Soapdish: At 21C Museum/Hotel, 'c' stands for 'cool'

Since I moved here in 2003, a familiar inquiry from out-of-town travelers was often “is there a cool, boutique hotel in town?” In the past, said query was typically met with a collective shrug. While we have a fine stock of impressive, historic hotels, none of them would ever be confused with the latest Ian Schrager venture.  

Well, shrug no more Cincinnati. After a striking and exhaustive renovation of the former 100-year-old flophouse known as the Metropole, the 21c effortlessly bridges the gap between historic hotel and cutting edge accommodations.

This past Monday, with its trademark, quirky, flightless waterfowl in attendance (in Cincinnati’s case—yellow, flightless waterfowl), a host of assembled VIPs, media and onlookers gathered on sunny Walnut Street and cheered as Mayor Mallory, City Council members, owners Laura Lee Bown and Steve Wilson and other assorted dignitaries wielded their trademark ceremonial-ribbon-scissors and snipped away to unveil the “big reveal” inside. While the Metropole restaurant had been open for a few weeks, this was the first opportunity for many to tour the recently completed galleries, hotel rooms and other public spaces.

Celebrating its 100th birthday this year, the formerly dank and decrepit Metropole received a fitting and dramatic facelift, both inside and out. In its olden days, the SRO (short for “single room occupancy”) hotel featured shared baths, frequent police visits, tobacco-stained drop ceilings and—in one apocryphal instance—an employee falling through said drop ceiling into the Trattoria Roma restaurant which used to be located below.

That former restaurant space, virtually unrecognizable following renovations, has been retrofitted into a much lighter, stunning restaurant. The new Metropole space unearthed the original mosaic tile floors, and also opened up a section of the ceiling, restoring the vintage plaster work and ornamentation around the large, arched windows.  

The new space feels light and open, a stark contrast from its former life, anchored by a mammoth hearth at the rear, which is the centerpiece of the restaurant. Another of the more interesting features is the mechanical, Dutch-made meat grinder at the charcuterie bar, reportedly acquired at a cost of $10,000 and refurbished by a noted “meat grinder expert” in Argentina, of all places. So, you know, no expenses spared here, particularly in the globetrotting meat grinder department.

But your humble columnist is no food critic, so you’ll just have to go and sample the cuisine for yourself. While the kitchen is still feeling its way and refining the menu, the anecdotal reviews to date have been uniformly positive. 

Chef Michael Paley, formerly of Proof on Main at 21c Louisville, arrives in Cincinnati with an impressive resume, one which also includes Louisville’s popular Garage Bar, a popular NuLu spot featuring craft beers and wood-fired pizzas. Paley mentioned that they are looking at opening a possible Garage Bar in Covington, provided they can find the appropriate space (you know…a garage).

It should be noted that the title to this establishment is the 21c Museum/Hotel, and it is no coincidence that the “museum” comes first. This is not one of those artsy-type hotels that brag about having a Basquiat or two in the lobby. No, this is a full-fledged, open-to-the-public, multi-level, carefully curated contemporary art museum.  

Take the time to wander through the first and second-floor galleries, spaces which include a once-closed but now-restored ballroom, as well as Turkish baths. While the baths did not survive, there is an interesting space in the former light well featuring bean bags on the floor and a nine-story, fiber optic tapestry/light sculpture by Danish textile artist Astrid Krogh soaring above. 

Additionally, tucked near the back of the first-floor gallery, regular CAC visitors will recognize the ostrich chick video and costume by Israeli video artist Guy Ben-Ner, a piece which appeared at the CAC back in 2005.

Then again, there is art everywhere around the building—in the hallways, on the sidewalk, in the rooms, even in the elevators, where Louisville-born, Brooklyn-based artist Anne Peabody has transformed the cars into interactive spaces of art called “Time Capsules.”  

In preparing the works, the artist engaged in extensive research regarding the history of the old Metropole, its uses and its evolution. Archival images, events and future fantasies based on that research were then etched by the artist onto the mirrored glass inside the elevators. Past denizens of the building’s rainbow-hued, smoke-filled subterranean watering hole known as “The Subway” will recognize the bar’s former logo etched into one of the mirrors.

The nod to the old Metropole’s checkered history is also evident when you first walk in the front door, greeted by a large, cheery display case featuring an array of camel-related collectibles—dolls, signs, lamps, etc.—anything and everything related to those humped, shaggy workhorses of antiquity. While at first glance one might think this to be an artist’s careful meditation on the exploitation of the noble yet lonely dromedary by the forces of crass commercialism and pop culture ephemera, its provenance is actually much more benign, as well as interesting.

The collection was acquired from the Metropole’s former building managers, Melvin and Johanna Lute, by 21c owners Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. The Lutes, who met at a Garth Brooks concert in 1992, started their collection shortly thereafter. Demonstrating a passion for collecting and sharing, the Lute’s lived in the penthouse from 2002-10. During that time, they observed, there was “a lot of drug activity, fraudsters…rough people, and elderly folks” living in the building. 

When touring the building, Brown and Wilson came upon the collection, laid out in the penthouse in all its camel-themed glory, and purchased it from the Lutes. Installing their collection at the entrance to the building provides a nice link between the structure’s glittering present and its somewhat tarnished past, while also emphasizing the “art of collecting” which permeates the 21c.

Another no-doubt popular installation (due to the fact that you traverse it on the way to the first floor restrooms) are the shifting, organic “Healing Tiles” by Brian Knep, artist-in-residence at the Harvard Medical School (yes—Harvard Medical School has an artist-in-residence). The colorful, pulsating tiles are projected using a custom software--shifting and breaking apart as patrons walk across them, then constantly rebuilding themselves in different configurations in the pedestrian’s wake. 

Of course, this is but a fraction of the artwork on display. Seeing as how it is free and open to the public, there is really no excuse for not wandering through the space and checking it out yourself. While you’re at it, make a day of it and check out the latest CAC exhibit as well. 

But let’s not give the actual accommodations short shrift. The rooms are sleek and impressive, coming in a variety of styles and sizes, topped off with the super-chic corner suites. Bathrooms are stocked with Malin+Goetz bath products, and feature white, subway-style Rookwood tile custom installations, with random, bas relief body part tiles thrown in the mix. 

Even if you live in Cincinnati, this is the perfect place to escape for a “staycation,” as it seems, at times, like you have been transported to a different city, complete with a spa open to both guests and the public.

According to General Manager Gerry Link, 54, the rooms would best be described as “minimalist luxury.” Link, who relocated from Portland to Cincinnati for the job, joined the 21c team in March of this year after spending 13 years with the Hilton Hotel group.  

He and his wife now live in the Lytle Park neighborhood of downtown. Link sees the 21c as a very complimentary piece to the block, what with the Aronoff Performing Arts Center across the street and the CAC next door. He noted that they want to be a “good neighbor,” and “absolutely” sees collaborations with the CAC in the future.

Although it won’t be open until the spring, the rooftop will feature a 55-person capacity bar, featuring stunning views of Mt. Adams and a 10-person hot tub. 
All in all, there is a lot to explore at the new 21c, and I suspect that the exploration and new discoveries will continue. While amazing developments continue to pop up all over our fair city, the new “corner of cool” in Cincinnati is clearly at the intersection of Sixth and Walnut.

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