The question of the day – honestly the question I wrestle with most days – is what makes historic hotels historic? Is it enough that they simply proclaim themselves to be historic or is certification by an outside body necessary? Is it their age? Is it their condition and integrity? It is how aesthetically pleasing they are? It is the people and events associated with them? Is it their significance to local, state or national history and culture? Is it how they interact with their communities in the present? Is it their value as a heritage development asset?
The group of historic hotels I am researching – National Register listed historic hotels and inns in Tennessee – is bounded by the criteria established by the National Park Service for National Registry eligibility. As such, they are typically at least fifty years old, their integrity remains intact (i.e., they are not drastically altered and have not been moved from their original location) and/or they represent a significant event or person to community, state nation or they are distinctive from an architectural or artistic perspective.
The criteria for eligibility not only provide a framework that can be applied but fundamentally shapes my understanding of what makes a historic building historic. National Register nominations are also valuable sources of documentation as they provide a figurative and literal snapshot — high definition photographs accompany nominations — of the condition of a building at a particular point in time as well as the rational provided to meet the criteria.
The criteria clarifies that the present function of a building does not have to match its historic function. Said another way, even if a hotel is converted into say affordable housing for the elderly or business offices it would still be listed and classified as a historic hotel by the National Register (e.g., New Southern Hotel in Jackson and Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville).
But does it work in reverse – a National Register listed property is converted from its historic function say a railroad terminal into a hotel (e.g., Chattanooga Choo-Choo in Chattanooga and Union Station in Nashville)? Should these properties be considered “historic hotels” and included in my study? Two factors helped resolve the issue for me. One, the Choo-Choo and Union Station are both members of the Historic Hotels of America Program administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (http://www.historichotels.org) that means from a marketing perspective they consider themselves historic hotels and the Trust agrees with their assessment. And two, they are both significant properties within their respective communities and leaving them out would raise questions. Are they not hotels? Are they not listed on the National Register? So why would they not be considered National Register listed “historic hotels”? For these reasons, I am including them within my study and will consider their value as heritage assets.