Southern Comfort

21c Museum Hotel more than a place to stay

Staying at the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville was a mistake at first. We were supposed to go to Montreal. Then Chicago. Wait, Pittsburgh, right?

We concluded that we couldn’t afford the time or the trip to any destination outside of two hours, so my wife Jennifer and I thought about Plan D. We both like funky, one-of-a-kind (especially if there are two or more) things: destinations, desserts, art, etc. Whatever it might be, make it hard to find and we’ll spend way too much time looking for it.

So is the case with affordable boutique hotels. These are mutually exclusive concepts, so naturally we needed to find one.

It was mid-year 2007, and we were headed off to the Bourbon Belt to visit an unknown city with an art gallery for a hotel, without our kids and just a short drive away — not much of a commitment. We polled several of our friends, who gave us a rundown of each interesting eatery, gallery and bar. With our list in hand we hoped for the best but were prepared to be underwhelmed. I love it when I’m wrong.

The 21c Museum Hotel isn’t just a place to sleep over — it’s a quirky, calm, unassuming, experiential oasis in the middle of life. I don’t even know if that makes sense, but that’s how it feels.

Unlike other well-received, highly rated hotels, 21c doesn’t have the unnecessary restrictions of posh, short-term housing. Cheesy gold-leaf furniture is nowhere to be found. There’s not a stuffy, disgruntled staffer in sight. Bad faux art? Please.

21c offers a healthy mix of striking, beautiful, serene, provocative, unassuming and campy art by contemporary masters like Chuck Close right next to local Louisville artists and Cincinnati favorites such as Anthony Luensman and Jay Bolotin. I’ve since slept with Bolotin’s work right next to the bed several times. It’s not as creepy as you might think.

Finally there’s Proof on Main. The attached restaurant defies any of your preconceived notions of hotel restaurants. The culinary artistry is as good as the works in the museum next door. Not to mention there’s something about locally grown produce and sustainable bison meat that just tastes better.

Aside from our adult-only escapes, 21c has become a three-year Thanksgiving tradition for our family, bringing our total number of stays to seven. It’s just too easy and too fun.

I’d be remiss not to mention Louisville as a key element in completing the experience.

What a lovely city, with more culture and fun per square foot than, dare I say, Cincinnati.

I actually love Cincinnati, so there’s no bashing here, but as a wishful Midwest “destination” the 21c Museum Hotel experience will be a feather in Cincinnati’s tourism cap. Of course, that could be the bourbon talking.

For more on the 21C MUSEUM HOTEL’S ART SENSIBILITIES, see Steven Rosen’s recent column “What 21c  Might Mean for Art in Cincinnati.”

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