They’re everywhere. Giant red plastic penguins. One sits quietly–all 4 feet of him–next to the sofa in the hotel lobby. Another peers stoically out the gift shop window. More congregate in large numbers on the roof and stand sentry on the outside window ledges. Holy cow, it’s like something out of a Monty Python movie. I decide to check in and check out this hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, that blends the best of contemporary art and plush accommodations. I also have a sudden yearning to watch Animal Planet.
Thoroughly Modern Midtown Just a few years ago, the five buildings that compose 21c Museum Hotel–19th-century warehouses and a bank–stood vacant on Main Street. What a difference a few million dollars can make. Now those refurbished, fine brick-and-cast-iron buildings house a world-class contemporary art gallery, a 91-room boutique hotel, and a first-rate restaurant that holds its own with the big boys anywhere. Dark wood floors, exposed-brick walls, and steel columns still give the rich feeling of the old, totally remade for the new. Floorboards salvaged from the 1860s buildings serve as bar fronts and front desk, and such touches add charm throughout the complex.
I love the lobby, with its sculptures behind the reception desk. If you’re an artistic conservative, think before you enter. This isn’t Norman Rockwell territory. And if old Norman’s works were depicted here, they might be missing some clothing. Owners Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown gave a large chunk of their modern art collection to be on permanent exhibit in the hotel, and there’s something to see in every nook and cranny.
Rooms (and Hallways and Bathrooms) With a View
"You have to see the bathrooms," said the smiling young man behind the front desk. "Oh, I’m sure they’re very nice," I said. He replied, "No, you don’t understand. You have to see the bathrooms." So before heading for the elevator, I went to the women’s restroom. There were eyes everywhere–videos of eyes, looking back from the mirror. "We’re not in Kansas anymore," I said out loud. I heard the men’s room had a one-way, see-through glass wall, but I decided to take their word for it.
After walking over the video of a couple sleeping in bed (projected onto the floor), I took the elevator (with difficulty, because I was mesmerized by the art installation on the wall beside it) and happily explored my room. A big, puffy bed with feather duvet and soft-as-silk woven throw awaited, along with a fully loaded iPod, more artwork on a wall fashioned out of beads made from recycled milk cartons, exquisite amenities in the bathroom by Malin + Goetz, and a bright yellow rubber ducky for the tub. Instead of the usual plain water glasses, I found silver-plated mint julep cups. Such tasteful touches run throughout the hotel and the museum and flow into the restaurant.
Food for the Soul
The restaurant, Proof on Main, continues the artistic tone with its hanging sculptures of goats (ick) and the wonderful sculpture at the bar of Randy–a satyr–by Larry Shank. It’s considered good luck to rub the apple he holds in his hand. While I was exploring the bar, I checked out the paintings of the famous Louisville folk that line the walls, and then I stepped outside to gaze at the bronze chandelier that hangs above the sidewalk.
Could the food match the stunning decor? No worries. Chef Michael Paley uses local produce and products from nearby farms as much as possible. The resulting menu swims with striped bass; crispy duck; and fabulous, melt-in-your mouth bison and lamb. Even Brussels sprouts, flavored with vermouth and pancetta, shine on their own. The country ham fritters are a real favorite, as are the homemade sorbets with piquant flavors such as rhubarb.
Pining for Penguins
Back in the lobby, I realized I really wanted a penguin. And they kept popping up (the staff moves the troop of 40 regularly). A big bird might be on the elevator one minute, only to show up in my room the next. I was hopelessly smitten. But they are much too big to smuggle out, so I settled for a penguin poster (free to guests), which promises to make me smile every time I see it. Here’s looking at you, 21c. You’re picture perfect.
21c Museum Hotel: 700 West Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202; http://www.21cmuseumhotel.com or (502) 217-6300. Rates: start at $209.
Home Is Where The Art Is
The 9,000-square-foot art museum delights and astounds. The works are all by living artists, and the media range from painting to sculpture, video, and photography. I found it all to be edgy. But whether it’s Cloud Rings shooting puffs of fog outside or those precocious penguins that pop up everywhere you go, I was intrigued. There always seems to be something new and amazing. Even the basement has photos that show the reconstruction of the buildings.