A hybrid of a boutique hotel, a fine dining restaurant and a museum, downtown Cincinnati’s 21c Museum Hotel is a jaw-dropping, sui generis masterpiece.
The only thing similar to Cincinnati’s is its progenitor, Louisville’s 21c, founded in 2006 by art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Retaining the same concept, this hotel is bigger (156 rooms to Louisville’s 90) and features different permanent and temporary art exhibitions.
“It is not something you might see somewhere else,” says 21c Chief Curator Alice Gray Stites. “It’s hard to explain that to people. ‘Oh, what’s it like?’ 21c is not like anything else.”
At 21c, art is everywhere: It’s sketched in the elevators’ glass and in the meeting rooms; the reception desk table is a work of art; outside of the building, a chandelier “speaks” and the vitrines located in front of the elevators on each floor house art. The galleries are open 24 hours a day free of charge to the public, and many pieces compel the viewers to stop and look.
“That’s what’s so interesting about 21c — it gives people such a broad array of different ways to engage with art,” Stites says. “It’s possible to come here because you’re coming to a meeting, because you’re staying at the hotel, you have a dinner reservation. You happen to encounter the art and then it’s fun and maybe it piques your imagination and starts a conversation.”
“Lightmail,” a tapestry encrusted with fiber optics, hangs in the interior solarium with a pile of pillows underneath for viewers to recline and watch the tapestry change colors. One of the current exhibitions is Off-Spring: New Generation, an apropos title considering Cincy is the “offspring” of 21c Louisville. On display in the upstairs meeting spaces are Elena Dorfman’s portraits of real people living with Lars and the Real Girl-esque dolls. Also upstairs are Vee Speers’ photographs, in which the artist allowed children to choose their own props and clothes resulting in mesmerizing pictures of a little boy dressed as a soldier gripping a gun and a little girl wearing black wings.
After more than four years in the making, Stites is thrilled to finally see the hotel open, although the renovation wasn’t without controversy.
The Metropole building provided low-income housing at the time Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) purchased the building in 2009, leading to a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and, eventually, a settlement with residents who were forced to relocate.
Stites, who wasn’t involved in the politics behind the renovation, says she’s excited about the potential this space has for connecting people to the world of art.
“To see that kind of union of commercial and culture success is really exciting,” she says. “I think it points to the way toward a new future where art really is a part of people’s daily experiences.”
The largest and most expensive suite at 21c harbors an iPod docking station, artwork by Laura Lee, an articulated desk lamp, a rubber ducky in the shower/bathtub and a 3D-like human ear and belly button popping out of the bathroom tiles. With amenities like a spa and a rooftop bar coming soon, guests can completely immerse in luxury and art during their stay.
Since opening in 2006, 21c Louisville has acquired a litany of impressive awards including Conde Nast Traveler voting it as one of the best hotels in the world. 21c Cincinnati has big shoes to fill, but the people behind the venture are confident in its ability to at least match if not exceed its successor.
“This is a city of really knowledgeable art enthusiasts and people who love culture, so I expect the bar to be quite high,” Stites says.
The hotel’s in-house restaurant Metropole opened a couple of weeks ahead of the hotel. Chef Michael Paley has been with 21c from the beginning — he opened 21c Louisville’s restaurant, Proof on Main, then headed up Garage Bar where he worked with wood-fired pizzas. He’s taken his fire expertise with him to Metropole and created a fireplace in which most of the menu’s food is cooked, including string-roasted chicken (similar to spit roasting), swordfish and small plate veggie dishes.
“It’s like a new challenge for me and I was excited to delve into it,” Paley says about his new gig. “There aren’t many restaurants that are doing it the way we’re doing it as far as kind of building this really raw pile of wood that’s burning and all these different cooking mediums around it. I’m pretty excited about wondering in a year from now what we’re going to be doing in there.”
The restaurant’s beautiful mosaic tiles lead to the open kitchen (which Paley designed himself) and the emblazoned hearth in the back of the restaurant that Paley calls “a conversation piece.” The idea of working in the Queen City’s thriving restaurant scene greatly enticed him to leave Louisville to head up Metropole.
“I wanted to work in a bigger market and I think Cincinnati has a lot of great restaurants,” he says. “I think it’s underrated, actually.”
Metropole just added breakfast service; this week begins room service, and eventually there will be lunch and brunch. Currently, the West Chester-based chef is burning the candle at both ends, working more than 12 hours a day, but he attributes part of his long hours to constantly switching up the menu.
“I like to keep things fresh and interesting,” says Paley. “I think it’s great for the customer and for my line cooks: keeping them engaged and not cooking the same thing over and over.”
In the new year, 21c Bentonville will open in Arkansas and eventually several more locations in mid-sized cities that crave urban renewal. Despite becoming a “chain,” Stites says 21c won’t lose its edge.
“The exciting challenge is to retain that
sense of authenticity wherever we are,” Stites says. “But I think
because it’s art that drives 21c, the founders understand that and it’s
ingrained in what they do. … If we stay true to that mission, we’ll
retain that sense of authenticity that’s made 21c so successful.”
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