The third stroll event of 2021 for the Society of Urban Perambulators (SoUP) is in the books with the Downtown Loop event on Saturday, May 15th. It was a beautiful day in Louisville to gather with fellow civic-minded folks and some of their canine friends for a walk around a less trodden part of the city and hear about some of the historic rehabilitation projects that are going to be a part of the future stories of Louisville.

We gathered at the Brennan House on 5th Street with our event partners and field guides, the team at Vital Sites who also currently own and operate the historic building. Before we got started on the stroll, attendees had a chance to get some coffee, thanks to Heine Brothers, and tour the Italianate mansion, built in 1868.

The Urban Design Studio's Society of Urban Perambulators gathering at the Brennan House to hear from our hosts the Vital Sites team to kick off the day

Looking at historic Sanborn fire insurance maps you can see that at one point in time, this street was lined with similar, and in some cases even larger stately homes. Now the singular Brennan House remains, surrounded by all too many surface lots and blank walls. While this writing is about the possibilities and progress on the horizon, we have to face the fact that the lack of value our community has offered for our historic fabric, particularly in this part of town, leaves a sense of bleakness gazing out from the mansion windows. But before you lament that Urban Renewal and our recent city decisions are mostly to blame, take a look at the comparisons of the block from 1905 and 1940 and you will see that the prominence of the automobile had a devastating effect. It may be hard to read here, but all the large voids in the 1940 map say “auto parking," and several of the new buildings around the Brennan House are dedicated to auto sales and repair. With that said, many if not all of the historic buildings we currently know and love along 4th Street, east of the Brennan House, replaced mansions as well. I think there has to be a balance between saving buildings and the evolution of a city. The problem comes when we don’t replace what we remove with something as good or better. But that is for another discussion.

Comparison of Brennan House Block in 1905 and 1940

We headed a short jaunt south on 5th Street from the Brennan House to Broadway. It should be noted at this point one of our fellow travelers jokingly commented as we attempted to cross Broadway, “were we trying to thin the herd?” This section of Broadway is seven lanes wide and there are some monumental sized parking lots that can be seen from the corner that makes it seem even more daunting to cross.

Excessive (7 lanes) of Broadway and surrouding uses dedicated to the automobile

Once we successfully traversed Broadway with our group intact, Nathan Smith of Luckett & Farley talked a bit about the 500 Building, also known as the Bank of Louisville Building at the southwest corner of Broadway and 5th. The massive blue-bricked building built in the 1960s by Al Schnieder, has sat vacant for some time, but is now slated to become an Indigo Hotel. In the past I had heard a few people call the style steamboat-modern, but I’m skeptical that is a thing, and my very cursory search seems to support that notion.

Aside from the 500 Building, Luckett & Farley are working on a number of other buildings in this area known as SoBro (South of Broadway), a fragmented transition zone between the central business district and the historic Old Louisville neighborhood several blocks to the south. Their office complex is also in SoBro and they have been leading efforts to try to revitalize the area.

Nathan Smith of Luckett & Farley talking to the group about the future of the 500 Building

To the east of the 500 Building where we stood and listended to Nathan is the Brown Bros. Cadillac dealership property, a sprawling 5.35 acre city block that recently went on sale for about $8,750,000 for anyone looking to make an immediate impact in and around Downtown.

As we continued west on Broadway, it was hard to miss the massive parking lots that flank the 500 building along Broadway and beyond which belong to the parent company of our beloved newspaper the Courier Journal, whose iconic streamline moderne office headquarters was recently announced to be for sale as they farm out their printing production and consolidate their offices. According to LoopNet at the time of this writing, two of the properties totaling 5.45 acres are for sale for $17M. I’m curious though because there is a discrepancy that maybe I’m not understanding as there is a more info link that lists the property features as being the full 13.545 acres which would include the surrounding parking lots, for the same $17M.

Whatever the case may be, this site will be important to watch and interesting to think of what kind of projects could adaptively reuse the 660,000 sq/ft of space. If there wasn’t an Amazon fulfillment center just across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana, I’d say this would be a major opportunity to attract the company to Louisville and even sweeter that the building is only a few blocks from I-65 with a direct line to the UPS WorldHub. To think about that a little more, being on a major transit route (Broadway) would be a perfect situation for access to a solid workforce.

The Courier-Journal Office Building at 6th and Broadway

Across 6th Street from the Courier Journal building is the Gene Snyder US Courthouse that was built in the 1930s. This formidable neo-classical building is pretty nice, but you would cry if you realized that this took the place of a magnificent Post Office and Custom House that once sat at the corner of 4th and Chestnut just blocks away.

Gene Snyder US Courthouse at 6th and Broadway
Post Office and Custom House previously at 4th and Chestnut... which is now a parking garage. Check out this great website where you can find this image among a large collection of historic images in Louisville (source).

We quickly set our sites north on 6th Street, squinting to make out the next buildings on our stroll. While trying to determine the SoUP Downtown Loop route I had a number of people question why we would want to walk along this section of the city as there is little to see at the speed of a pedestrian. My answer was "that is part of the reason we need to walk this area." Part of the point of these perambulations is to not only see the great aspects of our city, but to see the underbelly and understand why it is the way it is so we can make it better.

Aside from a Federal office tower among a sea of surface parking and an interesting selection of facade material for a long and tall screen wall, someone pointed out that the trees were significantly larger than your typical street trees. I believe there is some saying regarding a silver lining…

Large, mature street-trees and ornate screen wall on 6th Street

As we arrived at the corner of Chestnut Street and 6th we were greeted with an assortment of building styles and eras. Jessica McCarron, of Vital Sites, mentioned that the WHAS building was designed by Louis Henry & Associates to visually harmonize with the Federal Building across the street. I've always thought the WHAS building is a interesting design and though it is not as pedestrian friendly as a row of storefronts along the block, the transparent glass facade is so much more inviting that what we walked past from Broadway.

Standing under the shade trees admiring the WHAS building and AT&T buildings at Chestnut and 6th

We stood in the shade of mature trees next to the South Central Bell Telephone/AT&T Building that was once the Kentucky headquarters, built in 1979. It was mentioned by Charles Cash that the building was engineered to be a tower twice as tall, a notion that gets the imagination going as to what you could do with the roof of a building so over engineered.

By the way, this 4 story building is also for sale on LoopNet for $10,200,000 as of this writing. It sits on 4.65 acres, something that became apparent as we continued north on 6th Street. The extensive parking lotand large jogging path helped tell the story of the era this building was built. In the last 70s and early 80s, corporate headquarters and offices were heading to the suburban office parks. To compete, urban developments such as this provided all inclusive amenities such as gyms, daycare and more that essentially made it possible to drive to the office, park the car in a secure lot and go into work never having to venture into downtown beyond the corporate bubble. This approach essentially negates the value of being in an urban environment and contributed to killing what makes a city center a special and unique place in a region.

That said, I am probably in the minority on this, but I actually like the building. I think that if the right creative redeveloper came along it could be a very unique property, as long as the new life of the building engaged the street instead of creating a suburban bubble.

Previous AT&T Headquarters Building and suburban-style campus for sale
AT&T Headquaters Building Facade on Chestnut

Martina Kunnecke of Neighborhood Planning & Preservation (NPP) Kentcukiana gave the group some things to think about when we stopped at the Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company Building which is now River City Bank at the corner of 6th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, which incidentally was once Walnut Street.

Mammoth Life was Kentucky’s largest African American owned business back in the 1920s. This building sat at the eastern edge of the Russell Neighborhood and was part of a thriving and vibrant African American commercial corridor before Urban Renewal efforts wiped it out and essentially pushed the Russell neighborhood three blocks west to 9th Street. At some point a false facade was built over the historic building, but you can get glimpses of what lies beneath through some interesting 70s looking metal screens. As I’ve heard a number of times and continue to agree with, there are calls to remove the garish facade and daylight the historic facade to celebrate the history of the building and more importantly, the historic Black culture that once thrived in the building and along this corridor.

Though my friend and fellow urbanist left us too soon, Branden Klayko’s writings on Louisville are still so relevant and insightful. For more information on the Mammoth Life building check out Mammoth Life Buried Beneath River City Bank on Brokensidewalk from 2008.

Though we weren’t able to get inside to take a peak, we stopped in Founders Square on Muhammad Ali to regard the Louisville Gardens, catty-corner from the Mammoth Life building. The Louisville Gardens began its life as the Jefferson County Armory back in 1905, at which time, according to Jessica, it was the largest public building constructed in Kentucky.

The Beaux Arts style building transitioned to more of an athletic and convention facility. Elvis was probably the most famous people to perform there, though the space hosted all sorts of events from concerts to boxing matches and basketball games over the years. The last public use of the space ended in 2006. The City of Louisville is currently entertaining requests for proposals from interested parties to redevelop the iconic property, restoring its former use as a public gathering space for arts, entertainment and community use. There is more information on that on Louisville Metro’s website.

View (left to right) of historic Louisville Gardens, Cathedral of the Assumption steeple, and Philanthropic Center Building along north side of Muhammad Ali Blvd.

We walked across Founders Square to the Cathedral of the Assumption where we met with Tim Tomes who gave us the history of the building and a look inside. The cathedral was completed in 1852 and is the fourth oldest public building in Louisville and third oldest Catholic Cathedral in the United States in continuous use according to their website. The building has been beautifully restored over the last few decades. It was at this point that I heard my friends dog whimpering outside so I, being a softy for dogs, went outside and missed the rest of Tim’s talk, but I think that it would be worth digging into their website for more information on the long and interesting history, and definitely worth looking inside if you are in the area.

Group listening to Tim tell the history of the Cathedral of the Assumption
Interior of the Cathedral of the Assumption

Adjacent and south of the Cathedral are the Philanthropic Center, previously the Republic Building, an early office tower completed in 1916, and Harmony Building, previously the Business Women’s Club built in 1911. Regina Blake discussed the history of the buildings, particularly the fascinating story behind the Business Women’s Club that formed in 1899 and purchased the site in 1901, taking 10 years to raise the funds to construct the building, providing a place for women to do business at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote. The space provided 56 beds, dining room, meeting rooms, library, classrooms and storefronts on the ground floor.

Veena Reddy, an architect with K Norman Berry, discussed some of the unique design elements of the Harmony Building. Both buildings are in different stages of rehabilitation and reimagination, guided by the notion of creating an urban laboratory that explores the principles of the circle of Harmony and Health which encompasses economic, psychological, spiritual, physical, environmental, intellectual, cultural and nutritional health. Innovative new ways of approaching the positive role buildings can play in urban settings for the people who inhabit them are being explored. The great new mural of Henrietta Helm that graces the east side of the Philanthropic Center overlooking the Harmony Building and points east is a nod to the Business Women’s Club history. Great things are happening at this spot and will be well worth keeping an eye on.

Veena talks about the design and vision of the Harmony Building on Muhammad Ali Boulevard

We made our way across the street to the historic and storied Seelbach Hotel. The Seelbach (Hilton) is gearing up for a major renovation of the entire hotel, rooms, public spaces as well as the addition of a rooftop bar and additional 11 story tower to be built over an existing two-story ballroom.

While we were there our host, Larry Johnson, gave the group a tour of the Rathskeller, a unique and magical space in the basement of the building. Though this wasn’t the first time I had been down there, I am continually amazed that the space exists and that it isn’t a famous nightclub spot.

The Rathskeller at the Seelbach Hotel

A short jog down Muhammad Ali Boulevard and south on 3rd Street, we met up with architect and developer Bill Weyland in front of the Henry Clay, built in 1924 as an Elks Lodge. The building was a premier hotel for several decades before housing the YWCA. Management and upkeep of the building became too great for the YWCA and at some point the city ended up with the building and it sat vacant for many years.

I had the good fortune to tour the building more than a decade ago with Bill before Weyland Ventures began the renovations. I remember walking through the building, stepping over broken plaster in what felt like a bombed out shell of a structure, and thinking Bill was going to lose his shirt over this. I honestly couldn’t see how it could be revitalized, but that is part of why Bill has been so instrumental in revitalizing downtown, his ability to see the latent potential in our historic urban fabric and the creativity and resourcefulness to bring them back.

Bill told some interesting stories about the history of the building, but one that comes to mind was the central lobby skylight that had accumulated several feet of water before crashing down on the floor, flooding down into the basement and destroying a lot of the interior decorations along the way, an event that happened before he took on the project. While they were clearing the debris Bill received a call from Louisville Metro that they had a bunch of material from the building in storage and would like to know if he wanted it. He acquired the items and was going through the boxes and discovered that the city had carefully saved the ornate stained glass ceilings from the skylight and lodge hall before the flooding happened.

Bill Weyland and the SoUP in the lobby of the Henry Clay
Henry Clay Building at 3rd and Chestnut

I mention this story at the end because to me it illustrates that despite all the historic buildings we have lost, as a community we are lucky that we have folks like the people who took it upon themselves to save the stained glass, people in our community that recognize the value of the historic buildings we still have and are making efforts to lovingly restore them, breathing new life into old buildings and making our city better in the process. Staring out from the balcony of the Brennan House with Heath Seymour of Vital Sites as we talked to Charles Cash below, I was struck by the fact that this jewel of a building is still here specifically because of people like Charles and Heath and the many folks we talked that day. Finding ways to reuse old buildings is hard, complicated work. Many people don't have the stomach for it. We need to support the folks that do in whatever way we can so the next generation of Louisvillians aren't standing in a parking lot, staring at another parking lot that once was a building on this tour.

View from the second story balcony at the Brennan House, overlooking what used to be a neighborhood of Brennan House era mansions.

Anyway, I want to thank all the people who participated in the Society of Urban Perambulators event on Saturday, whether you were taking the time to talk about the great projects you are involved in or important thoughts and ideas along the route, or were there to learn about the area and connect with people trying to make the city a better place. Special thanks to Heath, Jessica and Charles of Vital Sites for partnering and pulling the event together. Also thanks to Mike Mays of Heine Brothers for the caffeine support donation.

Society of Urban Perambulators Downtown Loop Map