In our latest adventure, my friend Vicki Cooper Trammell definitely was “Lucy” to my “Ethel.” It was all her idea. All I did was drive. And like Ethel in an “I Love Lucy” episode, I had more than one wide-eyed, open-mouthed “gasp” moment. We went to see the traveling production of the Broadway smash “Hamilton” during its nearly three-week gig at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. It’s sold-out run there began in late December. Vicki had purchased tickets months earlier. My ticket was either my birthday or Christmas present (maybe both). The show exceeded my expectations. It is a masterpiece. A complete musical. I mean there is no spoken dialogue. The two-act play, with intermission, is about 2 hours 45 minutes. But the story told in songs, paired with riveting choreography, moves at what seems a much faster pace. I do love American history. I didn’t expect, even with all the hype since the show debuted on Broadway, to be so entertained — enthralled, really — by the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Attending the play was certainly the peak “gasp” during the trip.
The most unexpected “gasp,” however, came when we arrived at our place of lodging: The Russell. I’d left “Lucy” in charge of accommodations, even though that’s usually a trip-planning point I demand to control. I am old school. Name brands. Points. I want free parking and free breakfast. Familiar and predictable. She wasn’t having it. She sent me a vague link and all I could tell was it was in a re-purposed old building and in East Nashville. I’d never heard of East Nashville. I was warned years ago by government officials to stay away from certain areas of town, no matter how nice a hotel might sound online. I couldn’t remember, though, which neighborhoods they’d warned me about. And that was probably 15 years ago or more when I spent more time in Nashville for business. I was skeptical of this East Nashville “boutique hotel” Vicki had booked. But I kept my mouth shut.
Until we arrived and immediately fell in love with The Russell, a converted 115-year-old historic church at 819 Russell Street, at the corner of South Ninth Street. From its parking lot across the street, you get a jaw-dropping view of both its historic stained glass rose windows. And then here’s where things got … unique. A first, in all my worldly travels. The Russell doesn’t have a front desk or any signs of a staff. When you arrive, you’ve texted a code to the front door to enter the fabulous lobby. Another code is sent to get you into your room. Its 23 unique rooms are spread over three floors. There’s no elevator. We were on the third floor (“Lucy” claims she had no idea room numbers starting with “3” would be upstairs). On the way to the stairwell, I was happy to find a “luggage lift,” sort of an overgrown dumbwaiter. You push the call button, open the door, and place your luggage inside. Walk up to your floor, push the call button, retrieve your luggage.
While the building’s exterior remains as traditional as possible, its interior is delightfully eclectic and modern, with more than a hint of mid-century influence. I was most impressed with the use of old church pews as headboards. We were both pleased to learn The Russell gives away a substantial portion of each night stay to local homeless ministries. According to its website, an average stay at The Russell provides 16 beds and warm meals at local homeless shelters. The Russell’s slogan: “Stay Here, Change Lives.”
I didn’t get my free breakfast, the one I usually expect from the hotels I consider second homes. This time it mattered more to know someone else was getting a free meal — someone who doesn’t even have a home.
“Something like this would be great in Kingsport,” Vicki said as they walked through the lobby on our way out to the play.
“Yes,” I agreed. “It wouldn’t have to be an old church. There are plenty of historic buildings that could be converted like this.” The Russell is about 2 miles from the heart of downtown Nashville. Looking down Russell Street we could see the skyline, which didn’t seem that far.
From The Russell’s website:
• “The Russell is considered by many to be the most unique boutique hotel in Nashville. It is housed in a 115-year-old historic church and is nestled away in one of Nashville’s most fun neighborhoods. Named “Nashville’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Vogue, East Nashville is one of the city’s most desirable places to live and play.”
• “The Russell consists of 23 unique rooms with a character that is unmatched in town. The owners were able to keep many of the original features (stained glass windows, old brick walls, reusing the pews as bed headboards, etc) which adds to the guest’s experience and the ambiance of the hotel. The rooms have all been curated by one of Nashville’s most well-known designers and the owners spared no expense to make sure our guests have the best experience in town.”
• “Built-in 1904, this all-brick beauty has seen its fair share of poverty, illness, and natural disaster. But it has also seen a community gather together, lean in, and persevere in the midst of hardship. When scouting locations for this hotel, we settled here because of this neighborhood’s rich history and this building’s legacy in hospitality.”
From a timeline:
• The building was constructed by Cumberland Presbyterian Church in 1904. • In 1913, it was sold for $10,500 to Russell Street Church of Christ (then known as Woodland Street Church of Christ). Their first service here was on May 25, 1913.
• Three years later fire swept through the neighborhood and destroyed 35 blocks in less than 5 hours. This building was unharmed, but damage to the rest of the community was devastating.
• During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the church was converted into a makeshift hospital to care for the surrounding East Nashville community.
• In April 1998 a tornado does significant damage, blowing off the steeple, tearing a gash in the roof, and breaking several of the iconic stained-glass windows. Repair costs exceeded the insurance settlement.
• A developer purchased the damaged building in 2001 and made some repairs.
• The Russell opened in June of last year.