There’s a new book out whose subject is Louisville. Try to stifle a yawn, here — yes, I know, there are hundreds of such books already on bookshelves everywhere, covering everything Louisville and Kentucky. You probably have lots of them, as do I. They describe Louisville cuisine and Kentucky bourbon, travel destinations, history, disasters, historic preservation, celebrities and autobiographies, commercial and economic issues, education, civil rights, artists and The Arts, Derby and Breeders’ Cup, sports, politics and even ghosts!
If your bookshelves and coffee tables are like mine, there are several of these books taking up room, collecting dust and occasionally being quickly browsed by those in whom the covers have piqued an interest. I even have a couple, I am embarrassed to admit, whose pages have been untouched by human hands.
But there’s something about this book that gives good reason to spend the money, take the time to examine each page, reflect, smile, grimace, say to someone near, “Hey, did you know …”, and begin to apply these thoughts to concerns about the future of our town.
The book is called “Louisville, Then and Now,” and its modus operandus is to present old photographs chosen from more than 1.75 million photos in the University of Louisville’s Special Collections: Photographic Archives as a comparison to contemporary photographs taken (as closely as possible) from the same vantage point as the early ones.
Going through all of the available photos to glean exceptional ones that will illustrate certain points is a Herculean task. But the real heroes of this particular book may very well be the contemporary photographers, including Bill Carner, the photo archives’ photo wrangler, and Christine Leake and Aron Conaway, former U of L students. The photographs are presented, old and new, side by side, so the reader gets a sometimes startling comparison of the differences (and sometimes lack of differences, such as City Hall, the PNC Tower and the Jefferson County Courthouse) that have developed over the intervening years. If we pause to look closely at the photos and think about what is there, we can see some of the blatant, and not so blatant, changes that have made our town look the way it does in 2006.
The photographs are accompanied by written commentary, which is sometimes entertaining and occasionally redundant, but almost always informative. Even though the photos may look exactly the same, with only large trees making the perceptible differences, the notes sometimes explain that the changes have been in the uses of the buildings, or other more subtle modifications such as interiors (old Jefferson County Jail, the West Main Street museums). These commentaries are snippets of what’s known about these buildings, and they might leave you wanting to know more, as they did me. Local historians and preservationists such as Tom Owen and Joanne Weeter, among many others, were consulted, and the tiny pieces of information they have provided are welcome additions, albeit too short, to the sometimes overwhelming barrage of images that most picture books contain.
Some of the information will probably be new to you. You may find yourself smiling at some changes (Slugger Field, for example, and traffic congestion at Second and Jefferson in 1934) and grimacing at others (a lack of people enjoying the Belvedere fountains or celebrating being downtown at Fourth and Ali in the contemporary photographs). Some pictures will remind you that overhead power lines made Louisville as unattractive in the early 20th century as it does today — a couple of glaring examples being the old/new Shelbyville Road photos and the intersection of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway.
Some changes have benefited commercial interests as well as aesthetic, historic and recreational (the Humana Building, the West Main Street museums, Slugger Field and the Great Lawn), while some have confounded one or more of these interests (the I-64 intrusion). Some photographs illustrate, more clearly than lecturers can describe, how devastating to the urban fabric some of the changes have been (think Urban Renewal). Others illustrate the age-old dilemma between historic preservation concerns and those of positive economic change. (The destruction of beautiful 19th century Broadway mansions to accommodate the Brown Hotel might make us pause to debate whether the decision at the time was positive, and whether that same decision might have been made today.)
Some changes are subtle in the photographs. However, if we consider that a change such as the substitution of a largescale photograph of Ed Hamilton for the commercial advertising that once adorned the exterior of the old Snead and Company Iron Works building (now Glassworks) is one of many similar changes, and that those, taken together, have made the overall perception of the city much nicer, the changes become more profound. Looking around at other large blank masonry walls that have done little but deflect light, corral upper atmospheric winds and make pedestrians feel uncomfortable and insignificant, similar banners featuring Diane Sawyer, Colonel Sanders, Pat Day, Muhammad Ali and other giants of Louisville history have made a noticeable and pleasant difference all over Louisville.
The book shows us that sometimes change is terrific (the 400 block of East Main Street and Waterfront Park), and sometimes it is almost sad (I-64 blocking the Ohio River from view, the Dairy Mart replacing the Indian Gas Station building on Bardstown Road and the loss of the Streamline Moderne building at Douglass Loop).
What the book can do is help us understand more clearly that change is important but that it is vital to look beyond isolated interests to a long-range vision of what the changes might create. Individual changes must be decided with the entire urban fabric in mind, not just isolated pieces. Changes must be considered with the greater future in mind, not just tomorrow.
The photographs of Fourth Street remind us that Louisville’s downtown was once a vibrant, inviting and exciting place to be. Downtowns all over the United States suffered for similar reasons, and Louisville was no different. Those of us who remember going to movies along Fourth Street will smile a little sad smile at the photograph of the 600 block of South Fourth in 1928. We may wallow in the knowledge that those days no longer exist. However, the photographs of 4th Street Live return some hope that downtown urban districts can emerge from their ashes and again play a prominent role in the life of a large metropolitan area.
The photographs of Park DuValle are no less startling than those of the Great Lawn. What a magnificent change it shows — economic, social and aesthetic growth! But what do the General Castleman photographs tell us except that trees grow larger with time and that the General still guards the roundabout?
It’s easy to second-guess the motivations behind the inclusion of some of these photographs. One of the collaborators in the production of this book is Greater Louisville Inc., and it’s easy enough to infer motives; GLI exists to boost Louisville. Perhaps it’s not fair to subject such a book to a more rigid academic critique, but then again, isn’t it a newspaper’s job to function as critic?
For instance, why did General Electric advertising rate an inclusion; why are there two photos of the PNC tower that are virtually identical; and why so many photographs of Shelbyville Road but only two predictable ones from Old Louisville?
Bank buildings, unless they contribute to the aesthetic fabric of a city, are rarely terribly interesting. Two photos of the same bank buildings, while they’re not really ugly buildings, say hardly anything about Louisville except that it has bank buildings. What city does not? The inclusion of LOTS of bank buildings here exacerbates the boredom, and makes you wonder whether the decision-makers were overly concerned with placating particular interests.
The actual architecture of the new Marriott Hotel (Eastern Bloc-lite?) is a lost opportunity, mitigated only by the fact that preservationists won a hard-fought victory to incorporate the façade of the original mercantile building that occupied the site into of a portion of the new building. Unfortunately, the book includes no photographs of the old building nor of its façade’s incorporation in the new. THAT would have been history, especially with a snippet about why the old building was important.
There is a flipside.
We only have to look at the brilliant photos of Slugger Field to understand that good architectural decisions are also good urban design decisions in most instances.
Although I am not an hysterical preservationist, careful consideration of what is worth preserving and what must be changed to contribute positively to the future economic, social and aesthetic growth of our community is one of the things that is cause for major concern. This is what makes urban areas interesting. We can use the past to help us design the future. An historic area is much more interesting when the old is balanced by the new and history is there for whomever wants to “read” it. The inclusion of photographs that show us only that a building has been painted and its ownership has changed is hardly worth the time it takes to flip the page.
How many times have we seen photographs of City Hall and the Court House? Every picture book on Louisville and most of our city’s marketing brochures include one or both of them. Nothing appears different except some larger trees. How interesting is that?
Conversely, the differences in the photographs of the Great Lawn, before and after, are startling and have something very important to say about how Louisville should be thinking of itself for the future. The Ohio River is why we are here, and Waterfront Park is an economic, aesthetic, social and historical boost to Louisville. These two photographs celebrate it eloquently.
In fairness, given the responsibility of completing the task of choosing which photographs to include, I am certain my choices would be just as easily questioned by others. What I am agonizingly reminded of each time I look through the book is that I want to know more, but I am afraid I’ll have to wait much longer for another book of this caliber to help me learn it.
I can nitpick in other ways, too. I wanted an index so I could refer back to photos without having to flip through the whole book to find what I want to see or read again. Some of the photographs have explanations that leave me wanting much more and, once — at least from an academic point of view — a preservation word is misused (the bandshell in Shawnee Park has not been “restored” — at least not to the point in time of its facing old photograph). In a book of this level, the mistakes seem a bit careless but rather insignificant.
As historians, either as avocation, vocation or just for fun, choosing photographs for a book like this is surely exciting. But with so much material, it may have taken forever if done by less knowledgeable folks than those at the Photo Archives and their counterparts in U of L’s history department. Each photograph poses inherent questions that only those with deep and broad information about Louisville could answer — if anyone could.
These are the photographs that make this book interesting and bring us back many times to discuss them and their commentaries with friends, family and colleagues. The things they depict are what separate Louisville from countless other river towns whose origins and histories parallel our own. Otherwise, we may as well be looking at photos of St. Louis or Nashville or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati — all river cities with similar growth problems and histories.
In the larger scheme of things, looking at what “was” in Louisville may not be terribly important. Using the lessons inherent in this brief survey to help us make better decisions for the future of Louisville is important. On a more everyday level, knowing something about Louisville’s history may help us get our chores done, as a typical cell phone conversation might help illustrate …
Van, I thought you were coming home early! Where are you?
I stopped by the Heine Brothers in that new building at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bardstown, then I went to Carmichael’s and found this great book that I may actually get for my managers for the holidays.
A book for an office gift sounds sorta boring …
But this one’s nice! It’s called “Louisville, Then and Now.”
Another Louisville book? Good grief, Van, what’s left to write about?
Just wait’ll you see it. It has pictures from the Potter Collection and lots of others in the U of L Archives and it shows places in Louisville the way they are now and the way they used to be a long time ago, side by side, so it’s easy to see the changes.
So? Speaking of places in Louisville, I need you to pick up some stuff for me on your way home.
Oh no … make Alison do it.
She’s cleaning her room. Go by my doctor’s office and pick up my prescription — it’s in those offices in the old American Air Filter building next to the new baseball stadium at U of L across from the new Central Station shopping center, sort of across from Churchill Downs. It won’t be crowded down there now that they’ve made that big boulevard out of old Central Avenue. And then I need you to stop at Glassworks and pick up something at the gift shop …
Did you know that building used to be an old Iron Works? It’s right here on page 40 …
No, and stop interrupting … stop at the Glassworks gift shop and pick up the gift I ordered for your dad for his birthday, and while you’re down there stop at the Bat Museum and pick up a couple of those little bats for Jason and Tara’s kids. Don’t forget we’re going to the Museum of Arts and Crafts in one of those old cast iron buildings on Main Street tomorrow for an opening.
Is it black tie?
Yes, and don’t complain. I dressed up for your office party so you can dress up for this.
… and then stop by the Convention Center downtown and pick up some Louisville brochures. I want to put them in little gift bags for the out-of-towners next weekend.
Where is it?
It’s that great big building across from the old Levy Brothers Building.
I meant the brochure counter, but I think I remember sorta where it is.
… and this is important, Van, stop by the bank in the old Stewart’s building down on Walnut and Fourth …
You mean Muhammad Ali and Fourth …
You know what I mean. And then, since it’s on the way, stop by Scout and pick up some stuff I ordered to take to John’s for his tree decorating party in Old Louisville. It’s a fund-raiser for the Opera or the Ballet or the Orchestra or Pandora or something …
Scout is one of those new places on East Market where a bunch of new shops and galleries and restaurants are opening up … down where Gatchel’s used to be just before you get to the Home of the Innocents where the Bourbon Stockyards were. You know, down where Artemisia is and Zephyr Gallery and Joe Ley’s … and don’t dawdle because we’re going out to dinner and the reservation is in 90 minutes.
Oh, yeah. OK. But I may just go ahead and get some of these books because they are really nice.
What makes them better than the hundreds of other coffee table books we have piled up? We can’t even see the table now!
Just listen, Joyce. The pictures and the stuff they write about them are things I don’t remember or never even knew. Did you know there used to be a light rail sort of system down Frankfort Avenue? It ran right in front of Brenda Deemer’s Gallery — I wonder what used to be in her building …
Misty! Get off the counter! … I’m going to kill that dog before the day’s out. Does it show stuff like what Douglass Loop used to be before I lived there? I still miss that area …
Yep. It also has pictures of the parks, and Big Rock and Bowman Field where I first saw Santa Claus land in a DC-3, and …. oh, lotsa stuff.
I don’t know, Van. Who really wants another book with moldy old black and white pictures?
Joyce, just the old ones are black and white. The new ones are in color and they look like they were taken from the same place as the old ones. It’s really cool! You know, you are such a cynic. I’m going to get some.
Why don’t you just bring one and we’ll look at it together and decide whether to buy more? But hurry up. We’re supposed to be at Equus soon for dinner.
Equus. It’s right across the street from the old Sears store on Shelbyville Road. You know, just down the street from where Asiatique used to be before it moved to Bardstown Road.
Oh, yeah. But I may buy at least a few of these. I’m telling you, Joyce, this is one of the best books on Louisville I’ve seen. It’s beautiful! And it’s also interesting … not just pictures but information, too. I bet Dad and Mary Ann would love one of these … and I know Lloyd and Ellen would … I’d get one for Doris and Bill, too, but have they been in Louisville long enough to remember these old places?
They’ve been here longer than I have, Van. Remember? When I came to Louisville, Norton’s Infirmary was still on the corner of Preston and Eastern Parkway … and Jack Fry’s was Por Que No! You, know, I bet Loyce and Joe would like one of those, too, now that you mention it. And Liz … and Janice and Chuck … and …
I think I better get a dozen. Bye, Honey.
Hurry!! And don’t forget those stops!!”
John Martin-Rutherford is a former lecturer at the University of Louisville’s College of Urban Planning and Design and former director of the Urban Design Studio in Louisville. He owns Lions’ End, a private art gallery, and JM-R Studio, an architecture, interior design, art consultation, event planning and garden design firm. He also raises funds for and sits on boards of various arts and activism organizations in Louisville.
Photos courtesy of Special Collections: Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville.
“Louisville, Then and Now” does include an archival photo of the area along the Ohio River just west of the Clark Memorial Bridge. It’s just not this one, which shows the site under water during the 1937 flood.
Notice that the sign touts Louisville as “The Gateway to the South.” That should
provide provide a definitive answer to whether we’re really Midwestern, Southern or something in between.
Astute observers will, no doubt, recognize this area as today’s “LG&E/E.ON U.S.” site — aka the place where the new arena will be built. Which sorta gives new meaning to the term “deep three” — the phrase favored by sportscasters to describe three-point shots from well behind the line.