No big scoop on Whiskey Row, where stabilization work continues. (Click to enlarge.)

In an age of shouting points, it was  – I don’t know – comforting somehow to watch erudite people hold forth and dazzle an auditorium full of people with nothing but banter, expertise and conceptual clarity.

Which is what 21C Museum Hotel co-founder Steve Wilson and Michael Kimmelman, architecture editor of the New York Times did Wednesday night.

In Louisville, Kentucky!

IdeaFestival 2012 was the vehicle for the meeting of minds in last night’s IF University session, “Quality in an Age of Quantity: NYT Critic Sorts Thru the Noise,” moderated by UK College of Design Dean David Mohney.

Full disclosure: We typically don’t go to forums dedicated to art and architectural deconstructionism. Out of our depths.

We went on the odd chance Wilson would discuss his plans for Whiskey Row, the seven Main Street building just east of KFC Yum! Arena that construction crews currently are trying to stabilize.

A pivotal project in downtown’s rebirth.

Wilson and Brown-Forman heiress Laura Lee Brown came up with the 21C concept of integrating a contemporary art museum into a hotel, then squeezing the hybrid into five retrofitted 19th Century warehouses at Seventh and Main Streets.

The novel idea transformed West Main Street, helping make West Main Street up to 10th Street arguably the most glamorous stretch of the most glamorous mile in Kentucky.

The concept is spreading across the United States, with 21Cs planned in Cincinnati, Bentonville, Ark., Lexington, Ky. and Raleigh, N.C.

So, we stuck around until the end of the two-hour forum to ask Wilson a simple question:

Can you top 21C with a new concept at Whiskey Row?

His answer was non-committal.

But Wilson confirmed that he, Brown and a group of investors have raised sufficient capital for a major project.

Sources have told Insider Louisville various investors are interested in the property including, Louisville-based Musselman Hotels, while the Wilson/Brown investors were hoping for someone to take the badly deteriorated businesses off their hands.

But Wilson said his group will keep the Whiskey Row buildings and see the project through “though we don’t have any announcement at this time.”

Wilson added that the group is excited at the prospects of restoring the former center of the whiskey business, “especially since we found that Latex club in the basement!”

There you go … another concept just waiting for a vision.

While it was not a night of grand announcements, it was an evening of grand pronouncements.

During the forum, Kimmelman and Wilson talked in depth about how each had arrived at their positions as influential arbiters of public taste.

Kimmelman as a pianist-turned-academician-turned-critic, now the chief architecture critic at the New York Times.

Wilson as a country boy turned collector of provocative contemporary art.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was Kimmelman’s pointed critique of Louisville, which he’s visited twice as a friend of UK Dean Mohney.

Best line of the evening: After Wilson declared his love for the Michael Graves-designed Humana building, where the forum was held, Kimmelman said, “Yes, it’s such a homey place … if you’re Caligula.”

Waiting for the laughter to die down, Kimmelman added, “I was kidding!” Which he wasn’t. “It’s a building with a lot of charm, but with funny scale in the context of the street outside. But, hey, what a view!”

The Humana Building aside, the Manhattan critic gave Louisville high marks for creating an urban center that’s attracting young people from across the nation, “and it looks like you’re developing areas full of life.”

But Kimmelman encouraged Louisville leadership to think about “undoing all the horrible things you’ve done, like that expressway you put along the Ohio River, as well as the sea of surface parking lots. There are miles and miles of asphalt.”

One Louisville landmark that will never materialize is Museum Plaza, Wilson said. “Not in this city.” Wilson said Museum Plaza was “a grand dream. Now, I just dream of getting some of our money back.”

The 62-floor tower, which would have had condos, a museum and retail, “came about one month too late in terms of the financial markets,” he said, alluding to the October, 2008 market crash. “We tried our best with that building,” Wilson said. But now we’re so excited with (expanding) 21C,” the couple hoping to sell the Museum Plaza property, a block from 21C.

Two hours of discussions revealed Wilson and Kimmelman as two men from wildly different back grounds, yet connecting in the way art excites them.

Kimmelman is a native New Yorker whose world ends at the suburbs: “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere other than a city.”

Cities encourage people to constantly mix and share ideas, he said. “This is how prosperity happens,” Kimmelman said. “The human contact generates good ideas, which generate capital. That doesn’t happen in office parks.”

Wilson, who was born in rural Kentucky, countered he’s “half farmer and half collector,” saying to Kimmelman in an aside, “Half of my friends have no idea who you are.”

To which Kimmelman replied. “Well, I’d like to meet them.”

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Terry Boyd
Terry Boyd has seven years experience as a business/finance journalist, and eight years a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes. As a banking and finance reporter at Business First, Boyd dealt directly with the most influential executives and financiers in Louisville.