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October 24, 2006

Things that go cha-ching in the night: Old Louisville’s spectres are a cultural boon

Nore Ghibaudy: of the Old Louisville Visitors Center and David Domine (foreground), whose books explore real-life ghostly happenings in the neighborhood’s Victorian mansions. Photo by Claudia OleaA storm approaches Old Louisville this October. There is gathering darkness, and dozens of reports of unearthly events. Many have been frightened throughout more than a century of untimely demises and unexplained apparitions. But how much of this is the brewing of a Perfect Storm for publicity in the branding of a community?Old Louisville has set itself apart in many regards. Based on its wonderfully preserved Victorian architecture and the loving care of generations of occupants — particularly recent ones — the neighborhood has become a tourism enclave that’s enjoying admirable success. But among the owners who’ve had to peel away ancient layers in their re-gentrification efforts, and those whose cleaning missions have had them crawling into gothic turrets and oddly laid-out staircases, many unusual incidents have been noted. The unique mansions and occasional institutional buildings of the area already had accumulated a good share of melodramatic stories and legends regarding visitations by spirits that had passed on, so the recent glut of spooked occupants made for a veritable groaning board on which a good storyteller could feast. Enter David Domine.A writer with plenty of curiosity, an appreciation for the most sophisticated of home arts (culinary, architectural), and also a ghost (“Lucy”) in his own dwelling, Domine has now compiled two books filled with recountings of hauntings in houses, streets and even stairways throughout and adjacent to the 50 blocks of Old Louisville.One thing, though: He’s thoroughly skeptical about the supernatural. What he does have faith in, though, is the magnetic capacity of the unusual to draw in the curious, develop a retaining interest among many of them, and eventually lead to added resources for maintaining the cultural vitality and historical appreciation for a home turf that he has come to love dearly.This downtown district isn’t hurting for people who sing its praises and want to spend more time there. A visitor’s center opened on West Oak Street in April 2005 and more than 16,000 have passed through its doors.But October seems to have brought in a wave of events. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Halloween is the new Christmas,” you couldn’t find better evidence than at Old Louisville. Domine is doing a reading/signing focusing on his second book (“Phantoms of Old Louisville,” from McClanahan Publishing House). “Ghost tours” — including a two-hour version hosted by Domine, with visits to sites listed in his books — roll out on many evenings (one schedule follows the full moon). And on Saturday, Oct. 28 comes the “Spirit Ball of Old Louisville,” an evening masquerade gala at the Conrad-Caldwell House on St. James Court.Throughout the efforts to paint Old Louisville as a mystical hot zone, it’s hard to find anyone involved who remembers when haunted houses were considered places to shun, whether in dread of cardiac-threatening fright or of evil that might threaten your soul. Part of this probably has to do with modern religious beliefs, superstitions and the ever-increasing extremes from the entertainment industry. But part of it also might harken to the specific fact that the area undergoing a renaissance is a Victorian neighborhood, and the Victorian era was one that saw a huge rise of interest in séances and other trappings of reputed interactions with “the beyond.” There’s a bias toward including deference to the spooktacular while appreciating the more earthbound cultural amenities of that era. And David Domine has a way of blending the shuddery and sensuous, as well as combining well-chosen historical details with peeks into those who want their middle-class lifestyles to reflect the upper-class trappings of a more romantic bygone era.The structure of “Phantoms” almost seems like a Victorian séance in its own right. Multiple introductory pieces seem to beg the reader’s indulgence regarding the observations of, say, those who connect the Monserrat apartment building with phantoms from the Underground Railroad. The author is very upfront (though not concisely declarative) that these tales are presented as an opportunity to rhapsodize about past opulence and present a touch of magic to those who want to see how their home fits into local lore. Domine then does a fine job of breaking up his chapters both formally (they end in subtitled sections about haunt-related topics brought up during the discourse about the titular home’s mystery) and informally. For the latter, you get sidebar sections where the author discusses how his investigations led to various dinners and other repasts that he invariably assembles with regional ingredients. In other words, a “just the facts, Ma’am” attitude toward presenting evidence of the supernatural is subsumed with a consistently enjoyable program of feints and misdirection. And as was so often the case for participants in old séances, the reader’s ultimate level of belief in the occult will not likely be swayed one iota.Domine likes that just fine. His concern is with Old Louisville, not the afterlife. As he says of his move to Louisville in 1993, “Within a couple months, I was enamored of this neighborhood that had such fantastic architecture and character, but not much attention was being paid to it.” But a means for that attention showed up quickly when “the woman who sold me the house on Third Street told me it was haunted.” As described in “Ghosts of Old Louisville” the poltergeist Lucy was intimidating enough to drive Domine out of the house. But instead of reaching out for an exorcist, he kept an objective mind about events as he researched, spoke with neighbors and local experts and began to see how he might “use stories as a vehicle to show off history and architecture.”Eventually, Domine sees the possibility of Old Louisville joining such leading lights of local charm as Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans, which all have busy year-round calendars of various celebrations. Meantime, his third book will be a regional cookbook, expected out next year. At least one Louisvillian with considerable “experience” with the ghostly is glad to go with the flow of how the Old Louisville Chamber of Commerce brings its frightful tales to the public. Dale Clark, vice president of the Louisville Ghost Hunters Association, is experienced in tours, having previously been involved when his association led folks through Waverly Nore Ghibaudy: of the Old Louisville Visitors Center and David Domine (foreground), whose books explore real-life ghostly happenings in the neighborhood’s Victorian mansions. Photo by Claudia Olea, and he commends Domine’s style as author and as tour guide. “Louisville is a city that has so much history, anything that can bring it to light is valuable,” he says. The director of the Historic Old Louisville Visitors Center, Nore Ghibaudy, recalls genuine paranormal investigators — not just, say, Spalding students who try to connect with ill-fated souls who might reside in the grand mansion hidden within the university’s administration building. “We do know people who have investigated, yes, they’ve come in from other states,” Ghibaudy says. “I remember one group set up at Waverly with their meters, they stayed overnight.”But Ghibaudy, like Domine, sees the odd stories as a way of bolstering tourism and related community ventures. His allegiance is more with those who would want to know more about a property they saw on a garden tour or holiday decoration tour (and apparently many who take one of these tours will come back for others — the properties on tour agendas are rotated, with common highlight features) than for those who want to take the time to know a specific spirit from beyond this world. “I don’t put those connections together or anything. When it comes to people intrigued by décor of the mansions, say, I’ve done that … But when it comes to spirituality, that is not our place to do.” One thing that’s definitely within the bailiwick of a neighborhood chamber of commerce and visitors center is to take advantage of a cultural windfall, and Ghibaudy immediately saw the potential of Domine’s first book when, soon after its release, “the visitors center was inundated with calls from the neighborhood. We took the messages and passed them along to David. Of course, sometimes the account of an incident breaks down pretty quickly — someone notices their walls shaking, and it turned out that they vibrated from truck traffic nearby.” Domine says that he gets book-worthy material from about 10 percent of the incidents reported to him. Whether or not the local ghosts believe they’re being used as an excuse for a good party, Ghibaudy expects that the living will take advantage of the opportunity during the masquerade ball, with many dressing in period costume that will join with the mansion’s ambience to eerie effect. The Visitors Center (www.oldlouisville.net) is taking ball reservations through Thursday.  Contact the writer at tlx@aol.com