Chic Boutique Hotel Transforms Historic Downtown Memphis Property
Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography courtesy of Hotel Napoleon.
For years I have driven past a beautiful old downtown Memphis building on Madison. I could envision living there in an apartment with my baby grand piano in one of the arched windows. This building once housed Memphis Power and Light, predecessor of Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division. Then it was an office building with real estate and law firm offices when Snay Patel and Jay Kumar bought it. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a blend of Beaux-Arts and Romanesque Revival architecture.
Embedded in the Madison Avenue façade are small shields initialed N and H for the original owner--Napoleon Hill. Ornate lion head masks and fleur-de-lis appear below the roof, above semi-circular, arched windows. A brass grill with a laurel wreath decorates the arched transom window above the main entrance from B.B. King Boulevard (formerly Third Street). A second transom shows remnants of a decal reading “8 South Third.” Exterior lighting was installed to highlight the building’s architectural detail at night.
The building—now Hotel Napoleon—was named for Napoleon Hill (1830-1909), known as the “Merchant Prince of Memphis.” In postwar Memphis, Hill became one of the leading businessmen among the cotton and merchant houses of the day. He also invested in banking and real estate as well as in New South industrial development. As Memphis rose to prominence as the world’s leading cotton spot market and one of the nation’s largest wholesale grocery distribution centers, Hill became wealthy, powerful, and socially prominent. His business interests included the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce, Cotton Exchange, the Union and Planter’s Bank, and the Citizen’s Street Railway Company. Hill lived ostentatiously in a mansion he built at the present site of the Sterick Building in downtown Memphis across the street from Hotel Napoleon. He died in 1909 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
Investors Snay Patel and Jay Kumar have transformed a piece of Memphis history into upscale lodging in Hotel Napoleon at 179 Madison.
The partners in Suna Investments, who grew up in family hotel businesses, previously had opened hotels in suburban DeSoto County including a 92-room Holiday Inn Express in Southaven. They opened the 58-room hotel in the 115-year-old Memphis Press Scimitar Building in late September of 2016 after a year of interior demolition, renovation and restoration. It is their first joint venture. A grand opening was held on January 24 with 600-800 people in attendance.
Recently I spoke to Snay Patel, about the beautiful old building and asked why he and his partner had chosen to convert it into a boutique hotel. I asked Patel what appealed to him about this historic building, and his response was brief and to the point. “To be honest, simply the architecture,” he said. “I studied architecture in school.”
Hotel Napoleon reminds me of a modern hotel one might find in Paris, France. Industrial look stainless steel railings line the stairwells that navigate a multi-level first floor. Circular LED lights dangle from a soaring ceiling, and changing-color LED-backlit signs designate the front desk and a one-desk business center in the lobby. Lobby amenities include Bluetooth-enabled clock radio docking stations, a 50-inch flat screen television with 130 channels and WiFi connections so guests may print documents on the lobby printer, which is paired with a large-screen Apple desktop.
Hotel Napoleon is part of a boom in hotel rooms in the downtown market, but it is the only current project that adaptively re-used an historic building.
“I think (the hotel) is incredible,” said architect Charles “Chooch” Pickard, who was historic preservation consultant for the project designed by UrbanARCH of Memphis. “It’s a great mix of ultra-contemporary with historic.”
A Visit at Hotel Napoleon
A few weekends ago I had the pleasure of being a guest at Hotel Napoleon. I was greeted warmly by a friendly person at the Front Desk. It was a quiet Sunday on my arrival date, but most days you will be greeted before entering the building by a personal valet who will take care of parking your vehicle for a daily fee of $25, or you may self-park. (Note: If you park on the street, be sure to move your car by 7:00 a.m.) Valet service is from 7:00 a.m.–11:00 p.m.
I arrived in time for brunch in Luna (means moon), which is a restaurant and a bar that will comfortably seat about 45 guests. Sunday brunch is offered from 6 am-1 pm.
Luna has clean lines with a quartz bar top and Italian bar stools. Dark green marble panels recovered from the façade were incorporated in the lobby bar and there are sleek black tables and chairs. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the bustling streets of downtown Memphis.
My brunch was very good. A friend and I ordered a specialty mimosa called The Florida/Georgia Line consisting of orange juice, peach schnapps and Sparkling Brut; and we shared an order of Napoleon’s Toast consisting of cream cheese-stuffed French toast topped with maple syrup, fresh blueberries and bacon. It was yummy! Other brunch offerings included a breakfast wrap, spicy sausage quiche, vegetable blend quiche or a Create Your Own 2-egg Omelet. Side dishes were a la carte.
Both the sous chef—Unza Bernard—and the bartender—Shannell, a former Pan Am flight attendant for over 20 years, were very friendly and accommodating. Prior to and following my visit I spoke to James “Rocky” Goodwin, Jr., the experienced hotel concierge who goes the extra mile to assist the guests. He has been at the hotel since the day it opened. Note: Mr. Patel stressed that he “is big on service and he has trained his staff to be service-oriented. Cleanliness is equally important,” he added.
Luna Hours: Breakfast: 6:00–10:00 a.m. Monday through Saturday; Dinner: 5:00–10:00 p.m. Bar Hours: 5:00–10:00 p.m. daily including weekends. Happy Hour Monday-Friday: 4:30–7:00 p.m. Sunday Brunch: 6:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m. At present Luna is not open for lunch but eventually lunch will be offered. Guests at the bar enjoy tapas, drinks and craft beers, and dinner is served in Luna with appetizers and entrees. Note: If the restaurant is closed and a guest is hungry, he may find wraps and salads in a small refrigerator near the espresso machine in the lobby.
At some point a piano will be added to the lobby for the guests’ enjoyment.
A Tour of the Hotel
I enjoyed reading about Napoleon Hill in a large framed piece in the lobby, and near the Front Desk is a framed Elvis Special Edition in 1977. The headline reads as follows: “A Lonely Life Ends on Elvis Presley Boulevard.”
Expanses of Tennessee marble were retained in the lobby.
There are 58 rooms in Hotel Napoleon. On the lower level are two suites and an exercise room. “Each room is different because of the way the building is constructed,” explained Patel. But the room layout may be the same. Each of the windows is slightly different.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my guest room with 12-foot ceilings was a corner room with a light-filled window like the ones I had admired for years when I lived in nearby Court Square. The room was very modern and clean with ultra-luxurious surroundings in soft hues and earth tones. All rooms are appointed with one King or two Queen-sized beds. You will have a comfortable night’s sleep on a Simmons Choice Beautyrest mattress wrapped in Egyptian linens along with assorted pillow selections.
Modern LED lighting, an individual climate-controlled thermostat, refrigerator, iron and ironing board, and Keurig coffee makers featuring Starbucks coffee are in each room. Conveniently placed USB charging stations are located throughout the room along with WiFi and a convenient work desk. A 50-inch LED television provides complimentary HBO, Showtime and Cinemax.
The bathroom features an elegant high-end rain shower, sleek European tiles, backlit mirrors, crisp white quartz vanity, a sliding door, glass-enclosed shower, bathroom slippers and Pure bath amenities.
All floors are key-accessed and all rooms have new technology locks.
Some interesting discoveries were made during the renovation of the hotel. “We found a big vault-like cavity beneath the laundry room in which there was old furniture, and we found an old concrete staircase below the sidewalk,” stated Patel. “The building had two bank vaults per floor. The lobby where the staircase now is was once a metal staircase. It would chime if you stepped on it. It was a musically driven staircase!”
I asked Mr. Patel what sets his hotel apart from other hotels in Memphis, especially in downtown Memphis. “The uniqueness and design of the building differentiate our hotel,” said Patel. “I don’t think there is a building like this in all of Memphis in terms of French architecture. We took a modern approach to an historic building, more clean lines, more modern amenities, more technology. It’s designed with the millennial market in mind,” Patel said.
The location of the hotel is ideal. Hotel guests are near AutoZone Park (home of The Memphis Redbirds) and the FedEx Forum near Beale Street, and it is within walking distance of restaurants and entertainment venues, and the legendary Rendezvous Restaurant.
“International families who stay in Hotel Napoleon enjoy taking their children to Beale Street in the daytime, and in the evening the Orpheum Theatre with its classic theatre packages, beckons. Special events like the St. Jude’s Marathon, which takes place near the hotel in December, attract adults and children. Our guests also enjoy attending Grizzlies games and the River Walk on Mud Island.”
Patel has been quoted as saying that five years from now the location of Hotel Napoleon will be a happening intersection. “The former Leaders Federal Savings Bank will become a boutique hotel. I think there will be more recognition of the area because two hotels are on the drawing board—the former Leaders Federal Savings Bank building plus an Econo Lodge. In addition, there is the Brass Door, which is a British pub across the street from Hotel Napoleon, and an outdoor garden offering movies and a green space plus a beer garden that recently opened. The revitalization of this area will come once all of these amenities are in place.”
Patel is confident that the Hotel Napoleon project supports downtown’s rebirth. “When you take a building like this that has a unique historical look to it, and you put a lot into it, that just brings something additional to the city,” he said. “That creates a vibe, and that’s what has happened for us.”
What to Know
179 Madison Ave., Memphis, TN 38103
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Hotel Napoleon hotel is affiliated with thee Ascend Hotel Collection of Choice Hotels, a lodging group that provides a reservation system to affiliates.