A Grand Tour

Assistant Editor Lauren Walser zig-zagged 4,500 miles across the country in just 16 days and learned that historic hotels were the best way to delve into the histories of the cities and towns she visited.

The rear door of our hatchback closed with a satisfying click, and my partner, Blaise, and I stepped back to survey our work. The contents of our life in Washington, D.C., filled every nook and cranny of the car, leaving not a cubic inch to spare. After congratulating ourselves on a job well done, we waved goodbye to the 1909 row house that we would no longer call home, buckled our seatbelts, and pointed the car west. We were moving back to Los Angeles, and we had a long drive ahead of us.

Though a cross-country move is certainly arduous, we decided to make the most of our road trip and planned a circuitous route through Tennessee into the Midwest, up the spine of the Rockies, out to the Pacific Northwest, and then back down the coast to Southern California. Practicality wasn’t our goal. We were on a mission to see as much of the country as we could in just 16 days, alternating long days of driving with 24-hour sojourns in cities and towns along the way.

The plan was to stay in the thick of each location’s historic center, aiming for a Historic Hotels of America property whenever possible (see HHA sidebar). As we traveled, we discovered that these historic hotels became not just places to sleep but also a way to absorb each city’s culture.

Union Station Hotel

It was well after midnight when we arrived—the storm caught up with us, slowing us to a crawl as we crossed the Tennessee border—but it was hard to miss the lights emanating from the spires and towers of the imposing Union Station Hotel (an HHA).

The next morning we explored the turn-of-the century train station, which was renovated as a hotel in 1986. Original stained glass still accents the 65-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling, and 20 “angels of commerce” sculptures reminded us of the products once transported via rail—whiskey, wheat, and books among them. A painted-wood train schedule behind the reception desk, limestone fireplaces, wrought-iron balustrades, and a marble floor nod to the building’s original function and the finery of a bygone era.

Construction of the Richardsonian Romanesque building began in 1898, and the station opened two years later, serving the passengers of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad. Dwindling rail travel caused the station to close in the 1970s, and the years that followed were unkind, leaving the building vacant and neglected. Though it became a hotel in the 1980s, it was not transformed into the luxury destination it is today until its current owners completed an $11 million restoration in 2007.

From the lobby, Blaise and I walked out onto the veranda, watching the trains pass by. Years ago, we might have seen movie stars or politicians emerge from the train with porters carting heavy luggage through the station doors. Or perhaps we’d have locked eyes with Al Capone, who was escorted through the station on his way to a Georgia penitentiary in 1932. But we saw only commercial freight, just passing through Music City. (See page 54 to read about this writer’s dining experience at Nashville’s Capitol Grille, which is located inside the city’s other HHA, The Hermitage Hotel.)

Hotel Boulderado

After two days of travel with a stop in St. Louis, our next destination was an HHA in downtown Boulder, Colo., where we learned about the region’s early mining days from inside the Hotel Boulderado and saw remnants of the city’s past up and down historic Pearl Street. An unexpected rainstorm derailed our plans for a late-afternoon hike, so we decided to explore the hotel once more to get a closer look at the curiosities we had discovered on our guided tour earlier that morning.

Blaise rang the bell outside the 105-year-old elevator shaft, signaling to the operator below to retrieve us. Back down in the lobby, we revisited the 1,500-square-foot leaded stained-glass ceiling. Installed in 1977, the ceiling was inspired by the original, which was destroyed during a snowstorm in 1950s.

We also inspected such artifacts as the first guest books and an early menu from the hotel’s restaurant, when a plate of prime rib cost 35 cents. Although the stained glass is a replica, the cherry staircase is original, and we let our hands run up the polished railings as we climbed from one floor to the next, studying old photographs, Victorian furnishings, and original light fixtures.

Wandering the building provided a perfect crash course in history—not just of the hotel but also of the city. We learned that in 1905, concerned that Boulder wasn’t growing quickly enough, the city council decided the town needed a grand hotel to attract tourists, conventions, and business opportunities. With money raised through stocks sold at $100 per share, the five-story Hotel Boulderado opened to the public on New Year’s Day 1909 to great fanfare. The tourists came, as did the businesses, and Boulder continued to grow from a small frontier town into an increasingly sophisticated city. But the hotel’s fortunes ebbed and flowed throughout the following decades, and by 1960, it was in a state of near shambles. It was designated a city landmark in 1976 and regained its luxury status after extensive renovations in the 1980s, when two additions that mimicked the building’s turn-of-the century architecture were constructed.

Wort Hotel

On our drive out of town we paralleled the Rockies’ Front Range, heading north into the heart of the Wild West. Travelers with quicker impulses than us had booked all the rooms at the Tudor Revival Wort Hotel, an HHA in Jackson, Wyo., so we satisfied ourselves with dinner and live music at the hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar instead. Thick burgers and local brews were a welcome end to a long day in Yellowstone National Park, and the electric guitar from the rock-and-blues band made for a fitting soundtrack to our night in the Cowboy State.

Between sets, Blaise and I stretched our legs with a walk around Jackson’s first luxury hotel. It was the dream of Charles J. Wort, who came to Jackson Hole as a homesteader in 1893. When Wort’s sons completed the hotel in 1941, it quickly became a popular spot for gambling—an activity that was largely illegal in Wyoming but tolerated as a tourist amusement.

There was no gambling that night. It was quiet inside—a calming reprieve from the bustle of the tourist-jammed historic town square a block away. People relaxed on deep leather couches next to the fireplace on the mezzanine, where an elk trophy and oil paintings of regional wildlife were mounted on the walls. The wood paneling, dim lights, and thick carpets added to the rustic western charm.

Our frontier adventure continued the next day, with moose crossings, steep mountain passes, snowfall, and torrential downpours as we drove through Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. We stayed a night in historic downtown Butte and grabbed dinner at the M&M Cigar Store, an 1890 restaurant and bar opened by two miners during the city’s boom, back when copper was king and the Butte was “the richest hill on Earth.” From Montana, it was off to the Pacific Northwest.

Mayflower Park Hotel

We had a clear view of Elliott Bay from our room on the 12th floor of the 1927 Mayflower Park Hotel (an HHA), the oldest continuously operating hotel in downtown Seattle. The horizon stretched before us, along with a clear view of the sun setting over the buildings and, farther in the distance, the Olympic Mountains. We wanted to see the sights up close, so the next morning, we boarded the Seattle Center Monorail around the corner from the hotel. Built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, it shuttles passengers to the sprawling Seattle Center campus and the Space Needle, both built for the World’s Fair as well.

From there, we walked down to Seattle’s famous 1907 Pike Place Market for lunch, then hiked up to the Capitol Hill neighborhood. We wandered the Pike-Pine Corridor, once the city’s “auto row,” and explored the stores and cafés housed in the old warehouses and car dealerships.

Back at the hotel, we rested our aching feet at Oliver’s, a swanky bar that opened in 1976 in what was once a Bartell Drug Store in the hotel lobby. (Because the hotel was built during Prohibition, no areas were originally designed to serve liquor.) The floor-to-ceiling windows proved well-suited for people watching, and the award-winning cocktails were soothing elixirs as we recovered from a long day of sightseeing and prepared for the next day’s trek to Portland.

The Governor Hotel

After a quick three-hour drive, there was still enough daylight left to check out the city, so we set out on foot to explore areas such as the Pearl District, a revitalized downtown neighborhood with breweries and galleries in old warehouses, and funky Alberta Street, the centerpiece of one of the Portland’s oldest neighborhoods.

After sunset, we settled into our room at The Governor Hotel downtown. Although the epitome of elegance when it first opened as The Seward Hotel in 1909, it was used to house soldiers during World War II and, in the years following, a family carpet store. In the 1980s, native Oregonians Donald Stastny and Candra Scott used historical photographs and a little bit of detective work to reclaim the building as a luxury hotel.

As the gentleman at the front desk explained to us, The Governor is actually a new hotel tucked inside a shell designed by Oregon’s first State Architect, William C. Knighton. But when you’re walking through the heavy wooden doors or roaming the hallways, past the Arts and Crafts details and the murals depicting Pacific Northwest history, it’s as if you are visiting Portland in the days following its 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, when the city was experiencing a major population boom and becoming increasingly affluent.

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Five historic hotels, 16 days, and 4,500 miles later, Blaise and I crossed the finish line into Los Angeles. We had watched the country pass by from inside the car, taking in such sights as the soaring bridges that span the Cumberland and Mississippi rivers, the sturdy red barns punctuating rolling Midwest farmland, and the bungalow-lined streets of the Pacific Northwest. But we had seen even more when we stopped for the night.

We didn’t have time to explore every corner of every city that we visited, but our hotels taught us plenty—a revelation, because I have never regarded hotels as much more than safe places to sleep and shower. The hermetic interiors and mass-produced furnishings of so many hotels have always made them feel removed from the cities they inhabit: Once you’re inside, you could be anywhere. But in the five historic hotels we visited, that was never the case. The city was in the lobbies, the elevators, the hallways, and the rooms. It was in the period furnishings and on the facades. We couldn’t have asked for better tour guides.

Online Exclusive: Relive assistant editor Lauren Walser’s cross-country road trip with this behind-the-scenes slideshow.

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