In Memphis, Tennessee, on a recent trip, I had an interesting experience: A luxurious hotel that for most of its life had been a major railroad station.
When I arrived at the Central Station Hotel, Curio by Hilton, in Downtown Memphis I wasn’t yet exactly sure if this was still a train station along with a hotel, but what I did know is I was impressed with the amazing interior when I entered the lobby.
After checking in, I started asking questions and hit the internet to find out more about this grand space. Constructed in 1914 as Grand Central Station, it is now known as Memphis Central Station. Built by the Illinois Central Railroad for $1.5 million, it features Roman Doric architecture.Above the second floor of the building was Illinois Central and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley roads offices.
For decades, the station thrived. During the height of passenger rail travel in the 20th century, it had more than fifty arrivals and departures daily. Central Station's success led to prosperity for the surrounding neighborhood. Stores, restaurants, and hotels were built for the travelers coming to Memphis.
The rapid decline of passenger train travel after World War II made Memphis Central Station an aging, nearly deserted monument to an earlier era. With the permanent closure of Union Station in 1968, Central Station became the sole intercity station in Memphis.
By 1971. Amtrak was the only rail service at the station, and it cut back service to a single train, the City of New Orleans. Large sections of the train station were closed off and abandoned. Many thought the station would eventually be razed, facing the same fate as Union Station.
It fell into disrepair over the next two decades. In 1995, the Memphis Area Transit Authority gave Central Station new life. A $20 million renovation saved the building.
A new generation discovered the South Main area giving birth to Memphis's very first arts district. Much of the former waiting area became a public meeting space. Former offices on upper floors were converted into condominiums.
In 2019 the station underwent a significant $55 million remodel that included a new Amtrak ticket office and waiting area. And, the hotel opened including a refurbished ballroom, The Bishop restaurant and Eight & Sand bar and lounge.
It turns out, that’s a success story that’s been repeated in many other cities as well, preserving beautiful buildings and revitalizing neighborhoods. In the U.S. stations have been redeveloped into hotels in places as diverse as Denver, Chattanooga, Scranton and Nashville.
Lackawanna station, Scranton
In Philadelphia, the Reading Terminal has become the city’s Convention Center with hotel and exhibit spaces. And in Helsinki, one of the classic Art Nouveau works of 20th century architect Eliel Saarinen has become a hotel while continuing as a station.
Saarinen's son, Eero figures in this story, too. His then-avant-garde 1962 TWA terminal at New York's JFK airport, after several years without use, has now re-opened as a plush on-field hotel, too.
In Memphis, Central Station Hotel is part of the South Main Street Historic District. It offers 123 guest rooms decorated with touches of the station's history. My room is comfortable and lovely, service is friendly and professional, and the location is perfect for exploring this energized city.
There is so much to see and do in Memphis. If you make Central Station Hotel your base while touring the city overlooking the Mississippi River, you’ll be close to Beale Street and other downtown sites.