Old Louisville residents breathe life into historic neighborhood

By on November 3, 2015

The tree-lined streets of Old Louisville frame houses over a century old that take you back in time to an era of grandeur, romance and wealth. This Victorian neighborhood is the largest collection of such in the country and has endured its share of affluence, decline and revival.

In the late 1800s the neighborhood showcased the wealth of Louisville’s most affluent residents. The houses were adorned with elaborate trim, grand windows and opulent facades. Their interiors hosted high ceilings, detailed woodwork and elegant sitting rooms.

As the wealthy gradually moved eastward around the 1930s, they left behind large, expensive homes in a deteriorating economy. Many of the mansions were transformed into boarding houses and later apartments during World War I and World War II. Displaced low-income tenants moved into what became the undesirable old Louisville. These residents were unable to afford the upkeep of the grand homes, leading to decay and abandonment.

The revival of the neighborhood is attributed to Douglas Nunn, a writer for the Courier-Journal. He began a campaign in 1961 to preserve the historical neighborhood, taking leave from the publication and heading what would become the Old Louisville Association. Nunn’s investment in the neighborhood would lead to the creation of 13 different neighborhood associations within Old Louisville, each with its own distinct history, residents and homes.

On any given day, a visitor is sure to see the diversity of Old Louisville emerge from these homes as the neighbors take to the streets. Students walking to the nearby college, young families playing in the park, and older residents tending to their porches and gardens are all common sites in the diverse neighborhood.

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Residents Lauren Beeson and Emily Lawrence reflected on their experiences in Old Louisville. Both relatively new to the area, the two women live on opposite sides of the neighborhood and their conversation demonstrated the distinctiveness that spans the many “sub-neighborhoods” of Old Louisville.

“The difference between Sixth and Brook is huge, like two completely different neighborhoods,” Beeson said of Old Louisville. Lauren lives on the eastern side of Old Louisville, in the Toonerville Trolley sub-neighborhood which features a mixture of single family homes and duplexes.

Just a few blocks west of Beeson, Lawrence fell in love with the old, Victorian homes when she moved to the area from Nashville.

“Over here it’s more of a family neighborhood. We do life together—everyone, the old, the new and the ones who have been here forever.”

The Sixth Street section of the neighborhood is home to many young families as well as long-time residents, where Lawrence says everyone watches out for one another. “When we first moved in, our neighbor came over to introduce himself. He was welcoming but also advised us that it’s a street where people have each others backs.”

Back on Brook Street, the demographics look a little different with a mixture of young professionals, young couples and those whose families have been around for generations.

Like much of the city, Old Louisville has its fair share of poverty. In spite of the differences that often accompany variances in income, Beeson and her husband believe in the value of being neighborly.

“There’s a lot of desperation, but we have to think of people as people. We try to be around and be involved in people’s lives. We know there are hard things going on, and we need to be loving neighbors,” said Beeson.

Lawrence echoed Beeson’s attitude. “Over time you see the differences, but you cut through it and learn that you have commonalities.”

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For many of Old Louisville’s residents, one of their greatest commonalities is architecture. Beeson said, “It’s interesting, everyone talks about architecture. No matter who you are, you can see when things are beautiful, whether you’re rich or poor.”

And preserving the beautiful architecture of Old Louisville is one of the goals of the 13 neighborhood associations. Together they strive to save the character that defines Old Louisville homes. The Old Louisville Neighborhood Council supports an information center in Central Park that invites visitors to tour the homes, heritage and scenery of Old Louisville.

“The old things in this city belong to everyone. We share the neighborhood,” the two say of Old Louisville.

Over 11,000 people live in the area, and no matter their ethnicity, income, orientation or age they are all proud to call Old Louisville home.

About Brooke Moody

One Comment

  1. Mike Gillespie

    November 3, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    The pillared building barely visible through the trees in the background was built as the Mengel mansion, the Mengels being a business family in Louisville in those days. From 1948 through the early 1990s, it was home to the Louisville Bible College, where I attended school (graduated ’68 and ’76). The building nearest the camera housed the Louisville Radio School and WLRS radio during the same era, and had a two-story classroom structure attached to its backside.

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