When 21c Museum Hotels launched in 2006, plenty of people were skeptical about how a combination boutique hotel and contemporary art museum could be successful. But preservationists and art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson had faith that their hotel in downtown Louisville, Ky., would aid their hometown’s revitalization efforts. At the time, the couple hadn’t even thought of bringing the concept to other urban neighborhoods. “It was only because of the positive reaction we got from guests and a lot of people who would come up to us and say, ‘We’d love to do one of these in our hometown,’ that we even thought of doing more than one,” says President Craig Greenberg. Now, the company has eight projects: three open, three under construction, and two in the design stages.
How did you get involved with 21c Museum Hotels? I was the attorney for Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown and helped them put together financing for the Louisville hotel. I enjoyed working with them and loved the 21c concept, as well as helping to develop and operate the hotel. Over time, one thing led to another, and now I’m president of the company.
How did you get the first project in Louisville financed? It was during a difficult time for hotel financing and particularly boutique hotels in smaller cities like Louisville. So we put together a public-private partnership that involved various federal, state, and local incentives to help make the project a reality. At 21c, first and foremost, we are a true contemporary art museum that’s free and open to the public. And Louisville was interested in helping us develop this new cultural attraction for the community beyond the hotel and restaurant. And we have used that type of financing structure and public-private partnership on all of our other projects since.
Does coming from another industry help you see things from a new perspective? At 21c, our founders, myself, and many of my other colleagues aren’t from the hotel industry, so we aren’t constrained by the ways others have historically done things. Some things that we’ve done maybe by mistake have turned out to be our most unique features that we now embrace in the design of all our projects. For example, the public restrooms in our hotel in Louisville weren’t particularly convenient to people in the restaurant. Some might say that was a design mistake, but it allows diners to have an art experience because they have to walk through at least one of our museum spaces on the way. Guests have really enjoyed that.
How does 21c identify the right markets? Each one of our projects has a unique story behind it but also involves somebody locally reaching out to 21c and asking us to pursue a project. We enjoy being pioneers in either neighborhoods or communities where you might not think a contemporary art museum and boutique hotel would be a natural fit. Being a part of broad urban revitalization efforts is something we really enjoy, and helping foster economic development and create jobs is also important to us.
Are you mostly focused on adaptive reuse projects? Our Bentonville, Ark., project was new construction, but all of the other hotels we’ve opened or are developing have been historic rehabilitation projects. From historic bank buildings that were once considered skyscrapers to a Ford Model T plant in Oklahoma City, our historic structures have really run the gamut in terms of architecture, previous use, and even condition when we’ve purchased them.
Is the industry at risk of running out of historic buildings to redevelop? I don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future. There still seems to be a large inventory of great historic properties around the country that can use some love, creativity, and investment to revitalize them and their neighborhoods.