The grand dames of Southern hospitality

The Hermitage Hotel main lobby, complete with stained cut-glass ceiling.

In a nation replete with motel chains slugging it out for the public’s dollar, the thought of staying in a luxury hotel with pedigree probably doesn’t occur to most travelers.

This is neither about the overwrought décor of the sort commonplace in lavish Las Vegas hostelries, nor about having to re-mortgage your home to raise the money to underwrite a night for two in such a place.

At one time, a young and rambunctious America thought nothing of wild spending to replicate in some form the visual amenities and creature comforts commonplace in the grand hotels of Europe. Most, however, have fallen victim to the wrecker’s ball, the flight to the suburbs and the rush to architectural sameness.

The George V in Paris, Claridge’s in London, the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, the Medici in Rome … . They and their ilk have persevered through world wars and economic upheavals to remain in the upper echelon of grand hotels and their names are familiar to most travelers, by reputation if not from personal experience.

For the most part, the grand hotel concept does not apply in American towns and cities outside New York and Chicago, for example. That makes the exceptions all the more remarkable.

In a still-young country, the East Coast is our “old society,” so you’ll tend to find a few more of the surviving grand dames built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Take Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., for example. Each a center of Southern pace and style, each with a core activity that carries its own special cache and its own financial lifestyle that can help support grand hotels.

In Nashville, the global center of the country music industry, stands the Hermitage Hotel, located on Sixth Avenue North across from the Tennessee state capitol. It marked its 100th birthday in 2010, although it was closed from 1977 to 1981. Luckily for those who enjoy such places and traditions, Historic Hotels of Nashville purchased the property in 2000, ran it for several years, then closed it and put $18 million into a nearly year-long restoration effort.

The result is a breathtakingly elegant 123-room facility offering accommodations ranging from the 2,000-square-foot presidential suite to a trio of 1,000-square-foot executive suites and 120 other rooms, a grand ballroom, the mezzanine-level Governor’s Salon where the legendary pool player Rudolf Wanderone Jr., better known as Minnesota Fats, held forth on his own table against all comers when he lived in the hotel for several years in the 1980s.

Today’s sporting activities lean more toward the National Football League (the Tennessee Titans), National Hockey League (the Predators) and NASCAR.

Nashville has always been a major city in the pre- and post-Civil War South, home to two presidents – Andrew Jackson, after whose home, The Hermitage, the hotel was named, and James Knox Polk -- and a hotbed of politics.

Today it is the quintessential country music spot with, according to The Encyclopedia of Country Music, 90 record companies, 174 recording studios, 5,500 union musicians, 24 talent agencies, nearly 300 music publishers, 17 professional music organizations and 104 film and video production companies.

The famed Music Row anchored by the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Old Opry, isn’t glamorous until the sun goes down. Then the neon lights and the cruising traffic cover up the drabness of the strip. I found I quickly forgot about the outdoor ambiance once I caught some hard-charging country-rock bands at places like Tootsie’s, where I recommend the proximity to the cramped stage, or Robert’s, where a decent sized dance floor is a big lure.

But way back when, Nashville was more a gathering place for musicians and singers involved in big band music, when hotel orchestras were being broadcast nationally. The Francis Craig Orchestra reigned at the Hermitage Hotel’s famous Grille Room and Oak Bar from 1929 to 1945 and was broadcast over NBC Radio for 12 of those years when. It was Craig who introduced a shy local singer named Dinah Shore to America’s listening audience.

Those performers who could afford to flocked to the Hermitage Hotel to drink in the luxury as well as the cocktails at the Oak Bar.

Architect John E.R. Carpenter, a native Tennessean who had studied in Knoxville, Boston and Paris before setting up shop in New York City where he became known for his apartment building designs, designed the hotel. He utilized the lines of Beaux Arts classicism, which he had studied in depth at the Les Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris.

The interior, restored to its original style and color palette, is elegance personified. Grecian and Tennessee marble accentuate the soaring lobby, which is topped by stained cut glass. The Grand Ballroom is paneled in Circassian walnut from Russia and, like many of the building’s public spaces, has an ornate handcrafted ceiling.

Arched openings between coupled columns and extravagant decorative detailing in the French Renaissance style lead visitors from the lobby to the lush mezzanine as well as the eating and drinking areas. The Capitol Grille is a AAA Four Diamond-rated restaurant that serves nothing that has ever been frozen except ice cream. And even that is made on premises.

On the upper floors, the guest rooms are spacious and plush. Anxious as I was to see the sights and sample the nightlife of Nashville, the huge, cushy beds and spacious baths plus all the other room amenities tempted me to linger.

One might think all this history and luxury would be prohibitively expensive. Not so. While full suites range from $550 to $1,259 a night, you can book a perfectly nice deluxe room with a king or two queen beds, plenty of amenities including complimentary wi-fi for those who can’t live without Internet availability, for just $209 a night for a couple. And, there are numerous room and meals packages available, always worth considering when the establishment is known for good food as is the Hermitage. So, take that, Manhattan.

The Seelbach Rathskeller
Three hours’ drive north on I-65 is Louisville, in the heart of Kentucky’s bluegrass country. Home to the Kentucky Derby, the Muhammad Ali Center, University of Louisville basketball and Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom.

And, of course, the Seelbach Hilton.

This grand hotel has attracted the rich and famous for more than a century. F. Scott Fitzgerald was so taken by its posh look that he had his “The Great Gatsby” characters Tom and Daisy Buchanan marry there. Gatsby himself, it is said, was based to some degree on George Remus, a personable Cincinnati mobster who liked to make the easy 90-mile drive from his home turf to Louisville for bourbon and cigars at the Seelbach, pastimes Fitzgerald also enjoyed.

While Nashville’s Hermitage has had plenty of famous visitors, the Seelbach tops it. Its location in bourbon and horse country and its proximity to Cincinnati, Baltimore, Richmond and other sizable cities made it a mecca for the literary, gambling and bootlegging sets before Prohibition and a cast of equally colorful characters afterward.

The Seelbach is a descendant of Seelbach’s Restaurant and Café, an exclusive gentlemen’s club that was opened in 1874, the year before the first Kentucky Derby, by Louis Seelbach, who had emigrated from Bavaria.

Five years later, he brought his younger brother, Otto, to Louisville and they opened a larger establishment, with 30 guest rooms over the bar. Over the years, the business kept expanding until a brand new Seelbach Hotel opened in 1905. It was such a smash hit an additional 154 rooms were immediately added.

But, as with most undertakings, the Seelbach ran its course and was repeatedly sold or leased out. It finally closed in 1975 as business began moving to the newly emerging suburbs. It reopened in 1982, run by a subsidiary of Radisson Hotels, and became a successful convention venue as well as a hotel.

The Seelbach you see today, owned and operated by the Hilton company, has been restored to its original grandeur. In 1996, its Oakroom Restaurant reopened and earned the AAA 5 Diamond Award. In 2001 it was named to the Fine Dining Hall of Fame by Nation’s Restaurant News. It also has been named to Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s gold list of “The World’s Best Places to Stay.”

Curious yet about price? Details on that in a moment. There are a few other things to know about the Seelbach.

For one, it is located at 500 Fourth Street, a prestigious spot in Louisville because of something called ''Fourth Street Live,'' the city’s premier entertainment and retail district located right across the street between Liberty and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

Restaurants and nightclubs such as the Hard Rock Cafe, Red Cheetah dance club, Parrot Beach, Howl At the Moon and the Maker's Mark Bourbon House & Lounge that is run by the bourbon maker of the same name make finding something to do impossible not to.

Actually, you don’t even have to leave the premises. The Old Seelbach Bar, named to several “Best Bars in the World” list, is a study in old-fashioned comfort and ambiance. Low lights, soft leathers, dark woods and an excellent line of drinks make it a great place to while away some leisure time. I recommend the house special, the Seelbach Cocktail, a delicious combination of bourbon, champagne, triple sec and Peychaud and angostura bitters in a champagne flute.

Like the Hermitage in Nashville, the Seelbach is on the National Register of Historic Places. Unlike the Hermitage, its rooms are a bit on the small side. However, they’re fully appointed, immaculate and up to date without losing the period feel.

Price? You can stay there for as little as $219 a night for two people.

Old-fashioned Southern charm, modern conveniences, easy access by air or by car, all in affordable packages. Who says the era of the grand hotel in America is over?

The main entrance to the Seelbach Hilton at night.

The ornate lobby of the Seelbach as seen descending the staircase from the guests' rooms.

The famous Oak Bar at the Hermitage.

The Hermitage Hotel
Give Me Nashville
Seelbach Hilton
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