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Lexington’s first skyscraper reopens as 21c Museum Hotel

21c Museum Hotel emphasizes art

The new boutique hotel has modern art in every room and the galleries, which will have rotating exhibits, are open to the public.
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The new boutique hotel has modern art in every room and the galleries, which will have rotating exhibits, are open to the public.

Almost four years from the announcement that a boutique hotel would be coming to Lexington’s First National Building, the 21c Museum Hotel is opening for business on Feb. 29.

The restaurant, Lockbox, opened earlier this month.

Louisville philanthropists Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown announced plans to buy the historic property on Main and Upper in 2012 for $3.1 million, following the success of their 21c Museum Hotels in Louisville and Cincinnati.

At the time, they estimated it would take $38 million and two years to convert the 15-floor, 100-year-old building, along with some connected buildings, into a hotel with restaurant, bar, gallery and meeting spaces.

In the end, it took four years and $43 million to turn what had been Lexington’s first skyscraper, built in 1913 by New York architecture firm McKim Mead & White, into a modern hotel with 88 rooms. The finished product is expected to become a tourist attraction on its own, and serve high-end travelers drawn to the Bluegrass for horses, bourbon and basketball, among other things.

A few weeks before the hotel opened, Wilson stopped by to see the results and sample Lockbox, the restaurant. Lockbox began serving dinner on Feb. 15. Breakfast will be added now that the hotel is open.

“I’m thrilled to death” with how it turned out, he said as workers around him added finishing touches. Just above his head was art of a moment-by-moment digital view of the Hudson River Valley. Behind him was the kitchen, also a work of art with ceramic gray tiles and marble counters, where chef Jonathan Searle will hold sway.

Everything about the hotel is very much meant to be on display. The 21c group has worked for years with noted designer Deborah Berke, named last year the first female dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

The public spaces of the hotel and restaurant (including the bathrooms downstairs) feature contemporary art, much of it from Wilson and Brown’s personal collection. Individual meeting rooms also double as galleries and there is art in every hotel room.

Much of the public programming will develop as the hotel opens, said Molly Swyers, 21c brand director.

“With Louisville, we never envisioned the level of public participation that we’ve achieved. So now we design with that in mind, based on the needs we anticipate,” she said, adding they are exploring collaborations with local groups and are excited to see what develops.

Mary Quinn Ramer, president of VisitLEX, the city’s convention and tourism center, said her staff has already been brainstorming ways to work 21c into the mix. The hotel’s luxury feel and price point will raise the city’s average daily room rate, a key indicator for growth in the market, she said.

“We are really excited to have a new hotel product to offer and obviously we love the fact that they have been able to take a very important historic building and re-purpose it for modern use,” Ramer said.

The 21c occupies “this sweet spot of art, food, drink and overnight (stays)” that will make it a huge attraction for out-of-town visitors, whether they are staying at the hotel or not, and for Lexington residents, too, she said.

Jeff Fugate, president of the Downtown Development Authority, said that the project “brought back a historic, notable building, and starts to fill out the visitor economy downtown. And it earns us national recognition for the high-quality experience in Lexington for visitors and residents alike.”

The hotel will be open for the public to walk through, and weekly events like yoga and “barre among the art” are planned.

Even before the hotel officially opened, people were wandering in last week to get a look at what the historic building has become.


 

Then and now: Use the slider below to see how the dining room of the restaurant looked in 1940, when it was the lobby of the First National Bank and Trust Co.

See more images like this on our historical photo blog, KyPhotoArchive.com.
 

Transforming the tall skinny building and two smaller side structures into a hotel with restaurant, galleries and meeting spaces was tricky.

The old bank building, Wilson said, dictated a unique look for Lexington’s 21c. The bank “is just architecturally of a different era and a different purpose. We embrace the unique features, just as we do with contemporary art.”

Formerly known as either the Fayette National Bank Building or the First National Bank Building, it was the last high-rise office building built in Lexington before World War I. Another wouldn’t be built for more than 60 years, according to the application that placed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

There are many references to the architectural past, from the vault that is now a private dining room to the original Greek key tile work at each elevator landing. And the building’s mail shafts were left in place as reminders of its office past.

But the rooms themselves, from the 21c Suite on the 15th floor to the more standard hotel rooms, are thoroughly modern, with spare decor highlighted by Laura Lee Brown’s photographs of horses and hawks. Each floor holds six or seven hotel rooms.

Despite the small building footprint, the rooms and bathrooms are spacious and most have natural light. Everything from the Malin+Goetz soaps to the mattresses can be purchased online if you want to recreate the 21c experience at home. You can even buy a 6  1/2-inch ceramic penguin in a variety of colors for $38 or a 3-foot plastic orange snail, meerkat or rabbit for $2,000-plus.

Room rates will start at about $199 a night and go up to $699 for the 15th floor 21c Suite.

The 21c project used a package of financing that included a city-approved $6 million federal HUD Section 108 loan provided by the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development; a $1 million loan, to be repaid over 10 years, from the Lexington city council; $15.7 million in state and federal historic and new markets tax credits; State Tourism Development Act sales tax refund and local/state tax increment financing; plus two conventional bank loans and equity investments from 21c and local partners. The hotel and restaurant have hired 140 employees.

Wilson credited Mayor Jim Gray with having the vision to develop the project. And that vision had its perks: Gray was one of the guests at several test dinners at Lockbox before the restaurant officially opened.

Although the hotel is opening this week, one 21c signature piece is missing: the blue penguins on the outside.

“It was part of the historic tax credit negotiations,” Wilson said. The National Trust for Historic Preservation did not want blue penguins on the exterior building, as the red ones have become in Louisville.

But that doesn’t mean they are absent: they will still roam around inside, popping up in unusual places like the elevators, or guests’ tables in Lockbox, or gazing at the video art display.

In five years, “after we’ve met our commitment to them,” Wilson said, the penguins might be displayed outside.

There are now 21c hotels in Bentonville, Ark., and Durham, N.C., with more opening soon in Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Mo., Nashville and Indianapolis.

Although Wilson said that they never intended to do more than the original Louisville hotel, 21c has embraced the boutique hotel market. In an interview in 2013, Wilson said that “someday there will be six hotels, then 10 hotels. ... I’d love to do one in Havana.”

If you go

The 21c Museum Hotel at 167 West Main Street will have a ribbon cutting at 3 p.m. Monday, followed by an open house with tours at 4 p.m. and a party with a cash bar at 8 p.m. The events are open to the public.

Architect Deborah Berke and many of the artists whose work is on display will be there Monday.

Free docent-led tours of the art will begin at 5 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday.

Yoga will be held Sundays at 10 a.m. for $5, beginning March 20, and barre will be every other Saturday, beginning March 19, for $10 at the door.

For more information or for reservations at Lockbox, call 859-899-6800.

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