If you go to use a mezzanine-floor restroom at the new 21c Museum Hotel, you’re in for a surprise: The wall is transparent, exposing the facilities.
Step inside and lock the door, though, and the glass wall turns an opaque white – ensuring perfect privacy.
That’s one of the surprises the 21c affords. The hotel, in the renovated Hill Building at the heart of downtown Durham, is designed to be, as 21c company President Craig Greenberg said, “a beautiful, comfortable, thought-provoking, innovative, surprising and hospitable place.”
Company officials and Durham dignitaries held a ceremonial opening for the hotel Monday morning, cutting a fuchsia ribbon stretched between two fuchsia-colored plastic penguins – penguins being an unofficial symbol for the Louisville, Ky.-based chain, and fuchsia the signature shade for the company’s Durham property, according to spokeswoman Emmie Kunhardt.
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“I don’t think anyone could have expected what we see today,” Mayor Bill Bell said. “This is going to be one of the top places to be in downtown Durham.”
The 21c represents an investment of almost $50 million in Durham’s city center, and an addition of hotel rooms that promoters of the formerly dormant downtown have long said were greatly needed as attractions such as the Durham Performing Arts Center, American Tobacco and innovative restaurants have made the area a visitor destination as well as a growing residential hub.
Until now, the only lodging downtown was the 189-room Durham Marriott Civic Center, opened in the 1980s.
“The combination of 21c’s luxury boutique hotel, museum, restaurant and bar make this the envy of the rest of the Triangle and beyond,” said Durham County commissioners Chairman Michael Page, adding that the project also brings 150 jobs.
Page also noted that the hotel will employ a staff of 150.
“We are grateful for our residents to have new employment opportunities,” he said.
Four more new hotels are scheduled to open in and near downtown Durham over the next 12 months, and as the 21c and local-government officials spoke they had to contend with noise from across the street where workers were preparing the ground for the 26-story office-retail-residential City Center tower due to start construction this spring.
Like the company’s other properties, in Louisville, Cincinnati and Bentonville, Ark., 21c Durham combines a luxury hotel with a museum of contemporary art. Artwork fills the second-floor gallery and lobby and hallways throughout the 17 floors.
The art, said company founder Steve Wilson, is “meant to inspire and provoke.” And some visitors will no doubt have strong reactions to works that include an image that combines the faces of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and a video of a nude performance artist.
Wilson mentioned one early visitor’s comment: “I think the belt just fell off the Bible Belt.”
The hotel’s ground-floor restaurant, called “the Counting House” in homage to the building’s former role as a bank, opened last week and its first guests are due to check in Tuesday. Still to come are a spa and lounge in the basement next to the old bank vault.
There are 125 rooms, starting at $199 a night. Two 13th-floor suites have outdoor terraces overlooking downtown and panoramas of the surrounding countryside. Furnishings are in an updated art-deco style, in keeping with the style of the 1937 building itself.
“The art deco feel is a lot of fun,” Greenberg said.
21c officials had visited Durham several years ago to see a different property, but the Hill Building was what impressed them, Greenberg said.
“This building is just magnificent,” he said. The original terrazzo floors remain, along with the mahogany paneling in the original bank lobby that now serves as a ballroom.
“As my daddy would say, it’s a real uptown place,” said state Sen. Mike Woodard. “When you go inside you’ll pinch yourself and say, ‘Am I still in Durham?’”
The 21c company bought the building at Main and Corcoran streets in 2013, paying $5.25 million to Greenfire Development, a Durham company that remains a partner in the hotel.
Jack Daniels heiress Laura Lee Brown and her husband, Steve Wilson, art patrons in Kentucky, formed the 21c company in 2006. That is the same year Greenfire bought the Hill Building, announcing its own plans to convert its banking and office space into a posh hotel, but it was never able to secure financing.
The city contributed $5 million to the total $48 million renovation cost and the county put in $2 million. The local governments expect to recoup their cost through the hotel’s addition to the local tax base.
Durham banker John Sprunt Hill commissioned the building in 1937 to house his two family-owned banks and insurance company. Hill’s banks later became Central Carolina Bank, which SunTrust acquired in 2004 along with the building. SunTrust moved out and sold the building rather than renovate it to meet updated fire codes.
Still to come
The 21c Museum Hotel is the first of five hotels due to open in and around downtown Durham over the next 12 months. They will add a total of 513 guest rooms to the 189 city-center rooms available at the Durham Marriott Civic Center.
Coming soon, according to the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau http://nando.com/dcvbhotels
▪ The Durham Hotel, 315 E. Chapel Hill St. (former Mutual Community Savings Bank): 54 rooms, restaurant, rooftop lounge, meeting space, business center, fitness room, outdoor patio. Opening expected in May. http://nando.com/durhamhotel.
▪ Jack Tar, 212 N. Corcoran St. 75 rooms, 7,000-square-foot pool deck, parking deck. Opening expected first quarter 2016. http://nando.com/jacktar.
▪ Aloft Hotel, 345 Blackwell St. 134 rooms, restaurant, bar, outdoor pool, gym, meeting space. Opening expected in June.
▪ Residence Inn by Marriott, 1108 W. Main St. (McPherson Hospital site). 125 rooms. Opening expected in June.
See the art
The 21c Museum Hotel in Durham features seven site-specific art installations in and around the building, and rotating exhibitions on its first and second floors, including the lobby and a formal gallery.
The hotel’s debut exhibition, “Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art,” is on view through August. It consists of more than 100 multimedia works.
The first and second floors are open free to the public at all times. Free docent-led tours of the artworks are given at 5 p.m. each Wednesday and Friday.