The 4-foot penguin first appeared at the end of my hall, but 30 minutes later when I opened my door, the rotund red bird was there in front of me. "Don't worry," said a man walking by. "They're always on the move."
The migratory birds, sculptures first exhibited at the 2005 Venice Biennale and now part of the collection of 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Ky., add a touch of whimsy. But with 9,000 square feet of gallery space and art in all corridors and rooms, three-fourths coming from the owners' private collection valued at $10 million, 21c is a serious museum.
Carved out of five former 19th-century bourbon and tobacco warehouses, 21c is both part of the revitalization of Louisville's delightful downtown and a transformation of art from backdrop into upfront and thought-provoking.
The sleek, minimalist interior — uber-urbanism with linear white walls dividing the main lobby and downstairs gallery into cozy conversational and exhibit spaces — is softened with touches of the buildings' past using exposed red brick walls and original timber and iron support beams as part of the decor. Named this year by Travel + Leisure as one of the 500 Best Hotels in the World, 21c is also the first North American museum of 21st-century contemporary art.
I find more whimsy on a plate at Proof on Main, the hotel's restaurant, when the waiter plops down my bill and a fluff of pink cotton candy — no after-dinner mints here. But the food, a fusion of Italian and American South, will please even the most serious foodinista. Free-range chicken is paired with Tuscan cabbage and sweet potatoes, gnocchi topped with paper-thin slices of Kentucky ham, black-eyed peas and ham fritters. House-cured pancetta seasons the baby Brussels sprouts, grown on the restaurant's 1,000-acre farm. Local is on the drink menu as well with more than 50 regional and seasonal Kentucky bourbons.
A meal like this demands a walk, so I step outside (more art here) on Main, a street of 19th-century cast-iron facades, the second largest collection in the U.S. Once known as Whiskey Row, it's refined now as Museum Row on Main. To my left, a 120-foot bat leans on the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, across the street is the Louisville Science Center, and nearby are several more including the Muhammad Ali Center.
Heading east, I take a 15-minute stroll to NuLu, an emerging neighborhood of galleries, restaurants and shops. I've come for the Modjeskas, caramel-covered marshmallows created in 1888 in honor of a visiting Polish actress and still made from the original recipe at Muth's Candies. On the way back to 21c, I detour through Waterfront Park, a vast expanse of greenway on the Ohio River, taking time to bite into a Modjeska and watch boats pass by.