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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Adaptive Reuse is Hard to Refuse

Historic travel girl loves things that used to be other things. Like flip flops that used to be school bus tires. And shoppers with long handles Macgyvered from old license plates and toothpaste caps.

In fact, when historic travel girl was really just a girl, she found a blacksmith (not easy to do before the Internet, folks) who agreed to take discarded door hinges from our renovated barn and turn them into wall sconces. I gave them to my dad for Christmas. He still has them.

All of this is to say that I love love love hotels that weren't hotels originally.

So I figured I would adore the Union Station Hotel ( in Nashville, TN. I checked in late one Thursday night, exhausted from the long day of work and the short flight from BWI. Even in my bleary-eyed state, I was knocked out by the impressive lobby, and its 65 foot barrel-vaulted ceiling. Trust me, folks, this is a serious neck-cricking opportunity.

As you've probably deduced, Union Station used to be a train station. And the Wyndham Group, which has run the hotel since 2007, keeps some of the coolest features of its original use. Like the train schedule, posted behind the check in desk. I noticed right away that said schedule included The Dixie Flyer and it's scheduled stop in Nashville. So, even though I was bone tired, I found myself humming the Randy Newman song (

Today, the hotel/railroad station has 125 rooms, although a lot of them are more like suites (mine had two rooms, and--since I was traveling for work, justincasemybossisreading--I didn't request a special room). The other rooms were nice, too, fitted into the old offices in the upper floors of the station.

You'll like the location of the hotel--just a short walk from Second Avenue and the honky tonks that line its historic streets. And you'll like the staff, who have no problem taking time from their duties to show you where the alligator ponds used to be in the lobby, or tell you about the time Al Capone came through on his way to the Georgia penitentiary (note: it would be a better story if he fed one of the FBI agents to the alligators, but I think his trip was pretty run-of-the-mill).

All in all, I went to Union Station a bedraggled business traveler. I left a happy historic travel girl once again. See why I love things that used to be other things?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

One year later: no one likes Ike

It was a year ago on September 13 that Hurricane Ike barreled towards Galveston, Texas. By Friday afternoon, the stately commercial buildings on the Strand and lovely Victorians on the island's East End were already underwater.

Now, a year later, many of the island's historic homes and buildings have been restored. Judging from the waterlines posted around the town, the Strand and East End took on about nine feet of water. That saltwater unfortunately killed many of the island's 100-year-old live oak trees.

Every tragedy has an upside. The upside is that the island's homes are showcased better than ever. They pop out of the landscape like strongly built doll houses...full of charming details and the proud owners who restored them.

Galveston is no stranger to storms. On September 8, 1900, over 8,000 people were killed in a horrible hurricane. That tragedy remains the largest loss of life in a natural disaster in the United States.

But this storm was different. This storm happened in the era of YouTube and daily blog updates (the Galveston Daily News at continues to monitor hurricane recovery in well written and insightful blogs). This storm also happened while Mr. Haines' movie class at Ball High School was in session. The class was studying black and white silent films until the school was closed and the island was evacuated on Wednesday.

When school returned in November, the students thought they would continue their studies. Instead, Mr. Haines handed out the video cameras, dried off the mic, and told the students to go out and tell the story of the storm. He told them to tell their stories. Tell the island's stories.

The resulting film and documentary ( is not just a great piece of film-making (it really is nicely edited and well produced). It's a beautifully crafted tribute to the people who--just like their ancesters in 1900--dug out from the mud, rebuilt and refurbished, and continued to go on with their lives. It is at times funny, at times sad...but it is always sincere and honest. The storytellers did not turn off their cameras as their mothers cried, picking their way through waterlogged photos and dreams. In fact, the storytellers moved closer to the story, showing their own neighborhoods (or lack thereof--several of the students completely lost their homes, some to the point where they weren't even sure where they used to be). They shared their stories, their grief, and their recovery...and they've made their stories a part of the island's rich and varied history.
I saw the film on September 13, 2009...exactly one year after the storm. It was screened in the Grand Opera House, a stunning example of the Victorian grandeur that still covers the island. When the movie was over, the entire audience stood and applauded the young filmmakers.

I think they also were applauding themselves. Because everyone in that theater had survived as well.

I'm proud of Galveston and the huge efforts that have been undertaken in the last 12 months. If your travels take you anywhere close to Houston, I suggest you swing by and check it out.