A one-night stand with 21C

May 30, 2006 at 9:06 pm

I hadn’t had a one-night stand in years. After I graduated into my 30s, I began to find the idea of a one-night stand — a more generally accepted practice among 20-year-olds — boorish and immature.
But I recently reconsidered.

My change of heart came after a colleague made a proposition I couldn’t refuse. He suggested I book a one-night stay at the 21C Museum Hotel and recount the experience. Given that 21C has promoted itself as a place to sleep with art, the proposition seemed highly appropriate.

So, on a recent Saturday afternoon I pulled up to hotel’s Seventh Street entrance, where the valet whisked away my very conventional silver Toyota Camry, and stepped into a very unconventional world with my friend Angie Nord. Once inside, we got a card key to our room on the second floor.

Before heading to the elevators, we meandered briefly around the lobby and peeked into the exhibition space. From there and through our elevator ride to the room, we encountered red penguins scattered throughout the building: a trio overlooking Seventh Street from the building’s West window, a group in the atrium’s exhibition space, a stray in the corner of one the hotels’ two public elevators and several standing at attention in the hallways on some floors. The penguins, which 21C proprietors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson bought at the Venice Biennale, are meant to be a signature icon.

The design of the hotel space is minimal, the work of Deborah Berke, a New York architect who also designed the Yale University School of Art in New Haven, Conn., the James Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Calvin Klein boutiques in London, Milan, Tokyo, Jakarta, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong. For 21C, she designed the interiors from five buildings, with strict adherence to regulations for historic buildings. Wilson said he and Brown chose Burke for the job because “she had a special sense of dealing with contemporary art.”

Arriving at any floor of the hotel puts visitors face to face with art. In the elevators, it’s in the light bulbs and mirrors in the ceiling. In the vestibule on each floor, there’s contemporary art behind glass; overhead, other creations function somewhat as chandeliers.

Through the hallways, the well-lit minimal surroundings in earth tones help highlight the art and create a feeling of open space. The carpets are gray and match the metal that frames the wooden beams that run floor to ceiling and retain authentic nicks, notches and scribblings from the buildings’ long-ago tenants.

The scene of my one-night stand was a sparse room with a bare brick wall that was covered in places only by a large-screen high-definition TV and a woodcut print by Kentucky-born artist Jay Bolotin. (Bolotin creates stories for his images and has written theatrical works, including “The Hidden Boy.”)

Near the door, a mini-bar had flourishes placed atop, including silver mint julep cups and sleek, dark mugs from Louisville Stoneware.

The off-white bed linens brightened the room, where only a small amount of natural light entered through a window to the hotel’s atrium. At the top of the atrium was a glass roof, and below was gallery space were I could see the ubiquitous red penguins. On the nightstand between the beds were iPods, which can be custom-programmed for guests who call ahead.

I hadn’t called ahead with a song list because I didn’t plan to spend all of my time in the room. Angie and I wanted to go downstairs, roam the gallery spaces and have dinner at the hotel restaurant, Proof on Main.

By 7:30 Saturday night, the lobby was a hive of people circulating to take in the art, see the distinctive designs and art in the public restrooms and visit Proof. Other people were venturing onto Main Street to see neighboring attractions. (One woman asked me if I knew how to get to the Ali Center.)

Dinner at Proof is definitely an integral part of a stay at 21C. First, there’s the people-watching. The patrons were young and mature, and while most dressed stylishly, several outfits were definitely offbeat. Then there is the interior, with art on the walls, softly colored lights that glow from boxes hanging from the ceiling, lightly colored but ornate upholstery on seating against the wall and slim mirrors behind that seating. The mirrors give the person sitting in the seat opposite a view of the restaurant and more people-watching opportunities. Near the back of the restaurant, Alice Stites, curator of 21C’s current exhibits, dined with her husband. Behind me near the door, Wilson and Brown dined and chatted with visitors.

But the highlight of Proof was the meal. We started with country ham fritters dipped in a mellow grain mustard aioli ($6) and a roasted beet salad with goat cheese ($9). I had the bone-in bison tenderloin, enhanced by buttered leeks, rosemary oil and smoked sea salt ($26), while Angie had the wood-roasted half chicken, set off by potato puree and grape saba ($16).

This was my first taste of bison and surely not my last. It was lean but tender. One surprising aspect of dining at Proof is the price. Most entrees are less than $30, making it affordable for people with adventurous appetites but limited cash for dining out. (Proof opens for lunch on June 1.)

By midnight, I had had two martinis to Angie’s two Manhattans, and we didn’t have to drive anywhere. We went upstairs and fell into our beds for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning, I made coffee in the room and read the complimentary copy of Pitch, the new local art and culture magazine funded in part by The 21C Museum Foundation. Downstairs, as we checked out, there again were crowds of people. One man asked a receptionist how to get to The Speed Art Museum and learned he probably needed a cab — and there wasn’t one in sight. That seemed to demonstrate that 21C is already bringing new audiences to other cultural attractions in the city, and to point out a need for transportation to link them for tourists.

21C’s occupancy rates since it opened in March seem like more proof of its contribution to the vitality of downtown. Those rates have averaged 60 percent during the week, and 70 percent on weekends, according to sales and marketing director Mark Hancock. (Weekday room rates, depending on the size and location of the room, range from $209 to $359, with weekend rates from $119 to $269.)

To encourage weekday occupants, Hancock has solicited meeting planners from larger and mid-sized companies in Kentucky and neighboring states to book events at the hotel; at the least, he wants to make sure they are aware of the new hotel when they book stays in Louisville for staff or clients.

He attributes the weekend bookings to the buzz created by advertising and stories, such as those published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, daily newspapers throughout the region and in the June issue of Travel and Leisure magazine. Meanwhile, he has worked with the 21C staff to develop special weekend packages for locals and out-of-towners. Those include The Hanky Panky Romance Weekend, which includes a bag of sex toys; the Art Inside and Out package, which includes tickets to arts venues and events; the Field of Dreams package, which includes tickets to the Louisville Slugger Museum and a Louisville Bats game; and a theater weekend, which will include tickets to local theatrical productions.

Some of these are still in the development stages, but they should go a long way toward making one-night stands respectable to a whole new clientele.

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