|By Cindy Decker, The Columbus Dispatch,
OhioMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 18, 2011--NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A visit to the Union Station Hotel is a bit like time travel, only without the fussy gas lighting or quantum mechanics.
Soaring limestone towers and fortresslike walls give the magnificent Nashville landmark the imposing air of a European castle -- or perhaps a cathedral.
The massive Romanesque revival structure is a church of sorts -- a monument to commerce, a tribute to craftsmen and, indeed, to Tennessee itself.
Union Station, now a luxurious hotel, makes a great base for exploring Nashville, a city well-known for its country-music scene but which has much to offer besides.
Centrally located, the hotel sits next to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and within easy walking distance of the Art District, the Ryman Auditorium, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and the honky-tonks of Lower Broadway.
And for those who love railroading lore, it is simply a treasure to explore.
Construction of Union Station began in 1898, a time when a train station was the centerpiece of a community.
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad seemed determined to make sure its station was such a jewel; it poured $300,000 into the building, creating an opulent and functional work of art that incorporates locally quarried limestone, Tennessee pink marble, carved hardwoods, wrought iron and flashes of gold.
Despite the intricate detailing, the station was completed in just 26 months, opening in October 1900 to a flood of rail traffic, both commercial and passenger. During World War II, almost 3 million service personnel passed through the station.
But in the decades that followed, airplanes and automobiles eroded train use. Toward the end of its life as a passenger station, only one ticket window remained open; the rest of the building was shut off.
"By 1979, nothing came through except commercial trains," said Melanie Fly, marketing director for the Turnberry Hotel Group, owner of the hotel.
The once-magnificent but then-dilapidated station was almost torn down, and it sold for $1 at one point before it was redeveloped into a hotel in 1986. Since then, it has been a hotel under three different owners and has undergone millions in restorations, including an $11 million update by Turn-berry.
What is stunning is how much of the building survived years of neglect and sometimes ill-thought renovations.
"When we bought it, it had a lot of things painted mauve and seafoam," Fly said. "We were glad they didn't paint the gilt."
The original lobby floor was badly damaged by pre vious owners who built an elevated floor to hide heating and other mechanical elements. The first lighting fixtures are gone, too; they were gas.
But 100 years later, the stunning barrel-vaulted ceiling remains, featuring 128 stained-glass panels that allow light to wash over the lobby 65 feet below; along the ceiling's edges, gold-trimmed medallions glint.
The most ornate detailing of the hotel is visible on the balcony level, where 20 bas-relief angels of commerce stand watch.
"Every one is holding something different, representing some material that came in on a train," Fly said.
One angel holds corn, another whiskey, another a cow. But all were slightly scandalous for the time, with at least one breast exposed.
The balcony is bookended by additional images honoring travel and industry, those lucrative pursuits that L&N understood paid for Union Station.
At each end is a large black clock with gold numbers. They, too, are original and reportedly keep excellent time, more than could be said for the first clock in the 247-foot spire -- a digital model that was quickly replaced.
Below one interior clock is a bas-relief that pays homage to an early form of travel: an Egyptian chariot. Two more wingless angels, Time and Progress, flank the clock.
At the other end of the balcony is a relief of the Bully steam engine, a mod ern marvel. Miss Louisville and Miss Nashville accompany the steam engine, their faces modeled after the daughters of an L&N president and one of the station's masterminds.
Early visitors to the station snipped cattily about the girls' beauty -- or lack thereof, Fly said.
Around the lobby below, one can see hints of the ticket windows. Although they are long gone, a visitor can imagine them in the carved walnut arches now granting entrance to repurposed spaces.
Tucked into one corner of the lobby is Prime 108, an elegant restaurant adorned with semicircular stained-glass windows and an enormous painting: Allegory of America by Tommaso de Vivo.
Visitors to the hotel enter through what used to be the luggage entrance, but even that features stained-glass artwork along an outdoor walkway. The original grand arches facing busy Broad-way have been glassed in, creating an exceptional meeting or banquet space that resembles something that might fit in The Tudors.
In the tile floor is the logo installed when the station was built -- Mercury's wings paired with the wheel of a train.
Currently, Union Station is affiliated with the Wyndham Hotel chain, but in January it becomes part of the Autograph Collection by Marriott -- properties with unusual distinctions.
Union Station certainly embraces its distinctions.
In the lobby, over the reception desk, an original train schedule hangs; an artist has painstakingly gone over the fading chalk with white paint, forever preserving its history. firstname.lastname@example.org
(c)2011 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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