Victorian splendor reigns in Old Louisville

The Pink Palace in Old Louisville was a Victorian gentleman's club before the Woman's Christian Temperance Union painted it pink in the 1920s. Courtesy of David Domine
The Pink Palace in Old Louisville was a Victorian gentleman's club before the Woman's Christian Temperance Union painted it pink in the 1920s. Courtesy of David Domine

Credit: David Domine.

Credit: David Domine.

Walking tour a good introduction to historic district

During the Southern Exposition, a series of World Fair-like events held from 1883 to 1887, the historic preservation district in Louisville, Kentucky, known as Old Louisville was a bustling hub of innovation that attracted people from around the globe. After sundown, the grand spectacle was illuminated by thousands of incandescent electric lightbulbs, Thomas Edison’s miraculous new invention.

The exposition hall that stood in what is now St. James Court is long gone, but what remains are 45 square blocks of late Victorian architecture that sprang up around the exposition and continued to expand after it closed. With nearly 1,400 structures, it’s one of the largest neighborhoods of its kind in the country.

In the mid-20th century, the area underwent a period of decline, and many of the majestic homes were divided into apartments. But after Old Louisville was marked as a historic preservation district in the 1970s, revitalization efforts began, and it gradually returned it to its former glory.

To see the highlights, set off on a 90-minute guided walking tour with David Domine, owner of Louisville Historic Tours and author of several books about the neighborhood.

The Old Louisville Architectural Tour showcases an array of Victorian architecture. Courtesy of David Domine
The Old Louisville Architectural Tour showcases an array of Victorian architecture. Courtesy of David Domine

Credit: David Domine.

Credit: David Domine.

Comprising hundreds of privately owned, palatial houses, Louisville isn’t top-of-mind when it comes to Victorian architecture. But Domine has made it his mission to spread the word.

“People think of the wooden ‘painted ladies’ in San Francisco or homes in Cape May, New Jersey,” Domine said. “Many of those are Queen Anne, but there’s more to Victorian architecture than the Queen Anne style. That style is here, too, but what makes this neighborhood unique is that every house is different than the one next door. There are no cookie cutter houses.”

A variety of architectural styles that include Italianate, Renaissance Revival, Gothic and Beaux Arts are represented in St. James Court, part of the city’s first planned community that was designed to emulate an affluent London neighborhood by the same name. During the Gilded Age, it was the swankiest address in Louisville.

Among the district’s landmark is a centrally located fountain (recast in the 1970s) that depicts Venus rising from the sea. Belgravia Court, a pedestrian-only walking court that runs perpendicular to St. James, was built on a smaller scale but is equally charming. Edison’s electric lightbulb notwithstanding, part of its appeal comes from rows of flickering gas lamps.

The Conrad-Caldwell House Museum is a highlight of the Old Louisville walking tour. Courtesy of Louisville Tourism
The Conrad-Caldwell House Museum is a highlight of the Old Louisville walking tour. Courtesy of Louisville Tourism

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The Conrad-Caldwell House Museum is a stately grand dame that looms regally over her sister mansions that flank tree-lined St. James Court. Built of Bedford limestone in 1893, it’s a masterpiece of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture that was meant to showcase the wealth and influence of its original owner, Theophile Conrad. Because of its fortress-like appearance and numerous turrets and towers, locals call it “Conrad’s Castle.” A moat would not be remiss. Unlike a European castle, the Conrad home had the latest modern conveniences, like indoor plumbing and electricity.

The museum is a rare chance to see inside one these stately homes, and many return after the walking tour to admire the elaborate staircase with fleur-de-lis carvings, glowing stained-glass windows and the intricate design of the parquet floors.

At the other end of St. James Court stands the Pink Palace, a circa 1890 structure that, except for its imposing size, resembles a child’s princess playhouse. It was never meant for children, though. Originally red brick, it was a gentlemen’s club and casino where well-heeled businessmen could sip bourbon and woo lady luck at the card tables. There were rumors of seedier activities upstairs. When the Louisville chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization that opposed alcohol and gambling, moved their headquarters into the Chateau-style building in the 1920s, they purged it of its sinful past by painting it pink. It’s now a private residence.

The Victorians were an ostentatious bunch that vigorously eschewed the idiom “less is more,” so it would be possible to take the tour a dozen times and spot a new embellishment — a finial, gargoyle or intricate relief panel — every time. That’s especially true on Third Street, known as Millionaire’s Row. These homes were built by barons of industry, and they spared no expense in advertising their social status.

The Samuel Grabfelder home on "Millionaires Row" in Old Louisville. 
Courtesy of Tracey Teo
The Samuel Grabfelder home on "Millionaires Row" in Old Louisville. Courtesy of Tracey Teo

Credit: Tracey Teo

Credit: Tracey Teo

The stone Beaux-Arts mansion owned by bourbon merchant and philanthropist Samuel Grabfelder is a real standout. Unlike other neighborhood mansions, there are no turrets and towers here. A symmetrical house with a flat roof, much of its grandeur comes from ornamental balustrades and an array of sculpted garlands and wreaths in the spaces between the third-story windows.

Despite its name, Louisville’s 17-acre Central Park — called Dupont Square by locals — is not centrally located. Designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, it was originally part of the DuPont family’s country estate on the outskirts of town. The name Central Park probably came from the DuPont-owned Central Passenger Railroad Co. that brought city-dwelling nature lovers to the park after the family opened the grounds to the public in the 1870s.

The bucolic landscape was not only an oasis from the grime and noise of the city, but it was also a venue for entertaining events, such as balloon ascensions and fireworks displays. Now, it’s best known as home to the long-running Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.

For a more intimate outdoor space, Floral Terrace is a cozy pedestrian courtyard off Sixth Avenue that feels like a secret garden. Oblivious passersby stroll right past the iron gate, but those in the know follow an ancient brick path shaded by fragrant magnolias to a bench near the fountain. It’s the ideal vantage point to admire the modest, cottage-like houses that line the courtyard and the small front yards carpeted with periwinkle and scarlet azaleas in the spring. These Victorian homes aren’t nearly as grand as some of the others, but they still have points of architectural interest.

“Old Louisville has the potential to be the next Savannah or Charleston,” Domine said. And if he has any say in it, it will.

If You Go

Louisville Historic Tours. Architecture tour $25. Begins at the corner of S. 4th Street and W. Ormsby Ave. 502-718-2764, www.louisvillehistorictours.com

The Conrad-Caldwell House Museum. $6-$10. 1402 St. James Court, Louisville, Kentucky. 502-636-5023, www.conrad-caldwell.org

Accommodations

Dupont Mansion Bed and Breakfast. Live like Old Louisville’s Victorian elite, at least for a night or two. $169-$279. 1317 S. 4th St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-638-0045, www.dupontmansion.com

21C Museum Hotel. A boutique hotel and contemporary museum 2.5 miles from Old Louisville. $145-$250. 700 W. Main St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-217-6300, www.21cmuseumhotels.com/louisville

Dining

Buck’s Restaurant & Bar. Fine dining restaurant in the heart of Old Louisville that serves steak and seafood. Entrees $24-$110. 425 W. Ormsby Ave., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-637-5284, www.buckslou.com

Burger Boy. $7-$12. Casual diner in Old Louisville known for double decker burgers. 1450 S. Brook St., Louisville, Kentucky. 502-635-7410, www.burgerboydiner.com

Tourist info

Go to Louisville. 401 W. Main St., Louisville, Kentucky. 1-888-568-4784, www.gotolouisville.com

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