Hospitality in the name of the Lord

Spiritual stay: Hotel Louisville, where guests and local people mingle (Charlotte Hindle)
Spiritual stay: Hotel Louisville, where guests and local people mingle (Charlotte Hindle)

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

For a road trip last week across the American South, I kept two rules about accommodation:

  • Book nothing in advance. Flexibility is an important asset when you are exploring new territory.

  • Stay downtown. Although random motels on the shores of freeways serve a purpose, there is nothing more soulless and transient than a room with a view of a car park.

As always with the pound so pathetic, another condition applied: keep costs to a minimum. And this was how the week shaped up.

Greenville, South Carolina: a painful $188 at the Home2 Suites, due to it being St Patrick’s Day and the city being nearly full.

Asheville, North Carolina: $99, good value as a “walk-in” at the very central Downtown Inn.

Knoxville, Tennessee: $143, the Hilton (which I would never normally choose) through a site called SuperTravel (which I would never normally use) at $20 below the book-direct rate. I ignored an invitation from the intermediary to tip $2 for the saving.

Louisville, Kentucky: $83 at the Hotel Louisville. Yes, a rate much lower than the norm. You can’t miss this brute on Broadway, one of the main streets downtown – a 12-storey slab of Seventies concrete that take the word “functional” to extremes.

“Spirited Hospitality,” reads the sign outside.“For out-of-town travellers, we provide a comfortable night’s rest with a healthy dose of Southern hospitality.”

In terms of upkeep, the Hotel Louisville has seen better days (haven’t we all?). But the rooms are clean and comfortable, with robust wifi and, from some, a distant view of the Ohio River.

This is, though, no ordinary hotel – as you discover when you ask for the wifi code: “godislove.”

After falling on hard times, the Hotel Louisville became a homeless shelter. That is still a role the property plays, as I was told by the Louisville writer and historian, David Dominé.

“It’s the only place like it in the United States. It provides shelter for homeless people, people that need transitional housing, women escaping abusive relationships, people coming out of prison,” he says.

But unlike other homeless accommodation, a proportion of rooms are rented to tourists. The hotel aspect is run by the people who live there.

The Hotel Louisville is owned and operated by the Wayside Christian Mission, which says it “serves as a safe, clean transitional living shelter for women and families while providing rooms for tourists and business travellers”.

Louisville is well provided with “signature” hotels. There are three downtown: the Seelbach Hilton, with a miraculous Rathskeller decorated with pottery; The Brown, a century-old landmark on the National Register of Historic Places; and the amazing 21c Museum Hotel, which has a 30-foot sculpture of David right outside, like you do.

But the Hotel Louisville’s spirit of providing more than a room for the night continues a fine tradition.

The earliest incarnations of long-distance travel in peace, as opposed to war, were pilgrimages – with many refuges provided for the devoutly weary. And Thomas Cook, a man of deep religious conviction as well as the father of modern tourism, built a Temperance Hotel on Granby Street in Leicester, and ran a soup kitchen from there.

“Much more than a hotel,” says the Wayside Christian Mission. “This is a safe haven for women, a training centre for the chronically unemployed.” And, the publicity adds: “A great place for weddings, conferences, and celebrations.”

From brutalism, beauty.