Louisville’s Main StreetMakeover

Urban renewal, art, history, theatre
have rejuvenated the heart of Louisville

Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer

(August 2001) Louisville, Ky – It was more than a century ago when a series of cast-iron buildings rose high above Louisville’s riverfront. Today, many of those structures still stand not only as symbols of Louisville’s history but as modules of cultural growth in 21st century.

Louisville Street

The drive to preserve the past has generated an expanding wave for the future with several blocks of West Main Street becoming a cultural Mecca.
Many residents date the resurgence back to the 1970s when places such as the Galt House Hotel and Actors Theatre of Louisville found their home in this historic district. But most agree it has been the last five years that the growth has really started to take off.
“It seems like an overnight success story, but it’s been years in the making. This is the West Main cultural district,” said Mike Bosc, vice president of communications for Greater Louisville Inc., the city’s chamber of commerce.
Indeed, many of the historic buildings have become, or are in the process of becoming, havens to house various entities offering fine art, cuisine and history. Some are even housing many aspects within a single building.
An example is a former steel factory at the intersection of Ninth and Market streets that is being turned into The Glassworks Lofts. The building now houses 39 residences, but its usage does not stop there. The first floor is shared by the region’s first glass art studio, which is set to open Aug. 20, complete with a restaurant looking into it.
The glass theme is carried to the second floor with exhibits and information on the history of glass making. There is also space available for special events. The final three floors consist of residences of varying square feet. But according to real estate developer and owner Bill Weyland, it isn’t stopping there.
“My goal is to create an area called the Glasswork District that will encompass two blocks of the city,” he said. Weyland also owns a building across the street.
This resurgence is even attracting entities based out of other cities. Morton’s of Chicago is a steakhouse chain that operates 52 restaurants across the country. It opened a new location in June in Louisville in the basement level of the six-story, 80,000-square-foot building at 626 W. Main St.
Formerly the Bernheim Distillery, the 130-year-old building has been purchased by the Brown-Forman Corp. to house 150 of their offices. The historic building has been vacant for the last 15 years, and Brown-Forman has been refurbishing and restoring it for the last two. Eric Doninger, the assistant vice president and director of real estate for Brown-Forman, said the purchase had a two-fold purpose.
“We saw we could accommodate our growth and participate in the resurgence of downtown,” said Doninger. He said it was the same reasons for Morton’s moving into the basement level.
Brown-Forman officials are considering establishing a museum and tasting room dedicated to Louisville’s history in the distillery industry. Main Street Association volunteers recently have been polling visitors to determine the interest in such a project that would be located in the building.
Other attractions moving into the West Main area include the Muhammad Ali Center and the Frazier Histori-cal Arms Museum. The $80 million Muhammad Ali Center, scheduled to open in 2003, will celebrate the values and remarkable life of the world-renown boxer.
The latter will showcase ancient armor and weaponry dating back to the centuries before Christopher Columbus. The armor comes from the Royal Armories in the United Kingdom. The $30 million museum, made possible by support from renowned philanthropist Owsley Brown Frazier, is set to open in spring 2003.
Many consider this resurgence as a “win-win” situation for any commercial or residential entity wanting to move to downtown Louisville. Since the early 1990s, the city has invested more than $5 million in downtown improvements. These have included new sidewalks, street furniture and landscaping. The west end of Main, to many, is a living showcase of Louisville’s history, and that aspect alone is a large attraction.
“Historic West Main is a strolling museum of the city’s history,” said Tom Owen, professor of libraries at the University of Louisville and a Louisville historian. “The buildings and the streetscape encompass the history.”
Many features on the sidewalk and in the Fort Nelson Park capture moments in Louisville’s history. The cast-iron buildings date as far back as the 1850s.
“We are 100 percent full in our buildings,” said Jim Goodwin, a realtor and president of the Main Street Association. “The activity is just incredible. The last five years have almost been a boom, and now people are starting to live there. People want to live around Main Street. They want that clout. It’s becoming a neighborhood of its own.”
According to Louisville Development Authority Executive Director Bruce Traughber, the incentive for the relocation to West Main Street is more historical and cultural than financial. He explained that the city’s major investments in buildings on the 600, 800 and 900 blocks of West Main were enough to attract the attention of pioneer businessmen, some of whom have been in the area for a long time.
He said historic tax credits would not be enough by themselves to create incentive.
“They thought it was a great place to be with the excitement, the commitment from the city and the interesting historical elements woven into the street,” said Traughber.
Other recent additions have been the Louisville Slugger Museum; the opening of the $27.8 million, 14,000-seat Slugger Field as home of the Louisville RiverBats Triple A baseball team; the $72 million expansion and renovation of the Kentucky International Convention Center; and the 2000 opening of the $60 million Waterfront Park along the riverfront.
There’s also dozens of new cafes and restaurants popping up all over.
“I think the word is getting out,” said Goodwin of the West Main Street area. “It’s street friendly, pedestrian friendly and tourist friendly.”

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