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.
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21C Museum Hotels provided airfare and lodging for Business Writer Steve Lackmeyer’s recent trip to their flagship hotel in Louisville.