Contemporary Art and Art Deco Converge in an Innovative Hotel

The Hill Building is a Durham landmark because of its 17-story stepped architecture and the fact that it was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects of New York’s Empire State Building.

The Hill Building is a Durham landmark because of its 17-story stepped architecture and the fact that it was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects of New York’s Empire State Building.

Art Deco was a highly progressive design movement in its day, but the architects of Durham, N.C.’s 1937 Hill Building could scarcely imagine the vanguard displays that now inhabit the structure. Bringing new vibrancy to an underserved area of downtown, the 134,025-square-foot 21c Museum Hotel in Durham combines the panache of Art Deco elements with eye-catching contemporary art.

The owners of 21c Museum Hotel have a passion for integrating contemporary art into daily life, and their unique programmatic approach turned the Hill Building, formerly the Home Savings and Trust Co., into a hotel activated by public gallery spaces. The building was a Durham landmark because of its 17-story stepped architecture and the fact that it was designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon—the architects of New York’s Empire State Building. When the New York-based design team at Deborah Berke Partners, led by Principal Terrence Schroeder, first envisioned the project’s adaptive reuse, they instantly saw the symmetry between the spirit of Art Deco and 21c’s mission. “The Art Deco style was bold and it celebrated the 20th century,” Schroeder affirms. “21c celebrates the 21st century with vivid, often provocative, works that encourage people to explore contemporary art.”

Evoking an Era

Intact Art Deco finishes lend sophistication to 21c Museum Hotel Durham. For example, the elevator lobby is clad in green marble with terrazzo floors and a decorative aluminum leaf plaster ceiling. “The aluminum leaf is a bright metallic counterpoint to the green marble,” Schroeder says. “A lot of our design work was to highlight the character of the Art Deco items we found and stitch together a holistic experience with contrasting spaces for art.”

Designers located original drawings that detailed windows, radiator covers, wood paneling and decorative work throughout the building. Beautiful terrazzo flooring in different colors and patterns still remained (sometimes only in fragments) on 15 of the building’s 17 floors. The top two stories are not served by the elevator, and they housed mechanical equipment and unoccupied space, which they continue to do today.

The upper floors were formerly offices that divided nicely into the hotel’s 125 guestrooms. Few of the original Art Deco touches survived in these areas other than small portions of flooring and aluminum metal grillwork covering the openings of the in-wall radiators. “We retained and refurbished the decorative grillwork and refurbished the terrazzo flooring,” Schroeder says. In guest rooms, the designers kept the floors exposed and added area rugs. Throughout the building, they selected color palettes that either accentuate the floor colors or provide warm contrasts. “We used metallic tones like silver and copper to add hints of glamour while keeping the atmosphere very modern,” Schroeder notes.

About the Author

KJ Fields
KJ Fields writes about design, sustainability and health from Portland, Ore.

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