Gilbert had worked alongside 10 developers for more than a decade trying to design an economically feasible way to repurpose one of the buildings, the American Trust Bank at 301 Union St. The proposals, however, never worked out, mostly because the bank building was somewhat quirky—tall and skinny with relatively small spaces, and only about 4,000 square feet per floor. He was also aware of the underuse of the neighboring building, the Nashville Trust Building at 315 Union St. Although there had been tenants over the years, the building eventually ended up being vacant on the most visible first few floors. The old bank had strong bones, but much of its character was obscured by cheap build-outs and decorative features that hadn’t been changed since the 1980s.
Rather than be discouraged by the state of the old buildings, and the history of failed redevelopment attempts, Gilbert stayed optimistic and kept his eye on the future.
“I was determined to at least get the 301 building renovated during my career,” Gilbert says. “I always thought it was the grandest unrenovated building in the city. I considered it a life challenge to make sure something happened.”
Two buildings, several challenges
In 2007, an 11th developer entered the picture and purchased both bank buildings and an adjacent parking garage. With three structures to work with, new possibilities began to emerge. Gilbert and the GS&P team worked with the new developer on a proposal for Hotel Indigo, a 97-room boutique hotel, bar and restaurant with retail space that included Starbucks and an art gallery.
Not unlike previous renovation attempts, the newly envisioned hotel presented fundamental challenges that put into question the viability of the project. With only 4,000 square feet per floor and space for only six guest rooms per floor, the buildings were short of the necessary rooms to keep the project feasible. Since adding extra rooms was critical, it was one of the first things the team tackled.
“We simply had to find more square footage,” Gilbert says.
The team squeezed out more space for one additional guest room per floor by repurposing one elevator shaft for laundry and trash, constructing all mechanical shafts on the exterior and relocating one stairwell to the exterior of the building.
“Once we realized what we could do to get a little extra space, everything fell into place fairly quickly,” says project coordinator Bill Mays. “Our modifications reduced the common area to 17 percent of the floor and allowed the design team to gain enough square footage to add an additional guest room per floor. This increased the room count by 12 percent, which is exactly what the owner needed.”
The decision to construct a stairway on the outside of the building presented a two-pronged challenge. First, the extremely limited space posed potential codes concerns, an issue mitigated with creative assistance from Nashville’s Metro Codes Department. Second, it was difficult to design a stairwell that blended well, but not too well, with the rest of the building.
“It really was one of our biggest challenges,” Mays says. “The stairwell, railings and all, just meet the minimum requirements for the space. And because the solution moved the stairwell to the exterior, the Historical Commission required that it be clearly distinct from the original architecture. We were operating under a lot of restrictions, primarily because the buildings are in both an overlay district and a historic district, and had to go back to the drawing board several times.”
One of the more perplexing problems of the rehabilitation was directly tied to the colorful history of the buildings. American Trust was erected first in 1909, originally as a five-story building. When the owner of Nashville Trust decided to build his 15-story structure next door in 1925, American Trust felt compelled to compete.
“American Trust wasn’t going to be overshadowed by their rival, so they almost immediately made plans to add 10 stories to their building,” Gilbert says. “And in addition to trying to win the height battle, the owner of 315 [Nashville Trust] instructed his architect to design the elevator bank against the common wall and to misalign all the floors. Despite being next-door neighbors, they tried their best to turn their backs and outdo one another.”
With elevators back-to-back, and floors that were mismatched by several feet in some cases, it was initially unclear how to connect the buildings. The team discovered that on three of the 15 levels, the floor-to-floor misalignments were considerably less severe and could be connected with subtle ramps, thus disguising the incongruent floors on the first, second and basement levels, and the adjacent parking garage. An existing telephone room and electrical room had to be relocated, but the end result was an easy pathway to and from each building and the parking garage.
“It’s invisible to the guests,” Gilbert says. “You don’t even know you are moving from one building to the next.”
It was undeniable that the American Trust and Nashville Trust bank buildings had historical significance, but the GS&P team had to prioritize and make decisions about what to preserve based on factors such as degree of importance and financial feasibility. A meticulous assessment of the structures was required—every patch of floor and ceiling, every square inch of space, from the basement to the laundry closets. The team listed the major historic elements and then addressed them in order of importance. First and foremost, it was important to preserve the exterior facades of the buildings and make sure they stood out visually. That meant cleaning, painting and polishing the buildings, a task that hadn’t been carried out for decades. Accent lighting was added to the exterior to make the buildings more prominent at night and easier for hotel guests to find.
Returning both aging bank lobbies to their original splendor represented another daunting, yet critical task.
“Retaining the character of the lobbies was absolutely central to putting a historic stamp on the hotel,” Gilbert says “The lobbies are the first thing you see when you walk in, and you expect a grand space. It was very important to keep the proportions true to the original.”
The original two-story lobby in the American Trust building was full of surprises. A previous owner had floored over the two-story space in an attempt to add offices on the second floor, and to the casual observer it looked like an abandoned floor of old offices with a low, dingy ceiling and poor lighting. Beneath it all was a magnificent Jazz Era bank lobby with grand columns, marble floor and a breathtaking interior view.
“Someone had attempted a poorly conceived renovation and had stopped in mid-stream,” Gilbert says. “It was an odd combination of fresh paint adjacent to total chaos. The design team understood that recreating the original proportions of the historic two-story bank lobby was more important than the small amount of square footage that had been created. The result was a dramatic two-story retail space that quickly leased to a Starbucks franchise.”
Walking into the old Nashville Trust bank lobby was another step back in time, as various small rooms and additions encroached into the space, and the décor conjured the 1980s from floor to ceiling. The team solved much of the problem by demolishing the encroachments and opening up the space, and by uncovering the original marble flooring and repairing the moldings.
The lobby’s interior was also redesigned using Secretary of the Interior Guidelines for Historic Preservation, which gave a framework for providing a unique solution to the lobby’s overall look and feel. The guidelines require any new elements of a renovation to have a modern design, and Gilbert says they provided an excellent way to honor the building’s past while giving guests a feeling of the here-and-now.
“They are good guidelines because they require you to be able to walk into a room and be able to tell what’s original and what’s new,” Gilbert says. “We approached the lobby design as if we were adding jewels to a jewel box. The original architecture of the lobby made a strong statement. It was neoclassical and was mostly still intact. Our solution was to introduce oversized contemporary elements into the lobby.”
The most prominent example of the contemporary design solution is an oversized, curved lobby wall, parallel to the hotel’s bar. The wall is dramatic, dotted with large backlit curls that are reflected throughout the room. The team was also inspired to create the check-in desk to suggest a nautilus shell.
“We played off of the curves suggested by Hotel Indigo’s conch shell logo,” Gilbert says. “It is a bold element that defines the lobby and separates it from the bar and restaurant.”
One of the more surprising discoveries resulted in a valuable addition to the hotel’s guest rooms. A unique top-floor office in the American Trust building had been the personal office of Henry Hibbs, the original architect of the building, and presented the opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind space.
“The Collegiate Gothic-styled office was completely intact and screamed out to be used in a unique way,” recalls Gilbert, “and we made the decision to use it as a part of a very large four-room penthouse suite. It was an important goal of the project to keep the office because it adds to the historic character. The grand suite, which has its original proportions intact, is one of the crown jewels of the project and features the original woodwork and trim, fireplace, leaden, terrazzo floors and leaden glass.”
Since opening its doors in 2010, Nashville’s Hotel Indigo has been a smash. The project received widespread regional press during construction and after opening, and has won historic preservation awards from Nashville’s Metro Historical Commission and the Urban Land Institute.
“I’ve learned a lot from never giving up on this project,” Gilbert says. “Meaningful work can take a very long time, especially when it comes to historic renovations since they can be so complicated. Rather than jump in hastily, it’s sometimes better to take your time and let the buildings speak. Many of the solutions to this project emerged as we explored the history of the buildings, and during the process of pulling layers away. I’m just glad such grand buildings are back online in Nashville. They are back, they are living again.”