I’m standing behind a door that has puzzled me (and Curious Louisville question-askers like Erica Benton, Paula Do and Stephanie Copeland) for years. It’s gray, unassuming and built into a stone wall off of Lexington Road, past Headliner’s Music Hall — right before you reach Liberty Street.
And until today, I’d never seen it open.
“Basically, it’s a tunnel — it’s about 18-feet wide by 20-feet tall and about 120 feet deep,” said Mike Ratterman, who owns the space. “And it’s all built out of cobblestone.”
Ratterman and his wife, Annie, purchased property directly above the tunnel several years ago.
“That’s when I first came into the space. There used to just be a 28-inch door on the front, and this whole space was full of garbage, and dirt, and mattresses, and all kinds of things,” Ratterman said. “So at first I was a little bit perplexed as to what we had gotten, but then after cleaning up a little bit and discovering there was a cobblestone floor, we decided to clean it up all the way.”
Ratterman has done some research, and while he couldn’t find a specific build date for the cave, he did find out that it was likely used by brewers to store beer.
According to Michael Moeller, a local beer writer and podcaster, that makes a lot of sense — pre-Prohibition Louisville was home to nearly 20 breweries within walking distance of Ratterman’s cave.
“To understand why somebody might store beer in a literal cave, you have to kind of put it in the context of both science and technology, or, in this case, the lack of technology,” Moeller said.
Lagers, Moeller says, ferment slowly at lower temperatures.
“Before refrigeration existed, doing something like that — lagering — would be kind of hard to do, and sometimes only available seasonally, depending on where you live,” he said. “But if you were to go down 20 to 30 feet, underground, or maybe there was an opening to a cave nearby, the temperature is, relatively, always 50 to 55 degrees.”
Which I can feel. I visited the cave in the summer when it was over 80 degrees outside, and I wished I’d brought a jacket.
Ratterman took about two years to clean out the tunnel. Now, the space is made available, on occasion, for private events. A number of artists have played the cave, ranging from Murder by Death to Bill Callahan.
The venue — which he calls the Workhouse Ballroom — remains closed most of the year, due to permitting and safety issues. Ratterman says the acoustics are tremendous, even though most people won’t get to hear them.
Listen to this story: