In various parts of the country, there is a unique hospitality venture that incorporates hotel amenities, activities, and dining in one cohesive and artful experience. The 21c Museum Hotel properties allow a stay in a boutique hotel while contemporary art is just steps away — and resides on multiple floors generally right below or above your hotel room. The concept is only enhanced further by a dining option with a dedicated chef and team that is hard to find anywhere else.
One such location for this multi-purpose, one-stop entity is in the heart of downtown Durham, the only 21c location in North Carolina. 7 other operational properties are spread throughout the country in cities such as Louisville, Cincinnati, Bentonville, Lexington, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Kansas City, and two new locations are coming soon to Des Moines and Miami.
We got to experience 21c in-person recently and we were blown away during our stay. The venture was founded by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, contemporary art collectors and preservationists who believe in the power of contemporary art. Visitors to 21C experience curated rotating exhibitions, commissioned site-specific installations, and regular cultural programming at each location.
The unique and highly acclaimed restaurants in the 21c family are led by a dedicated chef and they all have a unique point of view, yet all share a commitment to quality, supporting regional farmers and producers, and genuine hospitality.
Kristin Drake, the General Manager at 21c in Durham oversees 125+ employees. She tells us the hotel has quickly become a unique community gathering place in the heart of downtown Durham… Guests get to see and experience thought-provoking contemporary art, enjoy a meal at Counting House, try a new cocktail with an old friend, get a fantastic night’s sleep, or participate in an interactive cultural program.
Downtown Durham is energized with art, culture and a dining scene that has been recognized as one of the best in the South. It’s a city that 21c had been looking at for quite some time. The 21c team always had their eye on the historic Hill Building, and was impressed with the development efforts underway. The opportunity to renovate this building came up, and everybody at 21c were excited to add to the cultural, civic and social resources of the Bull city, Drake told us in closing.
If you weren’t looking for it, you might pass by the 21C location that has resided in Durham since 2015, but from the moment you enter the building, you have become a part of a sublime experience of contemporary design. The clean lines of the interior’s layout are juxtaposed by the eccentric artistic flare smattered across various spaces, including the front check-in desk, in hotel rooms, and of course throughout the museum component’s space. And no one can ignore the iconic “Fushia Penguin” that greets you upon hotel and restaurant check-in.
According to the website, the intention was to preserve the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Art Deco style. The most notable aspect of the rooms was the natural light and views that jumped out from the large windows. Bull City never looked so vibrant than from the 12th floor! Some rooms are even pet-friendly. The various hotel employees also seemed eager to engage and assist if needed, which is comforting to feel that the staff seemed as eager to be there as the guests.
Various exhibitions are underway at the different 21C locations at any given time, but in Durham, the floors allotted to the art are something special. In fact, the basement floor of the Durham 21C has a preserved bank vault that is worth the freezing temperatures of the space to check out. From there, the exhibitions pay homage to the artists’ intentions, which are open to the public any day of the year and even have guided docent tours twice a week.
Last but absolutely not least, Counting House is the building’s restaurant that exposes another sunlit, artistically decorated space, which is said to include many animal-centered pieces as more of a statement. Thomas Card has been the Executive Chef at Counting House since early 2017, with about 18 years of prior restaurant experience in such establishments as the Umstead Hotel and Spa. Card said he is excited to be able to mold the menu of offerings to showcase seasonal dishes that are just as artfully crafted as the museum space.
Card has done just that with the restaurant: From the small “Taste” plates to the raw offerings and dinner entrees of vegetarian and carnivore persuasion, the menu items are nothing short of impressive. The scallop ceviche was so texturally pleasing with the lima beans and fennel; the gazpacho practically looked like art before the “broth” was poured tableside; the seasonal stone fruit and tomato dish on the “Mostly Vegetables” side popped with freshness and attention to detail. This only scratches the surface, as there is nothing but pure joy that covers what these dishes provide. I think I could live off the immensely cohesive and flavorful Plancha Octopus with gnocchi “Taste” dish and the banana creme brulee dessert.
It is not selling it short to say I had one of the most well-rounded and aesthetically-pleasing meals at Counting House I have ever had, including the cocktails that combined seemingly unlikely flavors to play off each other and meld into an 80s-90s playlist of tasty drinks.
The entire experience at 21c is certainly worth looking into, but whether or not you are staying at the hotel component, want to wander through the museum’s offerings on any given day, or are eager to celebrate a special occasion or just an exceptional weekend brunch, the 21C group has put together something you will talk about for some time.
So what are your favorite local boutique hotels in the Durham area? Please be sure to hit us up on Twitter @919BlogNC or visit our Facebook page at FB.com/919Blog and let us know! We would love to hear from ya.
This post was created in collaboration with the 919Blog.com editorial team and 919 Blog contributor Melissa Kahan for exclusive digital publication via TBN