Visiting the 21c Museum Hotel in St. Louis: The A in YMCA Stands for Art

Travel Features hotels
Visiting the 21c Museum Hotel in St. Louis: The A in YMCA Stands for Art

The first thing you see when you enter the 21c Museum Hotel in St. Louis is a work of art I called The Orb. Its real name is almost certainly something else (I just googled it: it’s called O, and it’s by the Turkish-American artist Serkan Özkaya) but I imagine everybody who ever sees it just thinks of it as The Orb. What else would you call a gigantic marble that beckons to you from the center of a hotel lobby? It’s a god-damned orb!

Upon closer inspection O confounds expectations. I just sort of assumed it would be reflective—that I’d see my own distorted image beamed back at me from the orb’s surface. It’s actually filled with water, though, so what you see within O is whatever’s on the other side of it. It’s not what I thought I would see, but instead something more interesting, something that made me realize how narrow my expectations were. The orb basically sums up 21c as a whole: I thought I knew what it would be like, but it’s different, deeper, and richer than that. 

I’ve read (and edited) a lot about 21c Museum Hotels before. Based in Louisville, and with locations throughout the Midwest (along with ones in North Carolina and Arkansas), 21c prides itself as the art hotel—not just stylish, well-designed places to stay, but hotels with actual museum-quality art galleries, as well as original art in both public and private spaces. It’s the kind of hotel where you expect to find a giant water-filled orb right in the entrance, as well as an ornately decorated stairwell full of colorful images rooted in St. Louis’s past. 21c takes the art seriously, and that’s obvious the second you enter the St. Louis location.


Beyond Özkaya’s O and those gorgeously appointed stairs, you’ll find photographs by world-renowned artists Tiff J. Sutton and Michael Eastman in the hotel’s lounge and billiards room. Large pieces adorn the walls overlooking the bar for its restaurant Idol Wolf, and an eye-catching (and disorienting) mirrored piece by Jeppe Hein shimmers and ripples behind the front desk. The suite I stayed in had a few pieces from local artists. Art’s everywhere here.

That’s most apparent on 21c’s second floor, which contains its official gallery space. The current exhibit, Revival: Digging into Yesterday, Planting Tomorrow, is the St. Louis hotel’s inaugural show, featuring art that has yet to be exhibited in a 21c. It runs into June 2024, and features works by Yinka Shoibare, Hew Locke, Kehinde Wiley, Kudzanai Chiurai, Jeannette Ehlers, and many more. 21c’s Chief Curator and Museum Director Alice Gray Stites curates the main exhibition for each location, and Revival refocuses the historical record on lesser-known lives and stories as interpreted by some of the most striking and insightful artists of the 21st century. Works like Ehlers’ video Black Magic at the White House, where a ghostly figure performs traditional African dance in the 18th century home of a slave dealer, and Sara Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin’s textile piece Black Cherokee, which documents the horror of the Trail of Tears, are powerful evocations of a shameful past. Other works in the exhibit show sparks of hope and optimism, or temper their message with humor and absurdity. 


The St. Louis location’s museum space itself has some artistic qualities. The hotel is based in what was, for a century, the home of the downtown St. Louis YMCA, and part of the museum collection is housed in a gymnasium with a basketball court and jogging track. It’s an unusual contrast to admire art in a space devoted to recreation and physical exercise, entirely different kinds of physical labor that produce two different kinds of epiphanies—one personal and physical, one philosophical and with the ability to touch all strata of society. 

The remnants of the YMCA don’t just set this hotel apart from other hotels, but also make this unique among the 21c family. Even if, like me, you don’t typically go for a swim in the hotel pool, you’ll need to check out this hotel’s pool. You’ll feel like you’re stepping into the past when you see the restored art deco pool of the old YMCA building. Don’t worry, though: although the guest rooms have a gloriously old-fashioned aesthetic right out of the 1940s, they won’t make you feel like you’re in your granddad’s gym. It’s all comfort behind those hotel room doors.


Idol Wolf, the hotel’s restaurant, is also its own work of art. This tapas spot serves actual, legitimately Spanish tapas, and doesn’t just use the name to refer to a plate with two small hamburgers on it. The Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp) is a favorite, soaking in a delicious splash of olive oil and brandy, whereas the roasted cauliflower in salsa macha (with almonds, cashews, and sesame seeds) might be the best thing I ate in St. Louis. Idol Wolf is hot right now, so definitely get a reservation if you hope to eat there. 

Now that I’ve stayed in a 21c Museum Hotel I can see why they’ve become so popular among tourists and travel writers alike. The St. Louis location offers all the comfort and convenience you expect from a quality hotel, with the thoughtfulness, emotion, and cultural cache of a well-curated contemporary art museum. It’s also in a great spot if you hope to take in all downtown St. Louis has to offer, with short walks (or cheap rideshare jaunts) to all of downtown’s major sites. I can’t call it the best hotel in St. Louis (it’s literally the only one I’ve ever stayed in), but I can say you probably won’t regret staying here. 

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin