In the early 1900s, the Savoy Hotel and Grill was a luxury destination for travelers who arrived in Kansas City by train.
Now, after two years and $50 million in renovations, it’s a contemporary art museum, boutique hotel and chef-driven restaurant three blocks from the KC Streetcar.
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The 21c Museum Hotel Kansas City, located at 219 W. Ninth St. in downtown Kansas City’s financial district, started booking guests Wednesday. The hotel features 120 rooms — including 19 suites — that start at $255 a night. The most expensive, called the 21c suite, goes for $2,650 a night and boasts a rooftop terrace with panoramic views of downtown.
The hotel also has a large ballroom with capacity for 120 to 150 people, four private galleries on the second floor with room for 10 to 75 people each, and a conference room that seats 12.
The new Kansas City hotel is the eighth property for 21c Museum Hotels, based in Louisville, Kentucky. The hospitality company is known for transforming historic buildings into modern museum-hotels. Oklahoma City’s 21c Museum Hotel is located in a former Model T Ford Factory; Louisville’s was built in warehouses that once stored bourbon.
“Every property is uniquely different,” says co-founder Steve Wilson. “The contemporary art is what holds it all together.”
All of the company’s hotels are located in downtown areas.
“We like being part of the city center,” Wilson says, “and bringing contemporary art to the public.”
The hotel and museum blends history with art in surprising ways.
Look close and you’ll see traces of the historic Savoy Hotel in thick baseboards, doors that have been closed off and painted over, porcelain vessel sinks and stained glass windows.
Each room is decorated with original photographs of penguins and Antarctic landscapes by 21c Museum Hotels co-founder Laura Lee Brown. And instead of bibles at the bedside, guests will find copies of “Art is the highest form of hope,” which features quotes by famous artists.
Amenities include a fitness center in a former air shaft, valet parking, free Wi-Fi and a contemporary art museum that’s open seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The museum, which is free and open to the public, features 6,200 square feet of gallery space with art that changes every six to nine months. The debut exhibition, “Refuge,” explores ideas about borders and the migrants who cross them.
Guests enter the building via a ramped hallway illuminated by color-changing LED light fixtures designed by Luftwerk, a Chicago-based artistic collaboration. The colors were chosen to emulate Kansas City skies at dusk and dawn.
The futuristic tunnel leads to a lobby that melds history with contemporary art. A sky blue penguin sculpture sits atop original mosaic tile floors, and the Savoy Hotel’s stained glass dome glows with a neon green uranium glass chandelier crafted by Japanese artists Ken and Julia Yonetani.
Walk past the reception desk and dome and you’ll find the hotel’s main gallery, which was once the Savoy Hotel’s lobby.
One of the most striking pieces in that bright, sunlit space is “Hellinikon Olympic Arena,” a 2016 digital print by Irish artist Richard Mosse. The panoramic image of a refugee camp in Greece looks like a black-and-white photograph but is actually a heat map created with a thermographic camera.
Look close and you’ll see glowing bodies drifting through a makeshift city of tents. One tent has a baby stroller parked outside.
“These are people whose lives register, but they’re not seen,” says chief curator Alice Gray Stites.
Across from “Hellinikon Olympic Arena” stands a moveable black steel gate topped with razor wire. The sculpture, called “Homeland Security,” was made in 2002 by Peruvian artist Jota Castro as a response to President George W. Bush’s creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
Each floor features original artwork by a Kansas City artist. Step off the 6th floor elevators and you’ll see three large saturated color photographs by Patty Carroll.
There’s also art in the former Savoy Grill restaurant space, which now serves as a lounge for The Savoy at 21c, a new restaurant headed up by executive chef Joe West.
The space is like a time capsule, with its dark wood wainscoting, carved oak bar and 1903 murals of pioneers crossing the prairie. It also features chairs that once stood in the Savoy Hotel’s barber shop and a booth where Harry S. Truman used to hang.
Because 21c Museum Hotels accepted federal historic tax credits to help cover the cost of renovations, the company was required to leave the Savoy Grill space mostly untouched.
Wilson says he briefly considered building a plexiglass box in the space to make it feel more contemporary. That plan didn’t pan out, but visitors who remember the Savoy Grill as it was might be surprised to see a new permanent art installation in the historic room.
The sculptural installation, called “Super Catcher, Vast Array,” features a handmade collection of Native American dreamcatchers, which were used as talismans to protect sleeping children. The dreamcatchers, made of wire and bells by multimedia artist Brad Kahlhamer, dangle delicately next to the murals of cowboys and covered wagons, offering an alternate view of American history.
It’s that juxtaposition of history and art that make 21c Museum Hotels different from other boutique hotels, Wilson says: “It’s about looking at the past through the eyes of the new.”