21c Museum Hotel in Louisville is a Unique Place

A hotel that is a museum that is a hotel deserves a look when considering a stay in Louisville.

Ten years ago downtown Louisville was dying. Six years ago, contemporary art collectors, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson noticed this and decided to do something about it. They live near Louisville and are concerned with the vivacity of the city. They decided to build a hotel which would also house a continuously shifting collection of contemporary art in the downtown. They believed that culture leads commerce.

They wanted the hotel to be a successful enterprise They found 5 bourbon and tobacco warehouses in downtown Louisville and set to work refurbishing them into the hotel. They decided to make the design of the hotel allow for the showing of art as an integral part of the guest experience. There would be no separation of galleries and spaces for the guests to be and so was born the 21c Museum Hotel.

There are statues behind the front desk, the elevator space has a video camera and descending letters which turn the guests into objects in a constantly shifting panorama of design. The idea is to surround the guest with art, to incorporate the art into the movement through the space of the guests in the hotel.

Outside and scattered throughout the hotel there are plastic penguins, 4 feet tall and red in color, which seem to “live” throughout the space. They adorn the space inside the hotel, outside it and inside various guest rooms. There are nude photographs of people inside the bar. This is a concept which, in simple terms, proclaims that art is not something to be observed in a sterile space, surrounded by guards, but something to be integrated into our lives. It is as though the 21c is a living manifesto stating that we are meant to live surrounded by, integrated with art.

I asked an employee at 21C how it is to work surrounded by so much art and got the answer, “It’s wonderful to know that there is a higher purpose to just having a job. The art adds something to the atmosphere. It loosens up the guests and it makes my job easier. We always strive to be the best at southern hospitality and efficiency but the art adds something indefinable to the atmosphere.”

From the outset the hotel was a big success. It seems clear that downtown Louisville did need an infusion of art and the 21c has provided that. It has also been a big success nationally. The 21c has been named the best hotel in America by Conde’ Nast Traveler two years in a row and the sixth best in the world.

There is an excellent restaurant in the 21c called Proof on Main. I had dinner there and found the service, the food and the atmosphere are all top notch.

I asked a guest at the hotel how it is to be in a hotel with such a strong commitment to art. “It’s wonderful to be somewhere unique, where there is such a marked difference to chain hotels. I spend a lot of time in hotels traveling and I always look forward to coming to 21c because it’s so out of the ordinary.”

To the delight of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson they are now such successful hoteliers that they have been asked to open hotels in other cities. They are now about to open 21c Hotels in Cincinnati, Ohio and Bentonville, Arkansas. Other locations are in the “thinking” stage.

So, does art drive commerce? It would seem that the 21c is a model in that direction.

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