Fine Dining, Luxury, and Art—What’s Not to Love About the 21c Hotel Museum Experience?

It’s safe to say Ben Stiller’s iconic role in Night at the Museum prompted many of us to wonder what spending a night in a museum might actually be like. I certainly did until I got the chance to spend one night at 21c Museum Hotel. 

Lobby of the 21c Musuem Hotel in Oklahoma City, Photo courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels.

“21c,” short for 21st century, is a museum hotel franchise that combines art, fine dining, and a 5-star hotel experience to create unforgettable experiences in just nine cities across America. Downtown Louisville, Cincinnati, Bentonville, Durham, Lexington, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Kansas City, and Chicago are each home to a unique 21c Museum Hotel. Founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson planned to establish one 21c location in downtown Louisville, just a mere 30-minute drive from their historic Hermitage Farm located in Goshen, KY. Brown and Wilson expanded the franchise after its unprecedented grand success. 

The concept of a museum hotel is unique in and of itself, right? The more you know about the franchise, the more you realize creativity lies in every nook and cranny of each location. For instance, many of the 21c locations uniquely occupy historically significant buildings. The 21c Museum Hotel just a few blocks from my apartment in Durham, North Carolina, used to be a SunTrust Bank I toured during a school field trip in elementary school. This museum hotel now stands tall in the epicenter of Durham, inviting locals and tourists alike to step in and have a drink, enjoy a bite to eat, or take a look at the displayed artworks. It has become one of my top places to impress an out-of-town guest—I always make sure to take my out-of-towner to the lowest level of the used-to-be bank to show off an old vault that remains as a background to a hip lounge for hotel guests. 

This "historical" series of colored penguins are collected and loved dearly by founders Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. Red first purchased in 2006. Image courtesy of 21c museum blog.

While the Durham location resides in what used to be a bank, the Oklahoma City 21c occupies an old Ford Motor Company building. Although I have never set foot in Oklahoma City’s location, I am sure the renovated historic building provides a similar nostalgic-yet-modern aesthetic I've grown to love in its sister location. Perhaps the nostalgic feeling is rooted in the prestigious architects who designed each building. Shreve, Lamb & Harmon who designed the Empire State Building also designed the bank that is now Durham’s 21c Museum Hotel. Their contemporary Albert Kahn designed Oklahoma City’s 21c Ford Motor Building. These 20th-century architectural legends exist as the foundation for these 21st-century innovations.

The 21c Museum Hotel located in Durham, NC. Image courtesy of Robb Report.

In addition to this architectural prestige, one of my favorite unique qualities of the 21c hotels is the penguins. And yes, you read that correctly, I mean penguins. According to 21c’s website, these life-sized penguin sculptures were “purchased after [Wilson and Brown saw] them perched around the city at the 2005 Venice Biennale as part of a public art project.” The red penguins debuted during the 21c Museum Hotel Louisville launch. Now, different penguins from the colors of the rainbow reside in the various hotel locations. The 21c website provides a quote from one of the founders, Wilson, who says, “The public really chose the penguins. They were part of our opening exhibition in Louisville and people couldn’t help but interact with them. They would move them around, take photos with them, and take them to dinner and to their rooms. They have really become an icon, and emblematic of our mission to make thought-provoking contemporary art more accessible to the public.” In Durham, there are purple penguins waddling around the museum hotel, and each location has a different colored penguin. The penguins move around the 21c locations. You can find them in the restaurant, the hallways, and even looking at art, adding yet another layer of uniqueness you just can’t find anywhere else. While the luxurious 21c experience does not quite compare to Ben Stiller’s night at the museum, there is something so special about spending a night amongst art in a museum hotel such as 21c that I hope we all get the chance to experience at some point in our lives.

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