Destination: 21C Museum Hotel LouisvilleContemporary art and red penguins abound in a vibrant converted warehouse.

It’s possible to say “unusual” without irony when describing the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. As its name suggests, the property is a hotel and art museum in one, in a converted warehouse building on downtown’s Museum Row. Because of its location, it’s subject to middle-of-the-night garbage truck hoopla and other random notes of welcome.

Entrance to the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, KY

Entrance to the 21C Museum Hotel

To get to our floor, we took a pokey, rumbly 1960s-vintage elevator that beeped upon arrival. None of the typical hotel elevator’s pretentious wood paneling, mirrors, or patterned carpet here. And then we stepped off and looked at the featured painting of a dead bird hanging upside down.

The 21C is more of an interesting experience than a restful getaway. Not to say the “luxury king” room wasn’t lovely in a restrained way, with midcentury furniture, neutral tones, plain terry towels, and all-white bedding. Inside the high-ceilinged room, Modern Farmer, the Fall 2014 Pre-Apocalypse Issue, was on the nightstand. But it’s also clear the passion is reserved for the hotel’s shared spaces, rather than the private ones.

Malin +Goetz amenities

Malin + Goetz amenities

Functionality is excellent, which can’t always be said for much more chic hotel rooms. Here, the lamp switch was right where we’d hoped to find it and didn’t require some hard-to-decipher combination with a distant master toggle. On the desk, the cluster of power outlets allow two people to plug in to recharge phones and go right to work on laptops. In the bathroom, the shower control is fumble-free: no scalding, no freezing. Amenities are by Malin + Goetz, the chic New York-based apothecary.

We also appreciated the lack of collateral clutter around the room. Why do hotel marketing people look at every bare surface as a potential point of sale, leaving a card or binder to offer something indispensable? Besides, we didn’t want to spend our waking hours here.

Passing through the corridor where steel plates bolster thick wooden beams, we found art everywhere. The hotel’s founders say they wanted people to be more exposed to contemporary works. Sculpture, video installations, canvases, and the 21C’s indigenous red penguins are everywhere (if a penguin seems to have moved, it probably wasn’t our imagination). We’re happy for the artists who got commissions and can say their pieces are included in this happy mess, which attests first of all to breadth of imagination and second of all to depth of pocketbook.

A giant Tiger sculpture looms above diners at Proof on Main.

A giant Tiger sculpture looms above diners at Proof on Main.

At Proof on Main, the property’s bar-restaurant, our server pointed out that the meat for its signature bison burger was raised on the owners’ 1000-acre Woodland Farm near Goshen, KY, just upstream on the Ohio River. Among dessert selections was fried pear-and-apple pie with vanilla ice cream, but we were totally buffaloed, not to mention imbued with an incomparable sense of well-being thanks to the subtle lighting. And the Bourbon.

The 21C Museum Hotel is part of a small group that currently includes locations in the South and Midwest, like Cincinnati, Ohio, and Bentonville, Ark. New locations are planned for Durham, N.C., Lexington, Ky., Kansas City, Mo. and Oklahoma City. In other words, the red penguins are expanding their habitat.

21c Museum Hotel Louisville

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