The story of 21c Museum Hotels began over a decade ago in Louisville, Kentucky with natives Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson’s desire to launch a business that would contribute to the revitalization of downtown Louisville. Their path was illuminated when they realized that the boutique hotel they envisioned would also provide a platform for sharing their substantial art collection. The result was the 21c Museum Hotel, featuring art galleries that are free and open 24/7 to the public, 365 days a year. Since the opening of 21c Museum Hotel in their hometown of Louisville in 2006, the couple has opened eight distinctive hotels throughout the South and Midwest.
Each 21c hotel bears a strong sense of place tied to the history of a former significant building and imbued with a modern design-focused aesthetic that deftly preserves the building’s historic legacy while bringing it into the 21st century with contemporary art, design, and a chef-driven restaurant.
Beginning with 21c Louisville, Deborah Berke Partners repurposed the architecture and interiors of a series of five 19th century tobacco and bourbon warehouses at 7th and Main. The warehouses live on as a multi-venue contemporary art museum spanning more than 9,000 square feet of exhibition space, an award-winning 92-room boutique hotel, and home to acclaimed Proof on Main restaurant. A double-sized golden replica of Michelangelo’s “David” unabashedly proclaims the ethos of 21c and Louisville.
But what’s the story behind the brightly colored penguins that mysteriously move around the hotel? Turns out the penguins have an important story to tell. Created by the Cracking Art Group, the penguins are among the over-sized, vibrantly colored animals made of recyclable plastic to raise awareness of environmental issues. The penguins stand tall at 4 feet and send an important message that they’re upset about how we use our natural resources. And, just so you know, you can purchase a penguin (available in four colors) from the museum hotel stores. Plus, the penguins are allowed to travel anywhere in the hotel, so if you want to have one visit your room during your stay, or desire a penguin dinner guest, just ask at the front desk.
21c Museum Hotel Locations
Restored five 19th century warehouses, 92 guest rooms, restaurant: Proof on Main, penguin: red
Current exhibit: Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation; Fallen Fruit: the Practices of Everyday Life; The Other South: Photographs by Laura Lee Brown
I’ve been mildly obsessed with 21c Museum Hotels since 2012 when, following a superb Pappy Van Winkle pairing dinner at Seviche in Louisville, a few of us decided we weren’t done with bourbon just yet, and headed to Proof Bar for a nightcap from their noteworthy bourbon list. Entering the hotel, the kaleidoscope of color that is “Asleep in the Cyclone” explodes on the cornea like Peter Max in 3D, and I was a believer.
Since then, I’ve had occasion to stay at 21c Bentonville and, recently, the newest 21c in Kansas City. Architecture and interiors firm Deborah Berke Partners deftly combines the historical bones of each building with modern design while highlighting some of the world’s best contemporary art. Since the opening of 21c Louisville, 21c Museum Hotels have engaged visitors and locals alike with world-class, thought-provoking art exhibitions that are free and open to the public 365 days a year. If you haven’t experienced their museum hotels yet, check out the 21c locations and bookmark one to visit soon.
Modeled after the award-winning flagship in Louisville, built new, 104 guest rooms, restaurant: The Hive, penguin: green
Current exhibit: Labor and Materials; Elevate – Bentonville
Chef Matthew McClure leads the team at The Hive restaurant in Bentonville where he showcases the refined, country cuisine of the High South, focusing on the ingredients of Northwest Arkansas (think black walnuts, freshly milled cornmeal, hickory smoked hams, peaches, melons, and sweet onions) and the region’s traditional methods of cooking. McClure was a James Beard Award semi-finalist for the “Best Chef: South” award in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and was awarded Food & Wine magazine’s “The People’s Best New Chef” award for the Midwest in 2015.
While in Bentonville, be sure and catch The Hive’s popular Fried Chicken Sunday Supper special, pictured below, along with a refreshing “Daisy” bourbon cocktail, Pimento Cheese with bacon jam and toasted white bread, and a basket of, what else would you serve in a bread basket in the South, cornbread!
Kansas City, Missouri
Historic Savoy Hotel & Grill, 120 guest rooms, restaurant: The Savoy, penguin: light blue
Current exhibits: Refuge; Refuge: Art in the Savoy; Elevate – Kansas City
The Savoy at 21c Kansas City showcases Kansas City native Joe West’s take on classic American cuisine. Built in 1888, Kansas City’s Hotel Savoy was a luxury destination for travelers arriving by train in Kansas City and the Savoy Grill restaurant achieved iconic status as the oldest restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri. Executive Chef West’s menu is a contemporary nod to The Savoy’s storied past and an intentional throwback to popular mid-century modern dishes such as Scallops Menieure, Lobster Newberg and Prime Rib with Creamy Horseradish.
Refuge: Needing, Seeking, Creating Shelter, the inaugural exhibition at 21c Kansas City, “explores the contemporary human condition through depictions of seeking, needing, and creating shelter. As civil strife, economic insecurity, and environmental crises proliferate, artists from across the globe explore the search for refuge…” (Source Refuge art exhibit 21c Kansas City)
Historic Metropole Hotel reimagined, 159 guest rooms, restaurant: Metropole, penguin: yellow
Current exhibit: Peter Griga: Liminally Yours; Spotlight: La Toya Ruby Frazier
Durham, North Carolina
Historic Hill Building reimagined, 125 guest rooms, restaurant: Counting House, penguin: fuschia
Current Exhibit: Portraying Power & Identity: a Global Perspective; re: Nautilus
88 guest rooms, restaurant: Lockbox, penguin: blue,
Current exhibit: Offspring: New Generation
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Century-old former home of a Ford Moter Company assembly plant and listed on the National Register of Historic Places
135 guest rooms, restaurant: Mary Eddy’s Kitchen + Lounge, penguin: purple
Current exhibit: Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art
Historic Gray & Dudley, 124 guest rooms, restaurant: Gray & Dudley, penguin: blue
Current exhibit: Seeing Now; Menagerie, Elevate – Nashville
Coming Soon: Des Moines, Iowa
21c presents a wide range of arts programming curated by Museum Director, Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites, including solo and group exhibitions that reflect the global nature of art today, site-specific commissioned installations, and a variety of cultural events.
Laura Lee Brown and Steven Wilson were included in Time magazine’s, “Meet the 31 People Influencing the South”, along with criminal justice activist Bryan Stevenson who was recognized at E! People’s Choice Awards on Sunday with the People’s Champion Award.
Disclosure: I received a media rate for my stay at 21c Bentonville and Kansas City. As always, all opinions are my own.