I love great hotels and it’s a segment of the travel industry that I pay a lot of attention to. So when a few years ago a new player in the industry popped onto my radar, I was immediately intrigued. Although we’ve seen in recent years a growing trend of so-called boutique lifestyle hotels, the fine folks behind the 21c brand weren’t just early adopters, they well and truly paved the way for others to follow. With all of this in mind it was with no shortage of excitement that I finally had the opportunity to patronize one of their properties when I spent some time in Oklahoma City.
What is 21c
Since at least the Great Recession, there has been a revitalization of lost or nearly lost neighborhoods and communities in cities of all sizes around the world. For a variety of reasons, people are now choosing to live in city centers instead of outside them and with them they have brought any number of entrepreneurs opening up everything from bars and restaurants to dog groomers and certainly hotels. That’s at the root of the 21c story when owners and art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson decided to take a more active role in the preservation of downtown Louisville by creating what has become one of the most innovative hotel concepts in the world.
Their belief is that art can be a vital part of daily life and they sought to create a center for culture, community and hospitality. That philosophy has spread to their other locations around the country, including the property I found myself in when visiting Oklahoma City.
21c Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City
Located in Oklahoma City’s West End, what is now the 21c actually began life as a Ford Motor Company assembly plant, which dates back more than a century and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s in this spacious facility where the owners have created what is truly a remarkable hotel. The 21c Museum Hotel Oklahoma City is a contemporary art museum and a 135-room boutique hotel with spacious guest rooms reminiscent of a Soho loft apartment. It’s also undeniably quirky which immediately endeared it to me.
Contemporary art is very much at the heart of the experience though, a fact that is impossible to miss as soon you enter the spacious lobby. Certain pieces around the hotel (and the art is everywhere) are permanent, while others temporary making it a place for locals to return to as well as visitors. One of the more curious works though isn’t endemic to Oklahoma City, it’s the emblem of 21c itself – the penguins. It started innocently enough, the owners purchased the penguin sculptures after seeing them around Louisville as part of a public art project. Immediately people were attracted to them, putting them in strange positions around the hotel and even inviting them to dinner in their rooms. Since then, each 21c property has its own penguin in a color that somehow represents its city. During my own time at the 21c in Oklahoma City, the purple penguin was an oddly important part of my own experience, finding him in the elevator, front lobby and even next to my room. It’s a wonderful example of how the 21c Museum Hotels make art more accessible to the public in ways they would never expect.
Of course, any great hotel is about so much more than nice lobbies or expensive works of art. It always comes down to comfort and hospitality, and even here the 21c shines. Since the building itself is slightly unusual, the owners embraced that quirkiness and the rooms are very much loft style with high ceilings and open floor plans. They’re anything but utilitarian though, rooms feature all of the creature comforts I would expect to find in a luxury hotel including luxurious bedding, plenty of lounge space and Malin + Goetz bath amenities that are so nice you too will become a shampoo thief.
Food is also an integral part of the 21c experience, and in Oklahoma City that means a visit to Mary Eddy’s is in order. Mary Eddy’s Kitchen x Lounge is a testament to Chef Patton’s interpretation of New American Cuisine, all served in an art-filled and communal setting. From Sweet Cream Pancakes at breakfast to Missouri Trout or Tagliatelle Bolognese in the evening, it’s hard to go wrong here. Add in their eclectic but delicious cocktails and you have the recipe for a perfect meal in a fun environment.
Yes, the 21c Oklahoma City is quirky and no, not everyone will love it. That being said, it was everything I had hoped it would be and so much more. Design hotels are all the rage right now, but many simply miss the mark. They try to be weird just for the sake of being weird and ultimately what is sacrificed is the comfort of the guest. This is not the case with 21c, probably because they pioneered the concept that everyone is now trying (and failing) to emulate. The owners wanted spaces that help bring old neighborhoods to life. They wanted spaces that are just as nice for locals as they are for guests. They wanted a community spirit, they wanted to be active in their cities and they wanted to educate along the way. It’s a tall order but, from my own brief experience, they haven’t only accomplished this mission, they’ve excelled at it. Sure, the giant penguin was a little creepy at times, but overall my experience at the 21c Oklahoma City was just as whimsical and delightful as any hotel experience I’ve ever enjoyed.