We began the tour at St. Louis Bertrand, a church that was built in 1870. Here is a historic photo of the church from 1928. Steve chose the location because “it is the heart of the neighborhood.” It appears that Limerick was named after County Limerick in Ireland where a substantial number of Irish immigrants who settled in the neighborhood came from to work on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. The neighborhood was predominantly residence to Irish and African Americans. It was explained later in the walk that in the beginning, the working class Irish resided in the houses on the main streets while the African Americans, many recently freed slaves, lived in houses on the alleys.
As we walked north towards Breckinridge Street, the northern boundary of Limerick, we passed the Limerick Community Garden and the site of the old Swiss Cleaners. For as long as I can remember studying this area, I always just assumed it was a brownfield site of a mid-century dry cleaner, but Steve mentioned it was a historic business that had been around for decades so I decided to check it out. Here is a historic image of Swiss Cleaners from 1928. Just another example of the importance of historic preservation and the rich fabric that has been lost around the city in its absence.
Across the street is the Seelbach-Parrish House. I’ll let the historic marker tell that story, but I do want to mention that I used to take these signs for granted, but I’ve grown to really appreciate them as I’ve spent more time exploring places and slowing down to notice the details of human hands on the environment. The markers help tell the story and at least lead me down a non-twitter/internet based rabbit hole of what could the other stories be around the way the space developed and what life was like. It seems fitting that the University of Louisville’s Urban Design Studio space I run is now housed in the new Archaeology facility in the Portland neighborhood. Perhaps I should be pushing for an urban anthropology cross-listed class.
At around this point TS Elliot, a local business owner, joined our group and added to the discussion of local history along with Steve. We talked a bit about the oddly named Baseball Alley which aligns with Kentucky Street and the fact that back in the late 1800s Louisville had a Major League Baseball team first called the Eclipse and then the Louisville Colonels. There were three parks, each destroyed by fires. The first two were near 28th Street and Broadway. The last park was built at 7th and Kentucky where College Court now stands, and according to Wikipedia, by this time the team was a minor league team as the major league team moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1901. Here is a historic image of Eclipse Park at Baseball Alley.
While heading south on 7th we passed a great row of shotgun houses and across the street was College Court, a very early housing development from 1934 as part of the National Recovery Act of 1933. I believe I heard TS mentioned that his parents met at College Court. I had considered recording the walk with video to capture more of these types of great story moments, but I wanted to enjoy the walk and I think that these neighborhood strolls are best as an experiential event, to be remembered by the participants.
I digress. The design of the housing units at College Court was to create a sense of community and unlike future barrack-style housing blocks, these were one-story courtyard-style buildings organized around a greenspace. I found a research paper about College Court from 1940 at UofL’s Institutional Repository entitled A housing project in Louisville : its social interpretation : a study of College Court. I have to admit that I only skimmed the 119 page paper, so far, as I found some of the racial language and thought disturbing to read.
Just south of College Court is Simmons College of Kentucky. The historic campus land was purchased in 1879 and originally called the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute and was established to be Kentucky’s first post secondary educational institute for its “Colored” citizens (Simmons College Ky). Today, Simmons College is a member of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
On a side note, while we continued to walk south I stopped to look at a historic building that appeared to be a duplex with a new addition that did a nice job of building on the historic design. I was thinking to myself why don’t we build more of these all over Louisville and Steve walked up and said “isn’t this a great example of ‘missing-middle’ housing?” That moment perfectly illustrated why I wanted to start doing The Society of Urban Perambulators walks. One of my favorite things to do is explore places, mostly urban, but not always. I often venture out by myself, particularly when visiting new cities for other purposes, but I find what I get out of those walks increases ten-fold when you experience places with others who love to read the city, and even more when they know the area.
Across from the historic duplex, Steve pointed out some interesting looking houses that he said were good examples of the alley flats we had originally talked about at the beginning of the walk. These handsome structures are the perfect model of how to bring “gentle density” to existing neighborhoods that offer variable price points to encourage mixed incomes. There are programs like the Austin Alley Flat Initiative and others around the country looking at basically developing what we did 100 years ago. Racism and classism played a big role in ending what was a great way to build resilient neighborhoods and cities.
As I step off my soapbox, I should turn to a beautiful example of the power of a strong corner building. A lot of the historic fabric of Limerick and particularly areas just to the east of the neighborhood have been torn down over the years. Thankfully some great corner storefront buildings still exist. In a piece I wrote back in 2015, Great Streets Start with Strong Corners, I strongly believed that making it a priority to save corner buildings or starting redevelopment with these prime locations provides an anchor for the block. These buildings are evident in Limerick. In fact TS Elliot’s shop is another great example of a strong corner store, and I believe he mentioned it was built pre-Civil War.
I should mention that along the way I loved seeing Councilwoman Nicole George of District 21 casually pick up litter while we walked. She reminded me of my friend and previous Councilman Brandon Coan and before him, Councilman Tom Owen, both of District 8, who did the same lead by example on litter, because they all really care about the community and feel compelled to clean up litter even when they don’t realize people are paying attention.
As we wound up our walk with the group near the corner of Oak and 6th, a few of us ventured on to check out a great example of pedestrian court housing, just outside the Limerick neighborhood, on Floral Terrace. This is another beautiful example of a style of housing development that we need to bring back. The homes face in towards the beautifully landscaped pedestrian walkway. You could imagine on a warmer day sitting on your front porch enjoying the view, unobstructed by cars zipping by. Conversing with your neighbors. This two block stretch of great urban design is just a block or two away from another pedestrian court on Ormsby Court. Ormsby Court is much shorter, wider, and much less vegetated than Floral Terrace, but the scale still works really well.
As we rounded out our extended walking tour and headed back to St Louis Bertrand we passed a mixed-use, multi-unit building I had never taken the time to really look at. This building at 601 W Oak Street is pretty amazing. I couldn’t discern how old the building is, but regardless, for some reason it reminded me of buildings I had seen in the Spaarndammerbuurt neighborhood of Amsterdam (kinda). It is a building I’ve driven by many times and for the first time realized, it is the scale of building that you see in great urbanism cities.
As is our custom, a few stragglers from the group made our way to a local watering hole to debrief on what we saw, catch up and enjoy the day. Though The Tavern is several blocks south of Limerick, it is another great amenity for this beautiful part of Louisville.
I left the stroll wondering if it might be time to consider moving to Limerick or nearby. When I moved to Louisville in 1997 I thought for sure that this area would be the next hot neighborhood. In some ways Limerick and Old Louisville have been a hidden secret. Some renewed interest in underutilized industrial land known as Vogt Commons just west of 9th Street may change that.
Looking forward to the next stroll with the SUP. If you are interested in checking out different neighborhoods in Louisville you can join our group here on Facebook. If you aren’t on Facebook (good on you) or don’t want to join another group, we will try to keep new events posted on the new website we are in the process of building out right now (please excuse the broken links and evolving layouts and information).