Lexington's 21c Hotel 'a win' for city

bfortune@herald-leader.comApril 10, 2012 

The $38 million transformation of downtown Lexington's First National Bank building into a hotel will include three adjacent parcels of property.

Louisville philanthropists and art collectors Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown, announced plans at a news conference Tuesday to convert all the parcels into a 21c Museum Hotel — a combination boutique hotel and contemporary art museum.

Wilson and Brown have signed an agreement to buy the 15-story former bank building, which includes a small building next door on West Main Street and an adjacent building on North Upper Street, from owners Biff Buckley and his father, Ben, owners of Buckley & Co. Insurance agency.

The elegant bank building was built 100 years ago by Fayette National Bank.

The couple also are buying a three-story building at 145 West Main that has been converted to an office building, each floor with a separate owner. The first floor is owned by businessman Ben Kaufman and is leased to Gallery B. The second floor is owned by Marshall Estep and is the office for Estep and Co.; the third floor is owned by attorney Austin Mehr.

There will not be on-site parking for the hotel.

Wilson told a gathering of people in the Fifth Third Pavilion in Cheapside Park that he and his wife opened the first 21c hotel in Louisville in 2006 to preserve five historic bourbon and tobacco warehouses and help revitalize a desolate downtown corner. It also was a way to share their extensive collection of contemporary art.

The Louisville 21c has since become an acclaimed boutique hotel with 90 guest rooms. It was named the No. 1 hotel in the United States two years in a row by readers of Condé Nast magazine.

Soon the company was receiving requests to take its unique business model of a hotel and art museum to other cities. "We were humbled by its success," said Wilson, chairman of 21c Museum Hotels.

The 21c has hotels under construction in Bentonville, Ark., and Cincinnati. The Lexington hotel will be the company's fourth. Craig Greenberg, president of the hotel company, said plans are to begin work in Lexington late this year, and the hotel is scheduled to open in 2014.

Wilson has been an aide to three governors including Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. He served in Brown's administration as director of special projects, deputy commissioner of the department of tourism, deputy commissioner of the department of the arts, and director of Save the Mansion.

Laura Lee Brown is a great-granddaughter of Brown-Forman Corp. founder George Garvin Brown.

Wilson lived in Lexington for a time in the 1980s. He said opening a hotel here felt like coming full circle.

"Lexington has a great university, an educated, forward-thinking populace. We are thrilled to death to be part of it," he said.

The project will be financed in part with private money, but it depends on city and state financing incentives, said Greenberg.

Mayor Jim Gray said he thought Urban County Council members would support an incentive package.

"This is a win for preservation and for growth, for preserving the rural landscape by creating a dynamic downtown and urban center," he said.

Gray also said that developer Dudley Webb is supportive of the 21c plans.

"Yesterday, Dudley Webb, who is developing CentrePointe just across the street, said, 'It's a great project that lifts our spirits; it's a tide that raises all boats.'"

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

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service