Five boutique hotels that have opened since 2017 are reinvigorating a historic downtown corridor in Nashville.
When Traveler magazine announced its Readers’ Choice Awards in November 2018 for favorite hotels in Music City, four new hotels around the city’s Printers Alley earned top 10 rankings. Rated favorites by Traveler readers were the 21c Museum Hotel, the Fairlane Hotel, the Bobby, and the Noelle. They ring Printers Alley, a headline-worthy destination once populated by raucous saloons and ink-stained publishers and printers of newspapers, sheet music, and books. Just this February, a fifth boutique operator joined the neighborhood with the Dream Hotel.
In Nashville’s hot tourism sector—the number of visitors has nearly doubled since 2008 to 15.2 million per year—the hotels of so-called Boutique Row have distinguished themselves with design features inspired by the area’s historic roots and reimagined with creative contemporary comforts.
Nashville long has been a destination for country music fans, drawn to landmarks such as the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry, and the modern expansion to the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.
But Nashville has sparkled anew in the past several years. In 2012, the network television show Nashville, a prime-time drama about fictional country music stars, debuted. The show, which ended its run in 2018, has been broadcast in dozens of markets around the world, bringing new fans to the city
In 2013, the city’s 2.1 million-square-foot (195,000 sq m), $623 million downtown convention showpiece opened as Music City Center; the facility is host to ULI’s 2019 Spring Meeting, April 16 to 18. A museum dedicated to “the Man in Black,” late country singer Johnny Cash, also opened in 2013.
And in September 2016, Vogue magazine selected Nashville as one of its “6 Cool Spots to Host Your Bachelorette Party,” leading to frequent sightings of bridal besties around town.
The city’s hospitality industry has responded to the increased traffic. From 2013 to May 2018, the number of hotel rooms in the Nashville central business district has risen from 7,241 in 41 hotels to 11,371 in 61 hotels—an increase surpassed only by markets in New York City and Chicago, according to STR Inc., a Nashville-area hotel data benchmarking company.
Newcomers to Printers Alley
The new Printers Alley hotels “are hipper and smaller, with a more boutique feeling to help them stand out against the big names,” says Jan Freitag, STR senior vice president. “They did a great job in design and look.”
“The area used to be the seedy underbelly of the Nashville entertainment scene,” he says. “Now, it’s hot and hip.”
Unlike those in many other cities, weekend hotel room rates in downtown Nashville are often higher than the weekday business rates, said Freitag. In part, that is attributable to the city’s entertainment scene, as well as to the boost in bachelorette—and bachelor—parties.
Nashville used to be a sleepy backwater, Freitag says. But that changed along with the shine and rise of country music, as well as Nashville’s already strong reputation as a beacon of higher education and a center of medical treatment and research for the South. Online retail giant Amazon has tabbed the city for an influx of 5,000 jobs, a number that some speculate will increase with the company’s recent withdrawal from plans to build a corporate campus in Queens, New York.
Nashville hotel room rates rose 3.2 percent in 2018, says Freitag, and he expects 2019 to see increases of about 3 percent. That represents a nine-year streak of year-over-year rate increases, though the average increase has grown smaller every year after peaking in 2014 at 12.8 percent. The diversity of brands available in the Greater Nashville hotel market, however, kept the daily room rate average at $147 a night in 2018, according to STR, up $4.55 from the 2017 rate. He expects a slightly smaller boost this year because of more competition and an increase in the number of limited-service hotels.
The Printers Alley Historic District—listed in the National Register of Historic Places—was a center of Nashville nightlife decades ago. In 1915, 13 publishers and 10 printers bordered the alley. The Tennessean and the now defunct Nashville Banner newspapers were once located there. During Prohibition (1920–1933), speak-easies flourished. In the 1940s, nightclubs played host to a slew of country music’s bedrock stars—performers like Boots Randolph, Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Dottie West, and Hank Williams.
It is an easy walk from Printers Alley to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Ryman Auditorium, the Frist Art Museum, and the sports venues that are home to the National Football League’s Tennessee Titans and the National Hockey League’s Nashville Predators. Printers Alley remains an entertainment destination today, and it is in this area that the Boutique Row hotels now beckon visitors, too.
21c Museum Hotel
The 21c Museum Hotel opened in May 2017, the seventh outpost of a boutique chain that includes a contemporary art museum on site at its properties. The brand was founded by contemporary art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson of Louisville, Kentucky.
The Nashville hotel is located in the historic Gray & Dudley building, built in the Chicago style circa 1900 and once the home of a wholesale hardware company of the same name. Now it houses a 124-room hotel, with 10,500 square feet (976 sq m) of art exhibition space open free to the public.
“It’s been a great project for us,” says Craig Greenberg, president and chief executive officer of 21c Museum Hotels. “We loved the building, and we loved the location and proximity to so much.”
When the 21c Museum team scouted the area, Greenberg says, the developers recognized a void in Nashville’s hotel scene and that the Printers Alley location presented an opportunity. Nashville development officials referred to Printers Alley as “a hole in the doughnut” of downtown Nashville’s remaking, Greenberg says.
“It’s a very different neighborhood from five or six years ago, when we started the project,” says Greenberg. “Nashville has been a very dynamic hotel market.”
The executive architect of the hotel was Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel Architects of Pittsburgh. New York City–based design and architecture firm Deborah Berke Partners designed the guest rooms, which have such striking features as wood floors and ceiling-high drapery over large windows.
The 21c Museum Hotel’s premier restaurant, named Gray & Dudley, has a historic air, taking its name from the 1900s building and featuring arched windows.
The hotel’s contemporary art exhibition space is a natural draw for the community, as well as for hotel guests. When the hotel recently debuted the exhibition “The Supernatural” featuring work by several artists, about 500 guests showed up as part of a monthly Nashville art crawl.
The Noelle Hotel Nashville
The Noelle Hotel Nashville opened in December 2017, offering 224 rooms and 2,100 square feet (195 sq m) of meeting space. Hospitality has long had a place here: the building served as a hotel when the structure opened in 1930 and was operated by the Noel family. That original hotel, which distinguished itself from others in the South by its early use of guest room ceiling fans, closed in 1972. The building then housed a bank and several law and financial firms before developer Rockbridge Capital of Columbus, Ohio, began the project to transform it anew in 2014.
Architect of record David Hawkins, with Nashville-based Feltus Hawkins Design, says he pored through newspaper clippings and photographic archives and talked to Noel descendants to acquaint himself with the building’s glory days. Some 28 Noel family members visited to walk through the structure before renovation began. (One family member still has six-foot-tall [1.8 m] lighted hotel sign spelling out N-O-E-L that he erects on his front lawn every Christmas, Hawkins said.)
The hotel’s history lives and modern architecture is showcased in the $80 million remake, which is accentuated by an 11-story, 63-room steel-and-glass addition that seems to hover in a setback over the art deco street facade.
Feltus Hawkins worked with Nick Dryden of Dryden Architecture & Design (DAAD). The hotel lobby and a common area with rosy Tennessee granite, known as the Trade Room, were largely intact when renovations began four years ago. An adjacent ballroom was the site of many fraternity and sorority proms, as well as political functions, over the years.
“We convinced the owners to ‘let’s not touch this’ because it’s such a piece of Nashville, the fabric of Nashville,” says Hawkins.
Today’s Noelle also trumpets its ties to Nashville-area artisans.
“That’s a real asset about this town. It’s not talked about enough,” Nick Dryden of DAAD, which did the interiors, told the online version of Nashville Lifestyles magazine in February 2018. “People talk about metrics, economics, and growth, but really what is under all that is a strong, local community. And, at the foundation of that is a creative community like nowhere else.”
Christine Magrann, chief operating officer of hotel operator Makeready, says a dedicated effort is being made to connect the Noelle with local artists and craftspeople. “We focus on those local partners and building trusting local relationships,” she says.
That focus is manifested in several ways. For example, leather craftsman Emil Irwin created barstools for rooftop and restaurant diners. Hotel plates were crafted by Salt Ceramics and its potter Jessica Cheatham. They and other artists also have wares available for sale at the Noelle.
“It’s very time consuming, and it’s a real commitment to relationships,” says Magrann. “But we believe in that, and I believe the guest gives us credit.”
The Fairlane Hotel
The Fairlane Hotel, located in a former bank building, opened in March 2018 and seeks to sizzle with 1970s style in its 81 rooms.
The guest rooms allow views of downtown through floor-to-ceiling windows. The top floor features a 4,000-square-foot (372 sq m) penthouse, evoking the era’s “crash pad” effect with a suspended fireplace and a bedroom with a smoky mirrored ceiling. The terrazzo floors also echo the 1970s look.
Jeff Kurzhal, project manager for Crain Construction, the hotel’s general contractor, says one of the hotel’s distinguishing features is its fourth-floor restaurant, Ellington’s Mid Way Bar & Grill, which offers exterior terrace dining amid fire pits and views of Fourth Avenue.
“You have downtown noise and feel and vibe, but you’re not on the sidewalk with people walking by,” says Kurzhal.
“The boutique hotels are taking existing structures and giving them a new use,” he says. “And they let the character of the original structure drive the design and feel of the project.
“When I moved here eight years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in this area, but it has just blown up since then,” says Kurzhal, noting that Printers Alley is near the city’s government and court buildings filled with office workers.
“The people already were there, and they needed new and different amenities,” he says. “Nashville already was a tourist town to begin with, when people were visiting all the honky-tonks and different bars a few blocks away on Broadway Street. But off the Broadway path, you get into other pockets of town that reflect the arts and cultural events.”
The Bobby Hotel
The Bobby Hotel, which opened in spring 2018, has become a topic of conversation for its rooftop bar, cut out of a 1956 Greyhound Scenicruiser bus, with a dipping pool and cabanas nearby. The nine-story, 144-room property continues the motoring theme with Bobby’s Garage, a bar with a stage for live shows lit by car headlights. Its chairs are repurposed oil cans, and gas pumps have become light fixtures.
Owner Castlerock Asset Management hired David Mexico Design Group of New York City to create a unique layout.
The hotel’s name personifies a fictional “Bobby,” an eclectic world traveler who makes Nashville his home base. The rooms are decorated with historic world maps, and there are bedside journals—because the phantom Bobby recorded his travels.
In the lobby is original artwork by a real songwriter, Bernie Taupin, the lyricist who wrote hits such as “Rocket Man,” “Bennie and the Jets,” and “Candle in the Wind” during a longtime partnership with Elton John.
The lobby also has a chandelier fashioned out of car parts; industrial steel and chains are additional design components. Once a bank, the building has a wall inspired by safe deposit boxes. To accent its pet-friendly policies, the hotel has a “canine ambassador,” a shepherd mix that answers to the name Sasha.
The Dream Hotel
The Dream Hotel opened this past February, offering 168 rooms and 8,000 square feet (743 sq m) of meeting space. The structure reimagines and unites two storied buildings—the Utopia Hotel and its infamous neighbor, the Climax Saloon, site of a 19th-century brothel.
The interior design by Meyer Davis Studio of New York City infused guest rooms with art deco touches. Twenty-one suites have lofted ceilings. With design by Nashville’s Earl Swensson Architects, a 10-story structure was added to the original six-story Utopia Hotel. Its GuestHouse presidential suite spans 1,400 square feet (130 sq m) and boasts a mahogany poker table.
About 20 more hotel openings are scheduled this year across the Nashville market, but the Boutique Row hoteliers say their ties to local history and their upscale amenities make them stand out. And as much as they are in competition, they also complement each other.
“There are a lot of new hotels in our area. It’s a great benefit for like-minded guests to have choices,” says the Noelle’s Magrann. “I think there’s a real commitment between other hoteliers to build that attraction for this part of town—and hopefully celebrating that success together.”