The exterior of the Hermitage Hotel, in Nashville, Tennessee.
May 3, 2017

From Suffragettes To Sharks: Five Stories From The Hermitage Hotel

For the first eight years of my tenure at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I worked for the Historic Hotels of America program. Quite possibly the most important thing I learned there was that historic hotels have stories. Lots of them. Stories about the building itself, both its origins and its various renovations over the years. Stories about famous—and infamous—events. Stories about the guests who came to stay, and the occasional one who never left.

Because of this, despite having left the hotel game many years ago, I still stay at Historic Hotels of America members whenever it is feasible, and I always go out of my way to make sure I get a history tour whenever possible. (Pro tip: ask at the front desk when you check in if someone can give you a tour at some point during your stay. The answer will be yes more often than you might think!)

Every now and again I seek out a tour at a historic hotel even when I’m not able to stay. Such was the case a couple of months back when I was in Nashville. While I stayed at the Union Station Hotel (more coming on that soon), I also stopped by the Hermitage Hotel, a nearby member of Historic Hotels of America.

Built in 1910, the Hermitage has spent more than a century in near-continuous service as a luxury destination in downtown Nashville… and boy, does it have stories.

Here are five that jumped out to me as I toured with Lisa Field, the hotel’s director of marketing.

The Tennessee State Capitol, seen from the now-gym at the Hermitage Hotel.

The Tennessee State Capitol, seen from the now-gym at the Hermitage Hotel.

The Battle Over The Vote

The Hermitage Hotel, with its location directly across the street from Tennessee’s Capitol building, was on the front lines of the battle over the 19th Amendment. It was the hotel of choice for both the pro- and anti-suffrage supporters as the nation awaited the state’s vote on ratification, as a "yes" vote would put the amendment at the threshold needed to succeed.

Fitness-minded visitors to the hotel today will find themselves working out in the room that was once the headquarters/office for the suffragettes during the battle over the 19th Amendment. It has a view of the capitol building, so they could see when legislators were coming and going.

Hotel lore has it that the pro-suffrage women were a somewhat rowdy bunch, with their eighth-floor guestrooms referred to as the “Jack Daniels suite” for the volume of whiskey delivered, despite Prohibition.

Tea At The Oak Bar

Which brings us to another story—that of the hotel’s famous Oak Bar’s clever method for serving alcohol in a clandestine manner: in teapots. That’s right; during Prohibition, the Oak Bar was many a Nashville resident’s favorite spot for a cuppa, including for many of the politicians working across the street. All went well with the ruse until a police raid swept up the men in the bar, legislators and local alike.

The lobby of the Hermitage Hotel, which was once a space for men only.

The lobby of the Hermitage Hotel, which was once a space for men only.

Separate Spaces

And why weren’t the ladies caught up in the raid? Because in the early years of the hotel, the bar—like the hotel lobby—was for men only. The legacy of this separation is less visible in today’s lobby, where an imposing fireplace has replaced the cigar stand that was the centerpiece of the men’s waiting area, and the women-only veranda is now open to all.

At the Oak Bar, however, there are a couple of stark reminders of the separate spheres. One is a small window near the entrance where cocktails could be passed to women in the hall, so they would not have to enter the bar itself.

The other is what I am told is one of the most impressive men’s room in America. The black and green Art Deco tiling is impeccably maintained, as is the shoe-shine station, though it is no longer staffed. So, too, the shower room is unavailable, but back in the day, it was quite a luxurious spot for bar patrons. Today, when not in use, it is popular for tourist visits and photo shoots.

The famous Art Deco men's room outside the Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel.

The now-unused shoe shine stand in the famous Art Deco men's room outside the Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel.

Watch For Sharks

In the 1980s, the most famous guest of the hotel was well-known pool shark Minnesota Fats, who called it home for several years near the end of his life. Today, board meetings (which at times feature their own kind of sharks) take place in the mezzanine-level room the room where he kept his pool table—and played those foolish enough to think the elderly man might have lost his skill with age. (He hadn't.)

Details Matter

The interlocking HH that comprises the hotel’s logo may seem like a modern-day branding effort, but in fact, it has been in use since the hotel’s inception. Different iterations were created over time, and eagle-eyed guests can find it built into the hotel in a variety of places, from the floors to the elevators to the plaster ceilings. In fact, the current version of the logo draws on the historic versions.

A collage of the "HH" motif that appears throughout the hotel

A collage of the "HH" motif that appears throughout the hotel.

Intrigued by all these stories and interested in learning more? The hotel makes it easy. Like many members of Historic Hotels of America, the Hermitage is proud of its history and displays all manner of historic photos and ephemera (including some with earlier iterations of the HH) in a small room off the hotel lobby focused on the century of Nashville history the hotel has witnessed—and occasionally participated in.

Sarah Heffern headshot

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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