Lexington landmark to become a 21c Museum Hotel

bfortune@herald-leader.comApril 10, 2012 

Louisville philanthropists and art collectors Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown announced plans Tuesday to buy the old First National Building in downtown Lexington and convert it to a 21c Museum Hotel — a combination boutique hotel and contemporary art museum.

They opened Louisville's acclaimed 21c hotel in 2006, and Lexington's will be the fourth in the 21c group of hotels.

"We're excited about the possibility of opening a hotel in Lexington," Wilson told the Herald-Leader on Monday.

"Lexington's downtown is vibrant and can be even more so. Lexington is a great place for university people, basketball people, horse people — but they don't have much of a choice in hotels."

The hotel on West Main Street will have a restaurant, a bar, meeting rooms, a ballroom and approximately 80 guest rooms.

In January, the couple signed an agreement to buy the 15-story First National Building for an undisclosed sum from owners Ben Buckley and his son Biff, owners of Buckley & Company Insurance agency.

"They had a right to a due-diligence period," Biff Buckley said. "They had to get an estimate on what it would cost to convert it from an office building to a hotel, and bring it up to code."

Wilson and Brown had until September to make a final decision, but Buckley received a call Thursday from their local representative saying, "It's a go."

The Buckleys, whose real-estate holdings include the Security Trust Building on Short Street, bought the First National Building in 1999 for $2.9 million from former Mayor Foster Pettit, Biff Buckley said.

Much of the financing will be private, but city and state help will be needed for the project, said Craig Greenberg, president of 21c Museum Hotels.

The 21c will ask the city to help arrange a $6 million federal loan through a program that supports projects creating jobs for low-income and moderate-income workers. Greenberg said the project will create construction jobs and 150 permanent jobs.

The hotel company also will ask for $2 million that the city already has received under another federal program.

In addition, "We are applying for a couple of state incentive programs, one of which is historic tax credits and tax increment financing," Greenberg said.

Louisville's 21c Museum Hotel was developed in five historical bourbon and tobacco warehouses as a way to support preservation and revitalization in downtown, Wilson said, and a way for the couple to share their extensive contemporary art collection.

"This is a combination hotel and a real art museum. It is not art for decoration," Wilson said. "The 21c Museum is the only museum in the country dedicated to collecting and exhibiting contemporary art by living artists."

The museum is open free of charge, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Perched along the roof line of the Louisville hotel are red penguins that have become iconic symbols of the hotel. Asked whether the Lexington hotel would have similar ones, Wilson chuckled, saying, "Yes, but yours will be blue."

Urban County Council member Steve Kay said the 21c hotel in Louisville has become a destination. "I think the same will be true in Lexington. This is not just any hotel. This is a high-visibility, high-impact project. It's very, very exciting for downtown."

The Louisville hotel is home to one of the city's most highly regarded restaurants, Proof on Main.

Two other 21c hotels are being developed.

In 2010, Brown and Wilson announced plans to build a 21c hotel in Bentonville, Ark., in partnership with heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. His daughter, Alice Walton, founder of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, recruited Wilson and Brown to build a hotel there.

That hotel is under construction and is scheduled to open in early 2013.

A 21c hotel also is under construction in the historic Metropole Hotel building in Cincinnati. It is scheduled to open later this year.

A 21c was announced in 2007 for Austin, Texas, as part of a large condo, retail and office building, but it failed to be built when the economy collapsed. "It was such a big project, the financing had to be so large, it just never worked," Wilson said. "Austin is a good city, but we decided we were better off as just single projects."

Architect Deborah Berke, whose New York firm Deborah Berke & Partners Architects has done design work on the other 21c hotels, said she hopes construction can begin on the First National Building before the end of the year, and that the hotel would be ready to open in 2014.

The 21c hotel in Louisville, Berke said, is "a perfect combination of cutting-edge art, architecture of the times, fabulous food and hospitality. That mixture has worked well in Louisville. I'm thrilled the same combination is coming to Lexington."

The Lexington version "won't be a copycat of the Louisville hotel," Berke said. "The galleries, the restaurant will have a character specifically for Lexington, but they will have that same 21c dynamic."

Mayor Jim Gray said a contemporary art museum supported by a "great hotel brand and restaurant is a unique business model. Being on the cultural map today influences business decisions and where people live. Lexington is in competition for talent. Getting a 21c hotel is a game-changer for Lexington."

Jeff Fugate, executive director and president of the Downtown Development Authority, called the hotel "a huge vote of confidence in Lexington and our economy. It's something others will pay attention to and be inclined to follow. This will be a catalyst. People like to invest money where other people are investing money."

Council member Tom Blues said the announcement of the 21c hotel shows that "There's a powerful interest in downtown. When you can take a landmark and convert it into a special hotel and museum, it will be a stellar attraction for downtown."

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

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