LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Checking into the original 21C Museum Hotel, one is immediately struck by just how quirky it is.
The hotel has a limo that’s covered front to back with pink glass beads. And when hotel management puts a guest up in one of their most popular rooms, the window view includes a generous display of the giant, golden posterior of the museum’s replica statue of David.
The employees wear no uniforms, and they seem quite comfortable with unusual hair styles. And, as promised, artwork of many different media is on display everywhere.
Only four cities are home to a 21C Museum Hotel, and Oklahoma City’s historic Fred Jones Assembly Plant is set to become the next combined hotel, art museum, restaurant and lounge thanks to $5.3 million in tax increment financing being provided by Oklahoma City toward a $51.5 million conversion of the 1916 assembly plant at 900 W Main.
The west fringe of downtown might seem like an odd choice for an upscale full-service hotel with a contemporary art gallery that is open all hours. Lacey Smith had similar doubts when the former Kentucky senator’s friends Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson first shared their plans for opening a hotel along Louisville’s then blighted “Whiskey Row.”
“I thought they were crazy,” Smith said. “But he (Wilson) had the vision. And it turned out the supply created the demand.”
Smith now grabs breakfast daily at the hotel’s Proof on Main, and at night Smith and his wife, Barbara Sexton Smith, often end their evenings with friends at the restaurant and bar. It’s not a long walk for the couple, who preceded Brown and Wilson in buying into the neighborhood’s future by moving into the Harbison Condominiums in one of Whiskey Row’s renovated, historic cast-iron buildings.
“We moved in 12 years ago,” Barbara Sexton Smith said. “It was a blighted neighborhood, and the 21C Museum Hotel changed the landscape of downtown Louisville. We only have 3,000 people living downtown, and a few of those are our inmates. The other 70,000 who work downtown migrate — they get in their cars at the end of the day and go home.”
More of those residents, however, are staying downtown and fueling a revival of the cast-iron buildings once presumed to be fated to the wrecking ball.
The Smiths saw the area transform quickly after the hotel’s 2006 opening. Restaurants and art galleries opened in formerly dormant buildings. Interest in downtown living began to percolate — enough so that Lacey Smith himself has sought to develop a $100 million housing and retail complex.
Barbara Sexton Smith believes the art and the passion emphasized by Wilson and Brown infuse the hotels with a magical draw for visitors and for locals.
Art around every corner
When one stays at the original 21C Museum Hotel, it doesn’t take much of a wait before one sees local schoolkids and college students touring its art galleries. The collection and displays in Louisville can best be described as a hybrid between the fun exhibits at Oklahoma City’s Science Museum Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, and the sometimes risque displays and shows at IAO Gallery.
The art is no token effort. The hotel has dedicated art galleries. Quirky art is to be discovered in odd, unexpected places. Even a trip up the elevator is an interactive experience thanks to a wall projector and lighting schemes in the elevator cab that turn the average visitor into the subject of a temporary work of art.
Unusual spaces are celebrated. A 500-square-foot basement space with no windows is now the most popular room in the hotel thanks to a treatment by New York artists Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. Known as “Asleep in the Cyclone,” the pair’s sculptural installation turned the room into a tribute to the mid-1960s counter-culture artists’ commune known as Drop City, featuring a multicolored, dome shaped ceiling, a vintage record player and stereo, and a case of odd 1960s and 1970s era books and oddities.
The room, the golden statue of David, the large, colored plastic penguins found throughout the hotel and some other displays are permanent. But far more of the art collections rotate every year.
Alice Gray Stites, museum director of 21C Museum Hotels, is assisted by a staff of 10 arts professionals in overseeing the displays spread over 30,000 square feet of galleries in the company’s four museum hotels.
Stites said the art displays are greatly influenced by the buildings’ architecture — and such will be the case in Oklahoma City. The museums have access to work by 800 artists. The work generally represents contemporary art and live performances.
“If there is a theme, it’s humanist,” Stites said. “It’s about the human experience of living and dreaming in the 21st century.”
Louisville love affair
Walking through the Louisville hotel and the surrounding neighborhood, it’s obvious the town has long celebrated the arts. It’s a love affair that includes funding from a foundation led by Barbara Sexton Smith for ensuring art is a major experience for all of the city’s students throughout their educations.
The Louisville Fund for the Arts is the country’s oldest united arts fund and supports 119 different arts and cultural organizations ranging from theaters to museums to the symphony.
“Art drives commerce,” Barbara Sexton Smith said. “Art is economic development, art is workforce development, art is education, art is quality of life. The organization I work with embodies that, and we have 23,000 contributors through payroll deduction each year.”
Months before officials with 21C Museum Hotels began talks with the Hall family, which owns the historic assembly plant, Barbara Sexton Smith visited downtown Oklahoma City as part of group of Louisville citizens seeking to learn about Oklahoma City’s own revival.
She thought Oklahoma City was a great spot for the next 21C Museum Hotel. She saw a community that has a similar vibe to Louisville, one that is itself expanding its interest in the arts. She promises Wilson and Brown are the perfect emissaries in spreading that passion.
“They have one of the world’s largest, most impressive contemporary art collections, and they’re very interested in sharing it,” Barbara Sexton Smith said. “I think every community in America should have a 21c Museum Hotel — it’s the only place you can go see art 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
She also advises Oklahoma City to trust the couple in how they transplant their vision to the Fred Jones Assembly Plant.
“They’ve studied this vision, they’ve done it right in Louisville, they’ve done it right in Cincinnati, and they’ll do it better in Oklahoma City,” Barbara Sexton Smith said. “They’ve knocked it out of the park in Bentonville. You’ve got to roll with the flow, let them produce it, put the art in it, and the people will come.”
21C Museum Hotels provided airfare and lodging for Business Writer Steve Lackmeyer’s recent trip to their flagship hotel in Louisville.