21c Museum Hotel Dazzles in St. Louis’ Old Downtown YMCA Building

The building’s stunning renovation now includes plenty of art — and plenty of penguins

Aug 11, 2023 at 12:37 pm
click to enlarge The installation O from Serkan Özkaya will be a permanent fixture in the lobby.
21c Museum Hotel St. Louis
The installation O from Serkan Özkaya will be a permanent fixture in the lobby.

The newest hotel in downtown St. Louis puts new meaning on a room with a view.

21c Museum Hotel St. Louis opened this week at 1528 Locust Street, which, for 95 years, was home to a YMCA. Now, as part of the unsurprisingly named 21c Museum Hotel hospitality brand, it doesn’t just hold luxurious rooms for travelers (though it has plenty of those) but also a museum exhibition floor, high-end eateries, the Locust Street Athletic and Swim Club, and lots of orange penguins.

The flightless bird is a motif of the brand and every location sports a different color. Guests wandering through the hotel can make a game of spotting the waist-high orange sculptures (they will be periodically relocated). Orange penguin pins also serve as a staff member identifier.

But the more interesting “Where’s Waldo” at the St. Louis location is in picking out original elements of the Y’s Renaissance Revival architecture and seeing how it works with the renovation from the architectural team Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaf + Goettel. Even the full-sized pool that once served Y members has been incorporated, renovated into a sparkling destination.

click to enlarge The 21c St. Louis lap pool.
21c Museum Hotel St. Louis
The athletic club includes a renovated iteration of the YMCA's lap pool.

As Sarah Robbins, 21c Museum Hotels chief operating officer, said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony late Tuesday, it’s all about the juxtaposition of the old and the new.

“This project takes homage to the origin story of 21c and the building's roots, revitalizing and restoring key historic features that tell a compelling narrative of the city's past,” she said. “Drawing inspiration from the YMCA’s mission in the 1920s, this space serves as a modern day gathering place.”

The Rooms

click to enlarge A corner king room at 21c St. Louis.
21c Museum Hotel St. Louis
A corner king room at 21c St. Louis.

One of the most fun nods to the YMCA is the floor that holds the hotel’s fanciest rooms, the two 21c King Suites, which sport what’s unmistakably the skinny boards of the original racquetball court. It’s a nice remnant of the past, but it’s far from the most impressive aspect of the rooms, which anyone would be forgiven for mistaking for luxury condos: They’re each more than 1,000 square feet, with two floors, one and a half baths, and a workout area stocked with Peloton equipment, among other things. The website lists a night as costing just shy of $2,000 before tax.

21c St. Louis also has a variety of more conventional but still ultra luxe hotel rooms, from a corner king suite with a deep soaking tub to a more standard double queen and even a room with bunk beds that would be perfect add-on for parents who want a separate space for the kids.

Despite the differing size of the rooms, there are some commonalities, like the interior decor that’s modern and understated but still full of interesting touches, like one room that seemed to be decorated with an emerald wood wallpaper. Each has Lavazza coffee, a carafe that can be fulfilled at a hallway water station, a bathroom sporting subway tile, a large shower and art. St. Louis’ Carmon Colangelo had a large share of the spaces shown during the museum’s opening and the work of other artists with Missouri ties, such as Collin W. Elliott, Brandon Forrest Frederick, Bethanie Irons and La Vispera, can be spotted throughout the hotel.

The Art

click to enlarge The second floor gallery space.
21c Museum Hotel St. Louis
The second floor hosts a large gallery space that debuted with a group exhibition, Revival: Digging Into Yesterday, Planting Tomorrow, that will be on display through June of next year.
The art is not only in the hotel rooms. Walking into the spacious lobby, your attention can’t help being seized by a giant glowing orb. It’s a permanent site-specific installation, dubbed O, from Serkan Özkaya. Eight feet in diameter, it’s filled with water, throwing reflections and light throughout the space. It’s reminiscent of Chicago’s Cloud Gate (you know, the Bean) but also is very much its own, arresting thing.

The second floor holds the gallery space, but skip the elevators and head up the stairs, which hosts its own site-specific installation, The Way Out West. A psychedelic wallpaper and carpet installation from art duo Fallen Fruit, a.k.a. David Allen Burns and Austin Young, who incorporated elements from St. Louis’ Campbell House Museum in the design.

The gallery space upstairs opened with Revival: Digging Into Yesterday, Planting Tomorrow, a group show that includes 70 contemporary artworks that use historical sources. Artists include Myrlande Constant, Jeannette Ehlers, Isaac Julien, Kapwani Kiwanga, Hew Locke, Ebony G. Patterson, Duke Riley, Yinka Shonibare, Hank Willis Thomas, Kehinde Wiley and others. It will be open through June 2024.

There are also smaller gallery spaces on the first floor, installations in the outdoor amphitheater and Forothermore, from Nick Cave and Bob Faust, on the ceiling of the hotel’s cafe.

The Food

click to enlarge The cafe, Good Press, serves coffee, breakfast foods and daytime fare.
21c Museum Hotel St. Louis
The cafe, Good Press, serves coffee, breakfast foods and daytime fare.

That cafe is called Good Press, and it’s one of two food concepts in 21c St. Louis — both headed up by Executive Chef Matthew Daughaday and showcasing local ingredients. Good Press is meant to be a casual gathering place for hotel guests as well as the general public. Until 11 a.m. the cafe serves breakfast fare such as smoothies, yogurt, overnight oats, eggs, pastries and toasts, loaded or French. Things then switch over to day fare — salads and sandwiches and some sides — until 4 p.m.

The other concept is Idol Wolf, a chef-driven, Spanish-influenced restaurant that opened at the end of July. It features tapas as well as larger plates and a beverage program that incorporates Spanish liquors. For more details, head to the RFT’s first look of Idol Wolf.

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