Bringing together multigenerational voices, a boutique hotel collection creates and celebrates a sense of place.
This story was adapted from the spring 2021 issue of Magnolia Journal. To see the full collection of Graduate Hotel spaces, visit graduatehotels.comOpens in new tab—and watch Handcrafted Hotels on Magnolia Network to hear the story behind them.
story by SARAH COFFEY
photography courtesy of GRADUATE HOTELS
Few rites of passage are as unforgettable as starting college. The promise of emerging independence, the forging of friendships, and the discovery of a new place all come together to create a feeling that remains for a lifetime. Even as traditional universities have been upended over the past year, college remains a life- changing experience, and a school can still shape who a person will become.
“We celebrate the nostalgia and optimism of college,” says Ben Weprin, founder of Graduate Hotels. With nearly 30 locations in university towns, the boutique hotel collection understands that college is more than a location—it’s a feeling. “Our goal is to capture the spirit, history, legacy, and traditions of a school and weave those into the narratives of our hotels,” Weprin says. “We tell the story so that people can live in it.”
The design for each hotel starts with a story. Before breaking ground, the team invites alumni from different generations to the writers table—a space to share memories, school traditions, and recommendations for everything from campus landmarks to the best local cheeseburger. Designers look for common threads and weave them into a plan for the space. Graduate makes its own wallcoverings, carpets, and furnishings, creating custom pieces that celebrate local lore. “It’s like having a home that’s been in the family for years,” Weprin says. “You want to layer it with love and warmth, so you’re not just going to the furniture store to get everything. You might frame a picture from a camping trip next to a 40-year-old piece of art from the flea market. Each piece has meaning.”
At the Graduate Hotel in Eugene, Oregon—the birthplace of Nike—the front desk showcases a sneaker collection. In Nashville, a hooked rug hung on the wall depicts Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl. For the walls of the eclectic wood-paneled bar and grill in the Graduate Knoxville, Peyton Manning’s mother sent over old photographs of the University of Tennessee graduate, which designers framed and hung on the wall. And in Nashville, the Graduate’s rooftop space pays tribute to the Dolly Parton song “White Limozeen” with white-fringed, pink umbrellas around the pool. A rose onyx bar with brass trim invites people to pull up a chair, “dressed up and feelin’ good.” For the rooftop, local artist Ricky Pittman was commissioned to make a 9-foot chicken wire Dolly sculpture. “We love inside jokes and playful nods,” Weprin says.
While some of these details might seem a little off the wall, they offer inspiring ways to bring happiness home. Eclecticism also leaves room for evolution. When design becomes a process for understanding who you are, things may come and go but the feeling remains the same. Perhaps here we see how the design philosophy for these hotels could spill into how we approach our own spaces.
As Weprin says, “There are no rules—nothing has to match. Everything clashes in my house, but in that way, it all matches. Your home is a reflection of your whole life.” When we allow our designs to evolve, they become more than decoration for where we live—they are holders of our stories. By approaching each aspect of the story with intentionality, we can tap into the depth of storytelling in a space. When others enter, they get a piece of who we are and what we hold to be true.
By approaching each aspect of the story with intentionality, we can tap into the depth of storytelling in a space. When others enter, they get a piece of who we are and what we hold to be true.
This principle has become a guiding light for Weprin’s upcoming project in partnership with Magnolia. On the docket: The renovation of Waco’s Grand Karem Shrine Building into a boutique hotel. Working with Chip and Jo, together they plan to create a place of belonging inspired by the Waco community and the city’s rich history. “It’s an iconic building with a story to tell,” Weprin says. “With Chip and Jo’s vision of hospitality, it will become a space that serves generations.”