West Main Street at the center of Old Louisville downtown is at the heart of the cultural district of Louisville featuring the second largest collection of cast-iron facades in the United States.
Over a century ago, cast iron made it possible to build beautiful decorative features that were too expensive to carve out of stone. The sidewalk bricks in front of the columns are placed sideways and flecked with iron to make the cast iron buildings easily identifiable. To doubly ascertain you carry along as you walk by a magnet which is most likely to stick to buildings whose facades are cast iron. Ironwood trees grow in front of cast iron buildings surrounded by replicas of authentic coal hole covers. A stand of three trees are planted together thus indicating that the building is masonry. Cast iron walking sticks and tree rings give hints as to the original uses of nearby buildings.
West Main Street has more examples of 19th century cast-iron architecture than any other place in America except New York’s SoHo. The façade of the Hart Block, a five story building designed in 1884 at a foundry is a jigsaw puzzle of bolting cast iron pieces together. This early Victorian pre-fab construction allowed for large windows and greater height. The tiny St Charles Hotel, constructed before 1832 is the oldest here.. A third generation Main Street building, it was preceded by Fort Nelson which was followed by log huts. Three story brick buildings came in next and lined the streets at the time of Civil War.
Fort Nelson, a haven for settlers in the late 1700s once stood between 6th and 8th streets on Main before being ravaged by fire and tornado more than a century ago. This site was the terminus of the Wilderness Road, the first overland route west from Virginia across the Appalachian Mountains through the Cumberland Gap, and the site of the first permanent settlement in what would become Louisville.
At the northwest corner of 7th and Main is a pocket park, studded with historical markers and architectural cues from nearby structures. One of the street’s first restorations which helped speed its renaissance is ‘Stairways’ housing the Main Street Association Visitor and Information Center. A block of the street still preserving much of its 19th century look is the 100 block whose building fronts are exactly as they were in the mid-1800. Both ends of the building are of much interest. The first street end shows a fascinating Renaissance revival building built in 1852 with six unique bays. The Second Street corner is the site of the original Galt House Hotel which was burnt to the ground in 1865. The sprawling Galt House Hotel Complex at Fourth and Main Streets including offices, apartments, retail spaces, restaurants and the city’s largest hotel convention facilities has twin office towers topped with whimsical rotating search lights. The Second Street Bridge otherwise called George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge from which it’s one mile to Indiana has an art deco entrance designed in 1929 by Paul Gret, architect of Cincinnati’s Union Station.
40 stories of glass, steel and booming business designed by Harrison and Abromovitz of New York in 1972 constitutes what is called the National City Tower. The first national bank was headquartered here before it was acquired by National City Bank, First National Bank of Louisville. Naturalist John Audubon lived on this site 200 years ago when it hosted the Indian Queen Hostelry.
Also here is the Science Center/ IMAXX theatre a 19th century warehouse full of science arcades and demonstrations such as an Egyptian mummy’s tomb, a Foucault pendulum, and plenty of hands-on displays appealing especially so to kids. Also to be seen are exhibits on space exploration and the human body. Constructed of limestone and cast iron for use as a wholesale dry goods store in 1878, it is an excellent example of adaptive reuse. Cork Marcheschi’s geometric kinetic sculpture in front projects a stunning street market day or night – as skies darken, photo-electric sensors activate its colored lights. Worlds of wonder are preserved on three floors of fun, fantasy and science.
Energy, one of the oldest utility companies in the U.S dating back to 1838 and the city’s most powerful business has its headquarters at One Corporate Plaza at Third and Main streets. Place Montpellier a few steps from a great park overlooking the Ohio River brings you to the statue of Louisville’s founder, George Rogers Clark standing on the plaza where you will learn the secrets of the city’s beginnings. By following the blue bricks you trace the outline of the Ohio River. A few steps away you emerge at the Waterfront Park and the riverfront elevator.
The grand post-modern Humana Building built in 1985 has established a reputation for itself internationally as Time magazine pick of the building of the last 20 years. The eclectic creation of the gifted architect Michael Graves, it pays homage to its River City location with waterwall fountains and steel bridgework at the lobby. Inside this lobby you are welcomed by a combination of classical art and fascinating architecture. The graduated façade of differing styles complements and harmonises with the shorter adjoining buildings.
Just a few yards off is the American Life and Accident Building at Riverfront Plaza. This unique structure designed by Mies Van der Kohe and completed in 1973 is called the Rusty Building after its oxidized Cor-Ten steel covering designed to rust to a beautiful bronze hue.
A delightful array of styles thus distinguish Main Street: Greek revival [columns, pilasters, heavy cornices] at Actors Theater, Italianate [decorative cast-iron facades and villa-type character] at the Hart Block Building; Richardsonian Romanesque [rounded archways and windows, limestone and terra cotta construction] at the Doe-Anderson Building; International [sleek, concrete, glass and steel] at National City Tower and Post-Modern [new colors, stone and symbolic ties to environmental features] at the Humana Building.
All these I trod through thus walking the path where famous feet have trod. Such famous feet were of Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, John James Audubon, D.W. Griffith, Muhammad Ali, Pee Wee Reese, Mary Anderson and many others.
A 15 foot concrete floodwall paralleling Main Street with fixtures for gates to be installed to close the wall at 2nd to 8th streets is a grim reminder of the flood of 1937 whose recurrence it is built to forestall. Then most of downtown got flooded by the Ohio River waters. But Main Street shopkeepers found themselves on the backbone of the ‘City Island’ and were spared.
Historic preservations of Louisville’s past beauty and glory is also to be seen in a wider stretch of downtown moving up to my own hostel. The Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption at Fifth Street is a Gothic Revival structure built between 1849 and 1852 and restored between 1985 and 1994. The Jefferson County Courthouse at Jefferson Street is a Greek Revival landmark designed by Gideon Shyrock and built in 1835 with the intent of luring the state government to Louisville. The 35-story Aegean Center at Market Street dominating Louisville’s skyline and holding court as the tallest building in Kentucky has a dramatic geodesic dome which tops the 1992 art deco-style structure designed by New York architect John Burger. Down Fourth street which was home to me for six weeks is a mansion prominently signposted SPALDING UNIVERSITY. This Italianate Renaissance Revival home built around 1871 is one of the few remaining structures designed by Henry Whileston a prominent Louisville architect. The mansion including the stained glass, the symbol of Spalding University is preserved within the administration building as a National and Kentucky landmark.
At night I have often spotted horse-drawn carriages carrying one or two passengers round . These I learnt later are carriage tours organized in the downtown hotel area following interesting routes giving the riders a haunting view of historical sites, restaurants, theatres and the riverfront. A trolley also travels through 4th street between the Galt House Hotel and Suites by the WATERFRONT and the Theatre Square and on Main and Market Streets between 11th and Clay streets.
Our city tour by bus gave us a vantage view of all these sights. But it also gave us a panoramic view of the widening differentiation in residential areas according to race as well as class. The more easterly part mainly inhabited by blacks were far away from the shopping centers a high incidence of which there is in the white enclaves. This is an area that I would wish to further explore.
Our tour led us towards Bardstown where we had the chance of exploring the interior of one of the most famous slave houses Farmington Historic Home with close connections with two U.S presidents. Abraham Lincoln we were told once lived here as a guest of the Speeds, the original owners of the slave plantation and house there. The house was reputed to have been designed from a plan done by Thomas Jefferson, though that has been recently contested.
This 14-room Federal style home with well tended lawns interlaced by wooden and concrete paved paths and a pool at the far side was part of the slave-holding plantations of the South where hemp and rice were grown . Wine was also brewed here. It is amazing how well this house has been redesigned and preserved to reflect the colors and spirit of the 19th century with some of the same articles including books preserved and where not possible the nearest approximations reflective of that period are brought in as proxies.