December 27, 2017

Integrating the Past Into the 21st Century: 21c Museum Hotel

  • By: Carson Bear

Reinterpreting the past is often future-facing, as evidenced by 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina. Once the Hill Building, a historic department store and bank, this building was one of only three Art Deco structures built in Durham’s commercial core in the 1930s. The National Register-listed building has since been converted into a hotel and contemporary art museum that uses its historic architectural details to reflect the identity of its current community.

21c Museum Hotels’ Chief Brand Officer Molly Swyers, who oversaw the design and construction of 21c Durham, spoke with us about this innovative project.

How did the history of the Hill Building influence its current use as a hotel and contemporary art museum?

Our architect and designer, Deborah Berke, said it best as it relates to our work on historic properties: “The old looks best in the presence of the new.” We are focused on breathing new life into these historic buildings, while respecting their past lives and the value placed on them by their communities.

Exterior of the 21c Durham Museum Hotel.

photo by: 21c Museum Hotels

Exterior view of the historic Hill Building, now 21c Durham Museum Hotel.

A converted historic bank vault in the 21c Durham.

photo by: 21c Museum Hotels

The former bank's historic vault and safety deposit boxes highlight its rich past.

The Hill Building was designed in 1937 by Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon, the architects famous for the Empire State Building. The New York-based architects worked in association with Durham architect George Watts Carr to build the original structure.

New York-based architects Deborah Berke Partners introduced 21st century innovation to the Hill Building’s Art Deco glamour. Throughout the property, historic details such as original green marble walls, silver leaf ceilings, and terrazzo floors in the hotel entrance, were preserved and contrasted with contemporary design details. The hotel’s double-height Main Gallery (located in the old banking hall) and historic vault lined with safety deposit boxes, highlight the building’s past. With any historic rehabilitation, you can expect to run into some surprises—so it’s important to stay nimble through the process and revise your approach as necessary.

Though tax credits made up a small portion of the overall cost of roughly $48 million to build 21c Durham, the historic rehabilitation of the Hill Building would not have been possible without them.

Tell us a little more about the art museum. What artists and exhibits do you typically feature?

21c is, first and foremost, a contemporary art museum. We’re dedicated to radically expanding access to thought-provoking contemporary art. We do this by providing rotating curated exhibitions of work from emerging and established artists from all over the world in a variety of mediums. The art of today often provides a unique lens through which we view how we live, work, and play in the 21st century. Our exhibitions are open to the public free of charge, seven days a week. We also engage the community through arts programming that is free and responsive to their interests and needs.

[In addition to the traditional galleries], 21c Durham features six site-specific works, integrated into a variety of spaces in and around the building. Collectively titled Reflecting Transformation, these works reference nature, technology, economics, politics, and entertainment to illuminate the evolution of the past into a future-focused present.

Do you have anything else to add about the building’s history, restoration, or current use?

At the core of our mission is sharing contemporary art with the public and revitalizing and reenergizing urban neighborhoods. We take careful consideration into creating a space that is reflective of the community it serves and of the building’s rich past life. We aim to provide a way for visitors to experience the community in an authentic, genuine way; a place where people can engage in meaningful conversations about what’s going on in the world as reflected in contemporary art; and a cultural center not just for visitors, but for community members.

Carson Bear

Carson Bear was an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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