21c Museum Hotel by Deborah Berke Partners
Durham, North Carolina
Architects & Firms
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 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.
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Judith B. Williams ' Historic Preservation Consultant
134,000 square feet
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