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Immersive experiences in themed hotels

Magnus-Lindqvist-c-21c-Museum-Hotels1Photo by Magnus Lindqvist, courtesy 21c Museum Hotels


Hearing the term “themed hotel” can summon bad associations: kitschy re-creations of Egyptian tombs, UFOs or, perhaps, the Jungle Room from Elvis’ Graceland home may come to mind.

Although kitsch has its place, many themed hotels today offer guests both luxurious accommodations and an opportunity to experience contemporary art, cultural icons and historic sites.

Iron Horse Hotel
You don’t have to own a motorcycle or even know how to ride one to appreciate the motorcycle-themed Iron Horse Hotel in downtown Milwaukee. You just have to appreciate exposed brick, post-and-beam construction and swanky decor set against an industrial backdrop in the converted 100-year-old warehouse near the banks of the Menomonee River, just half a mile from the Harley-Davidson Museum.

“One of the things we were careful about when the hotel was built is that people would feel very comfortable, whether they’re motorcycle enthusiasts or business travelers or couples looking to get away for a weekend,” said hotel spokeswoman Jordan Dechambre.

Inside, guests find exposed Cream City brick, soaring rough-hewn beams and rich spaces filled with iron and leather, although in the form of chandeliers and swivel chairs rather than bike forks and saddle seats.

Although the 100-room hotel enjoys a nice synergy with the nearby Harley-Davidson Museum, “the bigger picture is that it’s in an area of the city that’s been undergoing a renaissance,” Dechambre said.

The hotel always displays a “fantastic motorcycle” in the soaring atrium-style lobby, Dechambre said, and each guest room has heavy-duty hooks for heavy leather riding gear, as well as a bench for helmets and a spot beneath it for boots.

On Thursday nights during the summer, the hotel also hosts “Bike Night,” a rotating event that highlights a different bike each time, such as British motorcycles or cafe racers.

21c Museum Hotels
Louisville, Kentucky — Cincinnati — Bentonville, Arkansas
When husband-and-wife team Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown — both avid collectors and Brown herself an artist — founded 21c Museum Hotels in 2006, they wanted to create a vehicle in their hometown for both community revitalization and contemporary art. They did so by converting five historic tobacco and bourbon warehouses in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, into the first 21c hotel. The hotel opened in 2006 with 90 guest rooms and a 9,000-square-foot art gallery that is open to the public day and night.

“Laura and Steve are all about sharing new art with the public in new ways,” said Stephanie Greene, director of public relations for 21c Museum Hotels.

The marriage of boutique hotel and contemporary art museum proved so successful that Brown and Wilson opened a second hotel in Cincinnati in the renovated 100-year-old Metropole Hotel, followed by a third hotel — the only one that is new construction — near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Two more 21c Museum Hotels are slated to open in 2015. Crews will renovate a historic bank building in Lexington, Kentucky, to house the hotel, and the Durham, North Carolina, hotel will be in a restored 1930s building dripping with Art Deco details.

Architect Deborah Berke designs each hotel and incorporates historic features, as well as commissioned, site-specific art installations, at each property. For example, at the Cincinnati hotel, a “grimy, exterior air shaft” was turned into an interior art piece, Greene said. If guests look up at the lobby ceiling, they find an airshaft that soars from the second floor to the top floor filled with fiber-optic tapestries that a Danish artist wove on a loom.

Every year, 21c’s curator organizes two major rotating art exhibits at each hotel, as well as some smaller rotating exhibits. The hotels also host community cultural events such as poetry readings and yoga workshops to share the buildings and the art with the public.

“At 21c, you are surrounded by contemporary art, even if you’re not in the gallery,” Greene said. “It’s in the restaurant, it’s in the hallway, it’s in the elevator lobby. People are really engaged with art.”