Old Louisville: America's Victorian Neighborhood
By: Robin Garr
Old Louisville is one of the largest preserved districts of Victorian architecture in the United States. The neighborhood extends more than a mile south from downtown to the University of Louisville's Belknap Campus and contains three distinct National Register Districts. Most of its classic homes are brick, many of them in the Romanesque, Queen Anne, Italianate and Craftsman architectural styles, and the neighborhood boasts the highest concentration of residential homes with stained-glass windows in the U.S.
Old Louisville came into existence in the 1870s as "the Southern Extension," one of the city's first suburbs. As many as 260 homes were built between 1883 and 1886 to house the city's wealthiest families. This flurry of building activity was associated with the city's role as host of the Southern Exposition. Much like a World's Fair, the Exposition featured the first public display of Thomas Edison's light bulb in what was billed as the largest artificial lighting display in history, with 4,600 lamps briefly turning the Victorian-era Louisville neighborhood's night into day.
At its peak in the late 1800s, Old Louisville was the center of the city's social life. Its Central Park was a 17-acre patch named not for the New York landmark but for the Central Street Railway line that brought people out from town to the park land. In that day, the prominent Dumesnil family's botanical gardens, just west of Central Park, displayed rows of rare and ornamental shrubs and flowers.
Forty years later the area was in decline, the grand mansions broken up into apartments and rooming houses for immigrants and the poor. In the 1960s the city began revitalization efforts with the help of Federal Community Development dollars and the neighborhood regained some of its former glory. Central Park is again a place for urban relaxation, picnics, weddings and weekend concerts. Since 1960, the park has been home to the summer tradition of free theater formerly called Shakespeare in Central Park and today known as the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. Floral Terrace, the former botanical garden, is one of the quiet residential oases that can be found within the neighborhood.
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