Hermitage Hotel Memories since 1929

A Reminiscence by Mary B. Williams.

Living a lifetime in Nashville has been a storybook experience in many ways. Memories of the magnificent Hermitage Hotel have certainly played a large part in creating the desire to write my own storybook for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Photograph courtesy of the author

My first visits to the Hotel were by invitation when my uncle, an attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, came here frequently to visit my family. He usually stayed at the Hermitage and my brother and I, though quite young, were always included in his invitation for dinner at the Hotel. What a splendid occasion that was!

In those days of early childhood I had a vivid imagination, so on those evenings I became the beautiful princess who lived in this wonderful castle right out of the storybooks my parents had read so often to me – it was much more than a mere hotel!

My mother often went to the beauty salon that was located on the mezzanine at the Hermitage. Daddy would drive us there and, while waiting, would sometimes get a shoe shine just off the lobby, somewhere in the vicinity of the men’s restroom, as I recall. I could always be found nestled in one of the big comfortable chairs in the lobby, reading a book. Even at that young age I enjoyed pausing to enjoy my surroundings and observe the beautiful carvings that were an important part of the architectural design.

Later, as a teenager, I enjoyed the Hotel in a different fashion when I attended sorority meetings there on Saturday mornings.  I felt so sophisticated as I mimicked the movie stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Loretta Young, and smoked along with the older sorority girls. My mother and daddy would have killed me!  So they wouldn’t know, I hid my cigarettes among the potted plants in the beautiful urns, ready for my next party at the Hermitage!

Sorority and fraternity dances were held in the Grand Ballroom with its exquisitely rich wood paneling. All the brass features throughout the Hotel shone with a mirror finish. I remember being a little reluctant to use the handrails as I was fearful of leaving fingerprints.

On one particular evening I was waiting for my handsome date, who was going to drive me to the Hotel for his fraternity dance. I was in a panic before leaving the house, rushing around to find Daddy’s tool chest, using any tool that I could find to pry the high heels off my new evening sandals, specially dyed to match my evening dress. Of course, to my horror, the heels came off, but the nails were left intact. I had no choice but to take them to my daddy and say sweetly, “Please do something.” He actually laughed when I explained that my date was probably about my height and those heels would make me look taller than he was. I knew my daddy was still laughing when I walked awkwardly out the front door.

When the two of us arrived at the Hotel, the doorman, dressed in his beautifully tailored clothes and top hat, was even more elegantly dressed than my date, who was probably wearing a rented tuxedo. Bellboys, doormen, every person employed by the Hotel, male or female, were all sharply dressed, with excellent posture and manners. The band was playing – I’m wondering whether it might have been Frances Craig, everybody’s favorite. The huge vases were filled with fresh flowers, and I danced away the night, never giving my damaged shoes another thought.

Beautiful evenings like this came to an abrupt end when World War II was declared.  The next memorable event would be the day my handsome Army-Air Force Lieutenant and I were married at West End Methodist Church, located just a few blocks out of downtown. Our wedding dinner was held at the Hermitage Hotel, and the beautiful wedding suite with a large arrangement of fresh flowers on the table and chocolate on the pillows was ours for the night. Just as when I was a small child, I felt like a princess in my castle, which was, of course, my beloved Hermitage Hotel.

After my husband and I returned to live out our lives in Nashville, the Hermitage Hotel memories would continue. My mother was still a patron of the Hotel beauty salon when one morning, with my baby boy in tow, I found myself back in that familiar area. Wanting all the hairdressers to see my beautiful little boy, we stepped inside, where I nearly burst with pride!  As we were walking to the lobby, my sweet son tugged on my coat sleeve, asking, “What were those women doing with those big buckets on their heads?” Well, those old hair dryers really did look like big buckets!  On that day, sitting in the big comfortable chair with a book in my hand, reading to my child as I waited for my mother, I was overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia. I shared with my son stories of myself as a little girl, sitting in the same beautiful Hotel lobby waiting for his grandmother all those years before.

 Except for an occasional lunch with friends or a very special dinner, I did not spend a great deal of time at the Hermitage while we were raising our family of five children. Our youngest child, a daughter, would be the one to bring the Hotel back in my life when her wedding reception was held there in June 1991. The wedding took place just a few blocks down the street in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church at Fifth and Church. Many guests walked the short distance to the Hotel, while others rode the trolley, which was not difficult to spot, with a large wedding wreath on the front, its white ribbons flowing lightly in the breeze. All the wonderful people employed by the Hotel seemed to get into the spirit of the evening, as we had become good friends during the weeks of planning. They also enjoyed my loving memories of the Hotel, which I was eager to share.

Leaving the ballroom at midnight, we watched the bride and groom being whisked away in their limousine, and I cried. I walked back inside just for a moment, glanced around the lobby, said “Good night!” to two young couples on the verandah, and then walked down the steps and out those handsome doors with an ache of sadness: an era in my life was now closed.

Just a few years ago, this same daughter’s children, my grandchildren, had become old enough to appreciate a tour of downtown Nashville. I took them to the lovely old church where their parents were married, and to the Hermitage Hotel where the family celebrated afterwards. Of all they saw and loved, they were most impressed by the Hotel.

Photograph courtesy of the author

I could see their excitement when we first walked through the doors. They didn’t know which direction they wanted to go first! We covered it all – every nook and cranny. They kept saying, “Nunny, I’ve never seen anything this beautiful.” Those children could understand how, when I was even younger than they were, I viewed it as my castle! I’m sure the Hermitage Hotel has never hosted more appreciative young visitors.

Just recently, when a group of younger friends asked where they could take me for lunch to celebrate my 85th birthday, my choice, of course, was the Hermitage Hotel. What a treat! As I stepped out of my car, that rush of nostalgia engulfed me once again, and I had to keep myself from dominating the conversation, as I yearned to share every memory.  Just this morning, one of those precious young women said she hadn’t gotten to see it all on that day, so she and I will return in the near future. I can hardly wait. One more time I will have a captive audience to share the grandeur and my unforgettable memories of the Hermitage Hotel.

Walker, Taylor, and Carr: The Men behind Nashville’s African American Parks and Cemeteries

by Kathy B. Lauder.

Although City Cemetery, Nashville’s first public burial ground (1822) accepted people of all races from the beginning, the rise of the “Jim Crow” South after the Civil War compelled African Americans to look elsewhere for a final resting place. In 1869 black businessman Nelson Walker and the Colored Benevolent Society bought land for Mt. Ararat Cemetery near the Elm Hill-Murfreesboro Pike intersection, directly behind today’s Purity Dairy plant. Walker (1825-1875), a barber at the Maxwell House, became an important figure in African American politics after the Civil War. Elected president of the first State Colored Men’s Convention (August 1865), he was active in the Masonic Order, the Sons of Relief, and the State Colored Emigration Board. Largely self-educated, he became a practicing attorney and later a Davidson County magistrate. An outspoken supporter of the public schools, Walker encouraged his seven children to become well educated – his daughter Virginia was a member of Fisk University’s first graduating class in 1875.

·         The Maxwell House Hotel, built between 1859 and 1869, was partially completed in 1862, when the occupying Federal forces used it as a hospital, a prison, and barracks for Union soldiers. (In 1863 over 100 Confederate soldiers fell five stories when a staircase collapsed, killing up to 45 men and injuring many more.) Maxwell House coffee, introduced by Nashville’s Cheek family, was served in the hotel dining room. The building was destroyed by fire on Christmas night 1961.

When Mt. Ararat burial plots went on sale in May 1869, church leaders urged their parishioners to purchase them. Mt. Ararat received considerable media attention in 1890 when Reverend Nelson Merry’s remains were reinterred there from City Cemetery, and again in 1892, after three heroic African American firemen lost their lives fighting a devastating fire in downtown Nashville. The day of their burial was declared a city-wide day of mourning, and the procession leading from their funeral ceremony at the Capitol to the cemetery was said to be over a mile long. Mt. Ararat (now Greenwood West) became part of the Greenwood Cemetery complex in 1982.

Another key figure in Nashville history was the Reverend Preston Taylor (1849-1931). Born into slavery, he served as a Union Army drummer boy when he was a young teenager. While still in his 20s he founded a Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, church, attracting the largest congregation in the state during his fifteen years there, while also working as a contractor to build several sections of the Big Sandy Railroad. After moving to Nashville, he preached at the Gay Street Christian church and also joined the Masons and the IOOF, holding state offices in both organizations.

Rev. Preston Taylor

As the 19th century ended, Preston Taylor committed himself to improving the social and economic condition of Nashville’s black community. Already well known as a local religious leader and businessman, he opened the city’s first African American mortuary, the Taylor Funeral Company, in 1888, the same year he and three others came together to purchase land for a “first class burial space . . . available at cost” for African American families. After his partners backed out of the project, Taylor alone funded the purchase of a 37-acre site on Elm Hill Pike and Spence Lane, near Buttermilk Ridge (so-called because of the scattering of dairy farms along the big S-curve on Lebanon Road east of Spence). Greenwood Cemetery, still in operation today, opened in 1888. Preston Taylor’s will deeded the cemetery to the Disciples of Christ religious organization, who continue to operate the facility (now merged with Mt. Ararat/ Greenwood West) as a non-profit enterprise. Preston Taylor is buried beneath a striking monument near the entrance to Greenwood. He was also involved in establishing the Lea Avenue Christian Church, the National Colored Christian Missionary Convention, the One Cent Bank (now Citizens Savings & Trust), and Tennessee State A&I Normal School (now Tennessee State University).

Preston Taylor’s monument in Greenwood Cemetery. (photo from NHN collection)

Jim Crow laws barred African Americans not only from cemeteries but also from many entertainment venues. However, in 1905 Preston Taylor responded to these restrictions by opening Greenwood Park north of the cemetery on the large unused portion of his original 37-acre land purchase. The park’s entrance stood just west of the intersection of Lebanon Road and Spence Lane. The first recreational park for Nashville’s black community, its attractions included a merry-go-round, a roller coaster, a shooting gallery, and a skating rink. Visitors could attend events at a baseball park, a bandstand, or a theatre, and if they were hungry, they could eat at a barbecue stand, a lunchroom, or a well-maintained picnic area. The area was spacious enough to include a Boy Scout camp, a racetrack, and a zoo, and it was home to the Colored State Fair, as well as other popular annual celebrations on Labor Day and July 4th. The Barbers’ Union, Masonic Lodges, and USCT veterans scheduled special events in the park. Taylor, who actually lived on the grounds, banned fighting, drinking, or cursing by Greenwood visitors and required them to dress appropriately. When white neighbors complained about Greenwood and its attendant congestion, only Ben Carr’s last-minute appeal to Governor Patterson rescued the park from ruinous legislation. In 1910 a suspicious fire destroyed Greenwood’s large grandstand, but no one was ever charged with the crime. Preston Taylor died in 1931, but the park survived until 1949, superintended by Taylor’s widow.

The Taylor home in Greenwood Park. (photo courtesy of Peggy Dillard)

Benjamin J. Carr (1875-1935) was another remarkable Tennessean, whose concern for his fellow black citizens resulted in the creation of both a second park and a notable educational institution. Born into poverty, Carr grew up working on farms in Trousdale County, Tennessee. He carefully set aside most of his meager earnings (50¢ per day) to purchase his own farm. In time, the frugal young man was able to pay off his mortgage with income from his tobacco crop. Shortly before 1900 Carr came to Nashville, where he was elected porter for the state Supreme Court and became an unexpected friend and ally of Governor Malcolm Patterson (1907-1911), who sent Carr on a lecture tour throughout Middle Tennessee to educate and inspire black farmers. Carr headed the citizens’ organization that brought the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State Normal School (Tennessee A&I, known today as Tennessee State University) to Nashville, and he was the school’s first agriculture teacher. He was also the driving force behind the city’s purchase of 34 acres near the college for use as a municipal park. When Mayor Hilary Howse dedicated Nashville’s Hadley Park in 1912, it became the first public park for African Americans in the entire nation.

Ben Carr (TSLA photo from Calvert Collection)

The name given to Hadley Park is still a matter of some dispute. When Major Eugene C. Lewis (chairman of the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway and director-general of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition) named the park, many assumed the title was a tribute to John L. Hadley, a white slave owner whose home plantation became the site of Tennessee State University. However, Lewis may have intended instead to honor Dr. W. A. Hadley (1850-1901), a physician-educator with whom he had worked closely during the Centennial Exposition, and for whom the Hadley School was named. A graduate of Meharry Medical College, Dr. Hadley had taught briefly in Davidson County schools before opening his medical practice. In 1880 he was elected secretary of the newly formed State Medical Association, and in 1883 he was chosen as a delegate to the National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville. He founded the Independent Order of the Immaculates and served on the executive committee (with Major E. C. Lewis) of the 1897 Centennial. After practicing medicine for several years, Hadley returned to teaching. At the time of his death, he was principal of Carter Public School in Nashville.

Adapted from the Greenwood Project.

Nashville’s City Hotel

by Debie Oeser Cox, author of Nashville History blog.

The first hotel on the east side of the Public Square was Talbot’s Hotel and Tavern, established about 1800. Although a deed was not filed until 1804, a subsequent document filed in Davidson County deed book F indicates that Talbot actually purchased the property in 1800.

In the 1820s Talbot sold his hotel property to the Nashville Bank. The first proprietor of the new City Hotel was James Edmondson, notice of which appeared in the National Banner and Nashville Whig, Saturday, January 12, 1828:

City Hotel, Nashville — The subscriber has the pleasure of informing his friends and the public, that he has taken that splendid Tavern lately built by the Nashville Bank. This house being planned and erected for the express purpose of a Tavern comprises advantages rarely found in such establishments . . .. Surrounding the back front [sic] are spacious balconies communicating and on a level with each story, forming airy, sheltered and delightful promenades, the whole three stories high. The private part of the house, intended for families, is entirely separated from the public establishment and ladies therefore can be free from observation and as secluded as in any private house.

The City Hotel was offered for sale in an advertisement that appeared in the National Banner and Nashville Whig, Saturday, February 2, 1828:

The Nashville Bank offers for sale, that large and commodious building on the Public Square in the town of Nashville, known by the name of the City Hotel. As any person inclining to purchase would wish to examine the premises, a minute description is unnecessary. I suffer it to say, that the whole establishment is of brick, and entirely new, having been erected during the last year. The building is three stories high; it fronts on the public square one hundred feet, with one wing extending back one hundred and thirty feet, and another about seventy feet. In the principal wing, on the first floor is a spacious dining room, 70 by 30 feet, but which can be extended as occasion may require, by means of folding doors, the whole length of the wing, or 130 feet. On the second floor is a ball room of the same dimensions. The building is so constructed as that exclusive of numerous bed chambers, a convenient portion of it may be set apart for the convenience of families, or private parties. The whole of the building on the back front, which commands a fine view of the Cumberland river, and the adjacent country, is surrounded with spacious piazzas, communicating with each story. Attached to it are all the necessary buildings for a tavern.

The City Hotel Company purchased the property from the Nashville Bank for a sum of $20,000. The deed described the property as being parts of lots 171 and 172, which had been conveyed to the Nashville Bank by Thomas Talbot in two parcels, one in 1821 and the other in 1828.

Miss Jane Thomas wrote of Edmondson and the City Hotel in her book, Old Days In Nashville. Miss Jane said that in 1837 Edmondson was managing the hotel.

In the spring of 1845 Joseph Marshall and Samuel M. Scott entered a contract to manage the City Hotel as a hotel and tavern. Joseph Marshall died soon after. As a consequence of a suit filed in Chancery Court concerning Mr. Marshall’s estate, an inventory of the contents of the City Hotel was made and filed with the court. This inventory detailed the furnishings of fifty-seven guest rooms and a garret room. Most of the guest rooms were furnished with one or two bedsteads and feather beds, mattresses and bedding, a washstand, pitcher and bowl. Many of the rooms had a table, several chairs, a looking glass, and fireplace accessories.

Other rooms included in the inventory were north and south parlors, two dining rooms, a kitchen, a pantry room, and a bar room. The south parlor had two sofas, a side board, a dozen cane-back chairs, and a pier glass (a tall, narrow mirror fitted between two windows). There were four pictures and frames, a carpet, a mantel ornament, and a brass fender for the fireplace. The north parlor featured one sofa, a pair of side tables, ten hair-seat chairs (mahogany), and one rocking chair. Other furnishings included a mantle clock, two mantle ornaments, one pair of convex reflectors, one large pier glass, one astral lamp, one center table with cover, one carpet, and one brass fender. There were both public and private dining rooms. The public room had nineteen tables and eighty-eight Windsor chairs, three side boards, a coffee urn, and a tea urn. There were eleven dozen white dinner plates and six dozen sets of knives, forks and teaspoons. Glassware included forty-four tumblers and twenty-four wine glasses. There were nearly five dozen cups and saucers, along with salt stands, celery stands, sugar tongs, ladles, tureens, molasses jugs, and a gong. The private dining room was similarly furnished but on a smaller scale, with only nine tables and thirty chairs listed.

In the kitchen was a cook stove, a coffee boiler, a tea boiler, four small boilers, a large iron grill for the fireplace, twenty-three pans, eight steamers, and three sinks. In the pantry room were kettles, cake pans, and shape pans. The bar room had a sideboard, some writing desks, an iron chest, eleven chairs, and four settees, along with a map of the world, two lamps, a looking glass, and nine decanters.

In 1859 Enoch Ensley became the principal owner of the City Hotel. From Memucan H. Howard, the largest shareholder, he acquired 135 shares. He bought 119 shares from Lizinka Brown and, from several others, smaller amounts of stock. In October of 1859, Ensley owned 313 shares of stock with 79 shares remaining in other hands.

James R. Winbourn and his mother Mary B. Winbourn leased the City Hotel in December of 1861 from Enoch Ensley. In February of 1866 the Winbourns sold their interests in the City Hotel to Hare and Roberts. During their proprietorship at the City Hotel, Mary Winbourn managed the hotel while her son James took care of a farm the Winbourns had purchased in order to supply vegetables and milk for the hotel.

Enoch Ensley died in 1866 and the property was bequeathed to his son Enoch Ensley, Jr. Sometime in the 1870s the City Hotel was torn down. Enoch Ensley, Jr., sold the former City Hotel property in 1879 for the sum of $82,500 to William Watkins of Todd County, KY. Today that site is between the Woodland Street and Victory Memorial Bridges, east of the present courthouse, overlooking the Gay Street Connector and the Cumberland River.