Plans reveal Lexington 21c hotel details: restaurant, glass-front kitchen, galleries

The new 21c Museum Hotel will be in First National Building on West Main St. at North Upper. The building was Lexington's first skyscraper.
The new 21c Museum Hotel will be in First National Building on West Main St. at North Upper. The building was Lexington's first skyscraper. Herald-Leader

The 21c Museum Hotel planned for Lexington will have a restaurant in the corner of the historic First National Building on West Main Street, with sidewalk seating along North Upper Street, where pedestrians might watch the chef at work in a glass-fronted kitchen.

Plans for the project submitted in late July to the Courthouse Area Design Review Board show Main Street façades in the adjacent 1872 Fayette building that bring back recessed storefronts with retractable awnings. Behind street-level display windows will be the art galleries, according to the plans. Every 21c property has a museum component featuring contemporary art.

Also on the plans: a private rooftop terrace for a two-story penthouse suite.

The Courthouse Area Design Review Board will take up the proposal at a meeting at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the council chambers at the Government Center. The design staff review recommends approval of the design, which meets themes, goals and design guidelines for the courthouse area.

Biff Buckley, co-owner of the First National Building with his father, Ben Buckley, said the sale of the main building has not been finalized. "We have an agreement, but they have not closed," Biff Buckley said Tuesday. "It's not a done deal until they buy it, and they have until mid-October."

Craig Greenberg, 21c's president, said the chain has closed on some parts of the property and will be closing on the rest on schedule in the next couple of months.

"We're really excited about it. This is just the first step," he said of the design review.

Greenberg stressed that the hotel will be a historic rehabilitation of the McKim, Mead and White structure, built in 1912 as Lexington's first skyscraper.

"One of the most historical characteristics is the exterior façade," he said. "The biggest take-away is that we're not making major changes. We're just improving the original fabric. ... In some cases, it's actually going back to a more historically accurate depiction."

All the 21c hotels feature colorful penguin sculptures on the exterior. Greenberg confirmed that the Lexington hotel's signature penguin would be blue. "Until further notice. As Steve Wilson likes to say, no art is permanent art at 21c," Greenberg said. "But yes, blue."

In April, Louisville philanthropists Wilson and Laura Lee Brown announced plans to buy the iconic corner tower in downtown Lexington and add it to their chain of boutique hotels that double as contemporary art museums.

The plans for Lexington's hotel were done by Deborah Berke & Partners Architects in New York, working with Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel of Pittsburgh.

Greenberg said in April that the hotel would ask the city to help with a $6 million federal loan, plus $2 million in other federal money from the city, as well as state tax incentives. No price has been set for the building purchases or the project.

"We are working on finalizing all of the financing sources for the project right now," Greenberg said. He said he would be meeting Wednesday with state tourism officials about tourism sales tax incentives, and the Downtown Development Authority will bring a proposal for local incentives to the Urban County Council in the fall. Any city financing would have to be approved by the council.

The hotel is expected to have about 80 guest rooms and create construction jobs as well as 150 permanent jobs once it is finished.

"At the end of the day, it's about jobs and what it could do for our economic growth," Gray said Tuesday.

He said he's been a longtime supporter of bringing a 21c Museum Hotel to Lexington to enhance business prospects and the city's quality of life.

"It really does elevate Lexington downtown to another level," Gray said. "It leverages everything we've got here. It's authentic, unique."

He praised the proposed design changes as subtle.

"It's a remarkable use of the space; 21c is a destination in itself, so it has that added benefit of pulling people into it, and leverages the benefits for everything around it," Gray said. Having an upscale restaurant on that corner "will have a real gravitational pull. It helps the old courthouse and helps illuminate the value of that property."

Proposed work on the 15-story First National Building, constructed in 1912 to house First National Bank, will include restoring the original windows, storefronts and metal relief panels. The Main Street entrance will become the primary entrance to the hotel, with the lobby tucked inside under a smaller canopy.

The new design will eliminate existing planters in front of buildings on Upper Street, making it more pedestrian-friendly. The inset façade of the Upper Street annex will be removed to add a fourth floor of windows. On street level, there will be a wall of windows "providing views into the restaurant's display kitchen," plans said.

The hotel also will include a ballroom upstairs and a private dining room in the restaurant, as well as meeting and conference spaces, a lounge and a fitness center, according to the plans.

The Lexington 21c could open in 2014, Greenberg said.

The original 21c Museum Hotel is in downtown Louisville, in five historical bourbon and tobacco warehouses. In 2009, the hotel was named the No. 1 hotel in the United States by readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine. Another 21c is scheduled to open in November in Cincinnati; with a third in Bentonville, Ark., in early 2013. Another is scheduled to open in Durham, N.C., in mid-2015.

A 21c was announced in 2007 for Austin, Texas, as part of a large condo, retail and office building, but after the economy collapsed it wasn't built.

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