest settlers celebrated with fiddle tunes and buck dancing after safely disembarking on the shores of the Cumberland they began what is now recognized as America’s music. There’s a marvelous mural depicting these origins at The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum.  “The Sources of Country Music,” painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1975, just before his death. This museum is wildly popular and that’s a whole other Nashville story. Suffice to say for now, that a new show, Bakersfield Sound: Country Music from California opens March 24.

After exploring the city’s cultural charms, head back to the Hermitage Hotel for a fine meal at the Capitol Grille. Executive chef Tyler Brown makes farm-to-table cuisine a reality by growing the food at the nearby Glen Leven Farm, part of the Land Trust for Tennessee. (By the way, this restaurant is not part of the chain with the same name; in fact, the chain had to ask permission to use the name.)

While the Hermitage thrived for many more years after suffrage, presidential and celebrity visits, the expansion of the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s, led to a downward spiral until it became a single occupancy hotel, and the investors decided to close it.  However, Nashville citizens are a proud lot who understood that while chain hotels were moving into their city as the economy improved, they needed to keep the Hermitage. After having it declared a landmark, it was restored to its original splendor. There are still phones and electricity in every room–not to mention amenities never dreamed of in 1909.

  Marian Betancourt has written about travel and food for Associated Press, American Heritage, Travel & Leisure, Irish America, and many others. She is the author of several books, and has co-authored two regional cookbooks based on her travels. She is a contributing editor for Promenade magazine and lives in New York City. Visit her site at www.marianbetancourt.com

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1 Comment

  1. Deacon Maccubbin
    March 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm — Reply

    I confess, never having been to Nashville before last year, I thought of it as a country mecca, a pleasant but essentially backwater town of honky tonks, beer and truck pulls. Then I won a trip to the Country Music Association Awards and discovered not only great music and honky tonks — vibrant, happy honky tonks — but also incredible architecture (from the modern “Batman building” to the Parthenon to Art Deco), art and culture. In particular, I was blown away by the Frist Center for the Arts where we got a personal tour from a kindly docent. The building itself would be worth a look, even if you weren’t into art. But the rotating art exhibits that grace the Frist are truly spectacular and pleasingly intimate (and this is from someone who is jaded by ready access to the Phillips Gallery in DC, the Corcoran School of Art, the National Gallery of Art and the whole Smithsonian complex).

    The beer was good, too.

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