A group of Louisville residents has filed an appeal of the city’s recent decision to remove a controversial statue, citing a conflict of interest in the process because Louisville Metro officials were allowed to vote on the matter.
The fight to remove the John Breckinridge Castleman statue located in Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle began in 2017 shortly after a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the weeks following that rally, cities around the country began reexamining monuments of Confederate figures in their communities. Castleman served in the Confederate Army before becoming a key figure in the development of Louisville’s park system.
The complaint, which was filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Monday by attorney Steve Porter, argues the Jefferson County Metro Historic Landmarks Commission‘s application for removal of the Castleman statue was “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” on several grounds.
There are nine plaintiffs in the appeal, including residents of the Cherokee Triangle area, local historians and representatives of the Louisville Historical League and the newly-formed group Friends of Louisville Public Art.
The complaint’s argument for a conflict of interest stems from the votes of Louisville Metro officials Emily Liu and Robert Kirchdorfer to approve the removal of the statue.
Liu is the director of the Louisville Metro Department of Planning and Design Services, and Kirchdorfer is the director of the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations. Both serve on the Landmarks Commission and did not return requests for comment Monday afternoon.
In an emailed statement, Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokeswoman Jean Porter said he’s disappointed to see the process slowed down, but stands by the commission’s decision.
“Louisville must not maintain statues that serve as validating symbols for racist or bigoted ideology,” she said, and referred more specific questions to the Jefferson County Attorney.
“In any case like this, if your employer has an application in front of an administrative body, you do not vote,” Porter said at a press conference outside the statue on Monday. “You recuse yourself. You don’t take part.”
The complaint states that without those two votes, “the motion for approval would have failed and the application would have been denied.”
The statue has been vandalized several times since August 2017, which led to a series of public meetings about the statue. In December 2017, Mayor Greg Fischer created the Louisville Public Art and Monuments Committee, which was tasked with coming up with guidelines for public art to decide what kind of figures should be honored with monuments.
After the committee gave its recommendations to him in August 2018, Fischer said the Castleman statue should be removed because it didn’t, “reflect the current values” of Louisville.
The complaint filed Monday argues the process did not consider the recommendations of the Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee.
“None of those recommendations were even referred to or talked about, either at the review committee, architectural review committee or at the Landmarks Commission,” Porter said.
But because the Castleman statue is located within a historic preservation district, the proposal for removal had to be approved by the Cherokee Triangle Architectural Review Committee.
With the committee’s initial vote ending in a tie, Fischer’s office appealed to the Landmarks Commission, which made its final decision on May 9 to approve the removal of the statue.
The complaint filed Monday disputes that decision, and Porter said the Landmarks Commission made it “very clear they had no choice” and “they had to overturn the architectural review committee and approve the application for removal.”
“On the contrary, the local ordinance says that if there’s a tie vote, which there was at the architectural review committee, the application is denied,” Porter said. “So we’re going to have to go to court to find out which side is correct on that issue.”
Another point of emphasis in the complaint is that the guidelines for removal were not properly followed because the Castleman statue is a “contributing element of the Cherokee Triangle District”, which would make it a protected monument unless it poses an “imminent threat to life or property.”
The complaint also cites inconsistencies in the application for removal because the commission argued the Castleman statue should be removed since it is not original to the roundabout area of Cherokee Triangle, but that a new monument could be added there should it be removed.
“They’re trying to say that it is not a contributing element to the Cherokee Triangle. That is ridiculous,” Porter said. “It is a contributing element and a contributing element cannot be removed by the standards that they used in their staff report.”
Although Castleman was pardoned for his service in the Confederate Army, he requested his casket be draped with both the American and Confederate flags. Many point to that as evidence when categorizing the piece as a “Confederate statue,” and say it has no place in a modern-day Louisville that strives to be inclusive.
Porter said that’s not the case.
“My clients are absolutely not in favor of any monument public art statue that glorifies racism, bigotry, prejudice, anything along those lines,” Porter said.
Some who have argued to keep the statue point to the facts that the statue depicts Castleman in plain clothes and is situated near the entrance to one of Louisville’s largest parks, which some say it is meant to honor Castleman’s work in developing the city’s parks system.
Steve Wiser, an architect and plaintiff in the case who has written several books about the history of Louisville, said that Castleman was “a progressive of his day” and was instrumental in keeping the parks integrated before he died.
“It’s been referred to as a Confederate monument, but that is only because Louisville Metro approved of that being called a Confederate monument, and now they are seeking to remove it because they called it a Confederate monument. Total hypocrisy in my estimation,” Wiser said, speaking on behalf of the Friends of Louisville Public Art.
If the appeal is unsuccessful, the Castleman statue is planned to move to Cave Hill Cemetery where its subject is buried.
This post has been updated with a statement from Mayor Greg Fischer.