A full-frontal nude of Jackie O. greets guests in the lobby of the 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina. Some people remember the original grainy photographs taken by a paparazzo of the former First Lady skinny-dipping on a Greek island and still get angry at the invasion of her privacy. Using art, such as the large T.J. Wilcox collage of Jackie O., to provoke thought and emotion is part of the hotel's mission, along with making guests comfortable in a converted 1937 bank building. Balancing those dual roles was the challenge facing architect Deborah Berke as she turned a 17-story tower into a 125-room hotel.

“The idea is to use Southern hospitality to make contemporary art more accessible,” says Berke. Architecture provides the context for both, while keeping them in a dynamic state of equilibrium. In the lobby, for example, the art takes precedence, giving that space the feeling of a gallery. But a plush couch at one end and a reception desk at the other remind everyone that this is a hotel. Similarly, white walls and track lights say “museum,” while tall windows and plenty of daylight help relax the mood.

The fourth in a growing chain of 21c hotels, the Durham property follows incarnations in Louisville, Cincinnati, and Bentonville, Arkansas. Two more are in construction—in Lexington, Kentucky, and Oklahoma City—and two are in design: Kansas City and Indianapolis. The company's founders, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, developed the Louisville project as a way of sharing their collection of 21st-century art with the public and reviving their hometown's urban core. The success of that first property has led them to create one of the largest museums of contemporary art in the country—42,000 square feet and counting—albeit spread out over multiple locations. Now the Durham hotel is injecting new life into a town of 245,000, where Duke University is top dog.

Berke renovated the late'Art Deco Hill Building, which sits at a strategic location near a cluster of other urban-renewal projects—such as the Durham, a new boutique hotel opening soon, and the old American Tobacco complex where Lucky Strike and Bull Durham tobacco facilities have been converted into stores, restaurants, bars, and office space for creative companies. Designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, who did the Empire State Building, in association with the Durham architect George Watts Carr, the Hill Building was an imposing landmark housing the Ellis Stone Department Store and the Home Savings Bank and Trust Company on the ground floor, with offices above.

Berke found new uses for the building's major features, turning the high-ceilinged department store into the hotel's restaurant and bar, and fitting out the wood-paneled banking hall as a special-events venue. While these spaces benefit from the graceful proportions and windows of the original structure, they are treated as new elements, with contemporary light fixtures and materials. “We're not restoration architects,” says Berke. “We creatively redeploy old buildings for new uses.” But she kept the ground-floor elevator lobby much the way it was in 1937, retaining its silver-leaf ceiling, terrazzo floor, marble walls, and even the Deco mail chute. She also restored the safe-deposit boxes in a vault in the basement and furnished the space with new couches, so it can serve as a bar retreat. “By contrasting the new with the old, you can get the character of history without being beholden to it,” says the architect.

The hotel's function as a museum is integrated throughout the building, with art almost everywhere. Rotating exhibitions occupy all the public spaces, including the hotel's lobby on the second floor, galleries on the first and second floors, and the restaurant. In addition, six site-specific pieces in key places like the main stairwell and the reception area remain in place permanently. In the elevator lobbies of guest room floors, work by local artists is displayed in wall niches, called vitrines. Alice Gray Stites, the vice president and museum director for 21c, curates the shows and commissions the site-specific work, by artists who are invited to install the pieces and talk to guests about them. “Our goal is to make museum-quality art available to communities 365 days a year, 24/7,” says Stites.

Open since March, the hotel is attracting guests from the region and locals who come for the dining, event spaces, and free art. The buzz is back in downtown Durham.


Formal name of building:
21c Museum Hotel Durham

Durham, North Carolina

Completion Date:
March 2015

Gross square footage:
134,000 gsf

Total project cost:
withheld at client's request

Total construction cost:
withheld at client's request

21c Museum Hotels

21c Museum Hotels

Deborah Berke Partners
220 Fifth Avenue
7th Floor
New York, New York 10001
(212) 229-9211

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Deborah Berke, Partner, FAIA
Stephen Brockman, Principal
Terrence Schroeder, Senior Associate
Stephen Lam, Project Manager
Virginia Gray, Designer

Architect of record:
Perfido, Weiskopf, Wagstaff + Goettel Architects
408 Blvd of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15219
(412) 391-2884

Interior designer:
Deborah Berke Partners
220 Fifth Avenue
7th Floor
New York, New York 10001
(212) 229-9211

MEP engineers:
KLH Engineers
1538 Alexandria Pike #11
Fort Thomas, KY 41075
(859) 442-8050

Stewart Inc.
421 Fayetteville St. STE. 400
Raleigh, NC 27601
(919) 380-8750

Coulter Jewell Thames
111 W Main St
Durham, NC 27701
(919) 682-0368

Illumination Works
95a Rivington St
London EC2A 3AY
(+44) 20 7739-3003

Babich Acoustics
7507 W. Hutchinson Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15218
(412) 228-0917

MFI Enterprises ' food service consultant

Judith B. Williams ' Historic Preservation Consultant

Construction Manager:
Skanska NC
4309 Emperor Boulevard Ste 200
Durham, NC 27703
(919) 667-0695

Photography credit: Chris Cooper
Chris Cooper Photographer
(212) 380-6841


134,000 square feet

Completion date:

March 2015



Structural system
Renovation of 1930's steel and concrete structure. Steel work provided by:
Phillip Iron Work
Ron Throndson
(919) 615-1570

Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project:
Steel and Glass Hotel Entry Canopy
Acurlite System
(570) 759-6882

Exterior cladding
Restoration of existing limestone and polished granite cladding. Work provided by:
Baker Restoration

Abatement, removal and replacement of flat roof with new EDPM roof work provided by:
(919) 772-8780

Built-up roofing:
Carlisle Syntec Systems
Sure-White EDPM Membranes

Historic steel frame windows with new aluminum terrace doors.

Guest Room Terrace doors:
(770) 449-5555

Switchable Glass (Public Restroom)
Paragon Architectural Products
Ian Patlin
(480) 767-8266

Vanishing TV (21c Suite and Restaurant Lounge)
(920) 395-8565

New doors and hollow metal door frames provided by:
Engineering Specialties
(704) 933-9496

(770) 449-5555
Fire-rated curtain wall and door:
(714) 899-3990

Special doors:
Custom invisible millwork doors (Ballroom, Art Vitrine, and Coat Closet)
Cleora Sterling Corp
(919) 563-0065

Door hardware provided by:
Engineering Specialties
(704) 933-9496

Other special hardware:
Hotel electronic locks
VingCard Elsafe
(972) 771-9969

Interior finishes
Acoustical ceilings:
Fellert NA
(402) 896-2005

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Cleora Sterling Corp
(919) 563-0065

Paints and stains:
Sherwin-Williams (throughout)
Scuffmaster ScrubTough (typical guest corridor)

Zinc (Restaurant and Bar)
HandCrafted Metal
David Bentz
(800) 755-0310

Wall coverings:
Arc-Com Fabrics
(21c Suite)
Wolf Gordon

Floor and wall tile:
Nemo Tile
Stone Source

Brentwood (Bar and Garde Manger Countertop)
Architectural Minerals & Stone
Mark Shedrofsky
(914) 479-0049

Historic Vault
Art Floor Tile
'BANK (Unswept Floor Series)'
Leslie Lyons and JB Wilson

Resilient flooring:
Spa and Fitness
Lonseal Loneco Midnight
Spartan Surfaces NYC
(917) 693-3423

Office furniture:
(479) 695-1126

Case Goods:
Guest Rooms
Kimball Hospitality
(812) 482-8747

Public Area
Cheng Meng Furniture
(Beachwood Collective)
Dan Ryan
(212) 561-5533

Upholstery and Seating:
Carson's Hospitality
(336) 685-8015

Architectural lighting fixtures provided by:
Tim Beam
(502) 961-0096

Dimming System or other lighting controls:
Cooper Control

(Guest rooms)
Michael Reiman
(646) 477 5711

Energy management or building automation system:
(Guest rooms)
Inncom by Honeywell