Curious Louisville

On a chilly Monday morning, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the Filson Historical Society — 1310 S. Third Street — which is right in the heart of the Old Louisville Neighborhood.

But if I was standing in this exact spot about 60 years ago and I asked where I was, no one would have said “Old Louisville.”

They would have just probably said… “Louisville.”

According to Jim Holmberg, the curator of collections at the Filson, for decades, the area would have just been thought of as a southern extension of downtown.

Holmberg was helping me get to the bottom of our latest Curious Louisville question from listener Evan Patrick: “What was Old Louisville called before it was ‘old?’”

“It didn’t get dubbed Old Louisville until 1961, when preservation and renovation efforts started,” Holmberg said. “As business grew and kept moving South, residential kept moving South.”

When we think of Old Louisville now, Holmberg said, we have some semi-official boundaries.

“When most people think of Old Louisville, they think Kentucky Street going south to U of L, Interstate-65 on the East, over to Sixth or Seventh Street on the West,” Holmberg said.

But for about a century, the area we now know as Old Louisville was basically a nameless suburb.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, developers slowly built out from the Ohio River, and then from the Central Business District.

Notably, in 1869, architect Gideon Shryock called the area “a growing and beautiful suburban locality,” one with massive amounts of impressive Victorian architecture.

Submitted by M. David Williams

But what was Old Louisville before it was ‘old?’

As the 20th century hit, new areas in Louisville developed, like the Highlands and other neighborhoods further east, Holmberg said. People moved away from the city center and surrounding neighborhoods in favor of these new areas, which caused Old Louisville to decline, he said.

“People moved out. During WWII, a lot of the old houses were cut up into apartments because of the war effort, and all the labor that was coming in needed places to stay,” he said. 

So, the once-affluent suburb slowly became a (still-nameless) neighborhood with some seedy spots, but lots of potential.

Then, the 1960s hit, and people started thinking about historic preservation. Local efforts started focusing on the large collection of old Victorian houses, just south of downtown. And people realized that in order to save it, they’d need to name it.

“With the rise of preservation, appreciating the architectural history of an area — not just here, but across the nation — that really sparked that effort,” Holmberg said. “So in 1961, a group got together and really agreed to work on ‘Old Louisville.’”

According to Holmberg, it was really just a group of individuals that started preservation efforts, and they started using the term ‘Old Louisville’ in their literature. Then the city got involved and soon adopted the name as well.

“Because of that, it’s now a historic preservation district,” Holmberg said. “And now a lot of that effort is still going on to make sure it stays at a good level.”

Listen to the story here:

(Can’t listen? Here’s a transcript!)

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Ashlie Stevens is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.