David Hoppe

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:: No mean idea this

by David Hoppe

Rumor, buzz, speculation. Whatever. If 21c Museum Hotels wants to buy Indianapolis’ old City Hall building and turn it into a boutique hotel this will be very good news.

The old City Hall, aka the State Museum and interim Public Library, is a venerable old pile, a stately neoclassical block which stands as an almost perfect embodiment of the old cliché: “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

Ideas have come and gone over the years about what to do with this building. Official neglect and inevitable decay have taken a toll; it is estimated that it could cost as much as $10 million to bring her up to speed.

This being Indianapolis, I’m sure there are some go-getters out there who would like nothing better than to see this 105-year-old building demolished so they could build yet another spiffy semi-suburban condo escarpment. But, so far, cooler heads have prevailed. It’s as if the phrase engraved on the building’s cornerstone, “I live in no mean city,” has served as an invisible shield against the wrecking ball.

If the loose talk about 21c Museum Hotels tightens up, it would serve as a golden example of how good things come to those who wait.

21c is a mini chain, operating upscale, art-themed hotels in three cities: Louisville (where the company is based), Cincinnati and Bentonville, Arkansas. If, like me, your first response is to go Bentonville? What’s in Bentonville? The answer is Walmart Headquarters and, more specifically, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the $450,000,000 love-child created by Alice Walton, the Walmart heiress.

21c, in other words, wanted part of that action.

I happened to visit the Museum Hotel in Louisville last year. It’s in the old riverfront section of town, not far from where they make Louisville Slugger bats. My wife and I were passing through and looking for an interesting place to have dinner. We had no idea what was in store.

Not only was the meal extraordinary, we found ourselves enjoying it in a lavishly designed space replete with works of contemporary art. And not just the kind of art that looks good over a banquette. This was the real thing — unabashed, provocative and, in places, even weird.

So far, so good. Imagine our delight when we found, after we paid the bill, that we could then explore several galleries that were loaded with sophisticated works from an array of international artists. Even the bathrooms were tricked out.

If 21c chooses to locate in downtown Indy, the city wins in several ways. Not only does it get a slick hostelry that rhymes with the Mass Ave cultural district, it gains what amounts to a first-rate contemporary art venue plus what will likely be another high-end bistro, to boot.   

Indy’s cultural cache will be burnished, and all the city will have to do is make a deal. It’s so much easier than building, say, a soccer stadium.

Best of all, it will save old City Hall. No mean city indeed.