Union Station Hotel Nashville - Exterior
May 18, 2017

Train(station)spotting: Nashville’s Union Station Hotel

It seems inconceivable today, walking into Nashville’s Union Station Hotel, that the building, with its impressive Richardsonian Romanesque tower and majestic barrel vaulted, stained glass lobby ceiling was once under threat of being lost. But it’s true—in the late 1970s, a decline in train travel and changes in routes made Nashville’s train station, built in 1900, a white elephant.

Fortunately, Historic Nashville, Inc. and other local leaders knew that losing the building would be a travesty and set their minds to saving it. After many years of hard work, they did, shepherding its transformation into a hotel by the mid-1980s.

I made my first (and, I hope, not my last) visit to the Union Station Hotel—a member of Historic Hotels of America—in February, and I was immediately smitten. It’s a building that’s impressive inside and out; to call the lobby majestic is in no way overstating it. I’m not ashamed to say I gaped at the gorgeous ceiling, the chandeliers, the massive stone fireplace. As a preservationist, I’m obviously susceptible to the charms of historic buildings, but Union Station was next-level impressive.

Union Station Hotel Nashville - barrel-vaulted ceiling and chandeleir

The barrel-vaulted, stained glass ceiling and one of three chandeliers that adorn the hotel's lobby.

It turns out my visit was just a few weeks after a massive renovation process put a new shine on the hotel’s historic features and even turned up a few more details that had previously been covered or lost to time. Kate Thompson, the hotel’s director of sales & marketing, pointed out a few of these details—along with some fun historical details—as she showed me around the hotel.

(As noted in my earlier story about visiting Nashville's Hermitage Hotel, always be sure to ask if there is someone available who can give you a hotel history tour. Many employees love talking about what makes their hotel special.)

It’s considered unusual to have elaborate chandeliers hanging from the sort of show-stopping ceiling Union Station has in its lobby—so much so, in fact, that there was concern about placing them there as part of the renovation. However, historic images showed similar lights suspended from the ceiling, and researchers were able to pinpoint where they had come from. The family-owned company in Luxembourg that made the original lights is still in business and crafted the new—and utterly gorgeous—chandeliers that now hang in the lobby.

Union Station Hotel Nashville - historic floor tile uncovered during renovation

The tile floor from the train station's ticket office was uncovered while working on the new restaurant's floor.

When transforming an area that was originally the train station’s ticket office into the hotel’s bar/restaurant, workers found a surprise. While clearing the space to make room for trendy polished concrete floors, they stumbled upon remnants of the original tile floor. Much had been lost, but rather than cover over what remained, they cleaned it up and carefully poured and leveled the concrete around it to allow the historic feature to show through.

Because the guest rooms are not original to the building, they’re more current in style than the lobby area, and during the renovation, were updated to have a modern country flair—for example, my room had a cowhide-patterned headboard. The historic flair remains, though, for my room also featured one of the massive arched windows that can be seen along the exterior.

One guest room, however, did not get the same contemporary decor as the rest: number 711, where Abigail, the hotel’s resident ghost, spends her time. According to legend, Abigail haunts the hotel in search of her lost love, a soldier who left for World War II from Union Station and never returned. Her preferred guest room is decorated in 1940s vintage, the better to keep her comfortable.

Union Station Hotel Nashville - guest room in a  former railroad office

One of the guest rooms located in what was formerly a railroad executive's office.

Another set of rooms, along the mezzanine of the lobby have a different unusual style, as they used to be the offices of the train station staff. They feature large windows overlooking the mezzanine and doors that would be more expected in a turn-of-the-20th-century office suite than a hotel room.

Six more fun facts:

  • The train station lobby once featured two pools that were home to alligators.
  • “Miss Louisville” and “Miss Nashville,” the women in the bas-reliefs that surround the mezzanine-level clock, are modeled after two of the builder’s five daughters.
  • Al Capone came through Union Station on his way to federal prison, but was not taken off the train.
  • Though a replica, the train schedule board in the lobby remains a popular item with visitors, many of whom still remember checking their train times on the original.
  • The hotel’s tower once featured the first digital clock in the United States, though it never worked very well.
  • Bas-relief panels illustrate the evolution of transportation from a chariot to a locomotive.
Union Station Hotel Nashville - historic clock on the mezzanine level

The hotel's mezzanine is adorned with bas-relief sculptures and a clock (the better to keep the trains running on time).

This, of course, is not the only example of an impressive adaptive reuse of a public building into a hotel—the Historic Hotels of America portfolio features many. They’re great fun to explore while traveling, in my (admittedly biased) opinion. And, members of the National Trust are eligible to receive discounts.

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.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 40 places preserving Black history.

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