LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Wade Johnson has plopped down in plenty of hotels, but the business consultant ranks his stays at 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Louisville as a one-of-a-kind experience.
Turns out, that one-of-a-kind experience has a large following.
The 90-room boutique hotel — where contemporary art is an eye-catching theme — won the honor of top U.S. hotel in Conde Nast Traveler magazine's 2009 Readers' Choice Awards. It was quite a coup, since 21c is a relative newcomer and the winner is typically a well-known place in a big-city tourist destination. 21c was followed in the rankings by The Peninsula in Chicago and the Mandarin Oriental in Boston.
Johnson, a mergers and acquisitions consultant from Chicago, said there's a "different feel" at 21c, which opened in 2006 in a series of renovated 19th-century tobacco and bourbon warehouses.
Perhaps it's the 4-foot-tall plastic red penguin sculptures manning parts of the hotel. Or the contemporary art seemingly on display everywhere — from the lobby to hallways to elevators and public restrooms. There are paintings, photographs, video art and sculptures ranging from whimsical to provocative.
"I love staying here," Johnson said. "It's fun, it's quirky, it's unique."
Most of the artwork comes from the private collection of the hotel's husband-and-wife owners, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, and from their art foundation.
Ed Varela, in town from Texas on a business trip, had just checked in when he got his first look at a plastic penguin stationed near the front counter. "Oh gosh, that's different," he said.
Varela planned to check out the art displayed in more than 9,000 square feet of exhibition space. 21c features rotating curated exhibitions and even has a full-time museum director.
"So far I'm really enjoying the scene," Varela said. "I think it's going to be a neat experience."
Kelly Grosse, who works at the hotel's front desk, said guests are drawn immediately to galleries just a few steps from the front lobby. Sometimes, the artwork is so alluring that "it's hard to get people to focus on checking in because they're so busy looking at everything else," she said.
The hotel includes the popular Proof on Main restaurant and bar. Guest rooms feature high ceilings, large windows, custom furniture, 42-inch HDTV flat-screen TVs, pewter mint julep cups and a stocked mini bar.
21c is just a short stroll from such downtown attractions as the Muhammad Ali Center, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, a science center and the Frazier International History Museum. The city's performing arts center is down the street and Churchill Downs — home of the Kentucky Derby — only a short drive away.
Wilson said he was thrilled with the hotel's top ranking — a big jump from last year when 21c ranked 16th on the Conde Nast Traveler award list. A goal in opening the hotel was to make contemporary art more accessible, he said, and the top billing shows "there's a new frontier" in Middle America to promote art.
For 21c, it's about the experience, not elegance, Wilson said. "You don't look for a plush carpet or a golden chandelier or gilded mirrors here," he said. "It's a different aesthetic."
Beata Santora, editor at Conde Nast Traveler, said 21c received the country's highest scores in three of five categories polled — rooms, dining and overall design. The Louisville hotel garnered impressive high marks for "its striking contemporary decor," Santora said.
The magazine's awards appear in its November issue, ranking the best cities, cruise lines, airlines, hotels and resorts worldwide based on responses from 25,000 readers in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Survey. Magazine spokeswoman Megan Montenaro said 21c made a quick move to the top of the rankings.
"21c was on our Hot List, for new properties who make a splash on the scene, in 2007," she said. "So it's impressive to see that it won two years later."
The top billing for 21c was unusual. Montenaro said that "in the 22 years that we've done the list, this is the seventh time a smaller hotel in a not-so-touristy city has won."
Wilson and his wife have formed a hotel company with plans to expand the venture to other cities. There are plans to open a 240-room hotel in Austin, Texas, but the project has been slowed by the struggling economy.
"We have sort of a wish list of about 16 cities," Wilson said.
Common denominators among those cities include the presence of a university, a large pool of young professionals and an appreciation for art, he said.
Wilson thinks that blending fine art with upscale hotels can gain a strong niche.
"People who travel a lot are either looking for their club points in some chain hotel ... or, in our case, people are tired of those experiences and they want something unique," he said.
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