21c Museum Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky

21c Museum Hotel Louisville, Kentucky by Frances J. Folsom
by Frances J. Folsom

When Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, partners in marriage and in business, decided to part with some of their $10 million contemporary art collection they didn’t store it, sell it, or donate it to a museum. Instead they built a hotel in which to showcase it. The stunning result is the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.

Cracking Art - Red Penquin originally commissioned for the 2005 Venice Biennale. Photo by Kenneth Hayden. Courtesy, 21c Museum Hotel.
Cracking Art - Red Penquin originally commissioned for the 2005 Venice Biennale.
Photo by Kenneth Hayden. Courtesy, 21c Museum Hotel.

Laura Lee and Steve, who serve on the boards of several museums, believe in giving back to their community. Their roots are in Louisville, where they raised their family on a one-thousand-acre bison farm and where they have other business interests. In 2003, to help in the revitalization of Louisville’s downtown area, Laura Lee and Steve purchased five derelict nineteenth-century buildings—an entire city block with the intention of converting them to a boutique hotel and museum. In their heyday these buildings housed a bank, a cast iron company, a tannery, and warehouses for tobacco and bourbon companies.


Installation for the exhibition Creating Identity: Portraits Today. Works from left to right: Jose Maria Cano (Spanish), Barack Obama (from The Wall Street One Hundred), 2008. Paraffin wax, pigment, encaustic on canvas; Julia Page (American), Heir Apparent, 2005. Video installation, running time 6:55 minute loop; Nathalia Edenmont (Ukrainian), Lost, 2007. C-print mounted to glass in wooden frame; Kehinde Wiley (American), The Prophet and the King II (Columbus), 2006. Oil on canvas.
Installation for the exhibition Creating Identity: Portraits Today. Works from left to right: Jose Maria Cano (Spanish), Barack Obama (from The Wall Street One Hundred), 2008. Paraffin wax, pigment, encaustic on canvas; Julia Page (American), Heir Apparent, 2005. Video installation, running time 6:55 minute loop; Nathalia Edenmont (Ukrainian), Lost, 2007. C-print mounted to glass in wooden frame; Kehinde Wiley (American), The Prophet and the King II (Columbus), 2006. Oil on canvas.

The couple retained architect Deborah Berke and Partners, who undertook a three-year restoration of the buildings. Berke exposed original brick walls and timber and steel trusses, used reclaimed wood for the lobby desk, and restored the cast iron facades. To connect unattached buildings she inserted stacked volumes to create an atrium and nine thousand square feet of museum space. Berke designed sleek minimalist furnishings for the ninety guest rooms, adding small pieces of art from the owners’ collection that reflect calm and offset the energy of the museum and hotel.

Lobby with sleek desk hand carved out of re-claimed wood. Behind this is a series of sculptures of children by American artist Judy Fox. The male figures are from the artist’s series Power Figure 2004. The female figures are from an earlier series, Satyrs Daughters, 1999. Terracota, Aqua-Resin and casein paint. Photo by Kennedy Hayden.
Lobby with sleek desk hand carved out of re-claimed wood. Behind this is a series of sculptures of children by American artist Judy Fox. The male figures are from the artist’s series Power Figure 2004. The female figures are from an earlier series, Satyrs Daughters, 1999. Terracota, Aqua-Resin and casein paint. Photo by Kennedy Hayden.

Of their 2,500-piece collection on display are paintings by David Hockney and Chuck Close, sculptures by Yinka Shonebar and Judy Fox, photography by Sam Taylor Wood and David Leventhal, and works by video artists Bill Viola and Sean Bedic. The hotel’s art is not always serious, free expression reigns in the ubiquitous four-foot red plastic penguin sculptures by Italian artist Omar Ronda, which are scattered around the hotel. Laura Lee bought the group at the 2005 Venice Biennale.

Cuba Now offers a glimpse of the current generation of Cuban artists whose work explores not only the complex history of Cuba, but also universal themes of censorship, race, gender, and identity. Photo by Josh Minogue.
Cuba Now offers a glimpse of the current generation of Cuban artists whose work explores not only the complex history of Cuba, but also universal themes of censorship, race, gender, and identity. Photo by Josh Minogue.

The wow factor begins in the lobby with whimsical contemporary art sprinkled around its gleaming spaces. Visitors are drawn into the art in surprising places such as the public restrooms where people are greeted by Bedic’s In the Absence of Voyeurism #6 & #7; the artist has captured in small-screen videos the eyes of seven blind players of a dart club, embedded them in mirrors arranged to give the impression that they are looking from monitor to monitor.


The art is not just reserved for those who enter the hotel. Around the corner of 7th and Main Streets, on a gallows pole twenty feet above the pavement, hangs Untitled, an interactive six-and-a-half-foot brass chandelier designed by Austrian artist Werner Reiterer. It is connected to a bell in the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, Proof On Main; when the bell is rung, the chandelier audibly inhales and exhales and its lights pulsate.

Guest room highlighting the sleek minimalist style furnishings designed by the hotel’s architect Deborah Berke. Photo by Kennedy Hayden. All courtesy, 21c Museum Hotel.
Guest room highlighting the sleek minimalist style furnishings designed by the hotel’s architect Deborah Berke. Photo by Kennedy Hayden. All courtesy, 21c Museum Hotel.

21c Museum Hotel is well situated for those who appreciate art. The property is part of Louisville’s Museum Row, which includes the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Muhammad Ali Center, Frazier History Museum, Glass Works studios and gallery, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory (home of the legendary baseball bats), and the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Accessing great art has never been easier.


Frances J. Folsom is a freelance writer specializing in art and travel.

back to top