Over the past few years, the Louisville Landmarks Commission has seen a lot of public interest. It has been involved in some high-profile disputes between real estate developers and preservationists, and more recently, it was determined that the commission would have the final vote on whether the controversial John Breckinridge Castleman statue could be moved from the Cherokee Triangle, which is located in a historic preservation district.
But on Tuesday night, an ad hoc committee of city council members met to discuss amendments to the Landmarks Ordinance, which would help clarify the commission’s role in classifying and preserving historic properties and sites.
This committee is composed of city council members Bill Hollander (District 9), Brandon Coan (District 8), James Peden (District 23), Keisha Dorsey (District 3) and Kevin Kramer (District 11).
The committee will discuss the recommended amendments to the document in a series of meetings scheduled through May 21.
But some of the drafted recommendations already give us a pretty good idea of how the commission wants to define its role moving forward, while some ambiguous language raises questions about the ongoing Castleman controversy.
Preservation & Progress
In 2017, developer Murray Turner decided he wanted to tear down an Indian Hills house he owned in order to complete a small subdivision project. The house was pretty old — built in 1921 — and had a lot of problems.
According to a Cournier Journal article at the time, Turner said the house was “infested with raccoons,” that there were holes in the ceiling and water-damaged walls. “He said he couldn’t sell the house and that it [was] not feasible to renovate,” the article read.
But area preservationists had a problem with Turner’s proposal: the house was built by notable architect Carl Ziegler, and they felt the property had historic value.
So a petition was filed with the city’s Landmarks Commission to conduct a study and hold a public hearing to determine if the house should be designated as a landmark. After months of deliberation, the commission decided it was not, and plans for the subdivision continued.
This is just one example of Louisville preservationists and developers facing off before the Landmarks Commission to determine whether a proposed project will continue as planned (another example is when members of the Douglass Loop community got the Twig and Leaf Diner designated as a local landmark after a CVS was rumored to be coming in; the block on which the building still stands would have been razed for the new development).
But according to Metro Councilman Brandon Coan, deciding the fate of developments really isn’t the job of the Landmarks Commission.
“In some cases a proponent of a development and an opponent of a development… who would typically sort that out in some other way, were turning to the Landmarks Commission to make the historical value of a certain proposed use determinate of whether the change happened,” Coan said in Tuesday night’s meeting. “And I think that is a misuse of the Landmarks Ordinance.”
Meanwhile, some properties that members of the community believe should already be recognized as local landmarks — like Muhammad Ali’s boyhood home — still have not been designated.
About The Amendments
The amended ordinance is intended to help the commission determine which properties actually qualify for historic protection.
According to the Landmarks Ordinance, the commission’s mission is sort of twofold: It makes sure that any changes to properties located in one of Louisville’s seven historic preservation districts (ranging from Old Louisville to the Parkland Preservation District) are compatible with the aesthetics of the properties already there.
Some of the proposed amendments to the ordinance deal with that part of the mission. There are amendments dealing with how property owners in a historic district need to seek permission to build accessory structures or carriage houses, for example.
But, as the second part of its mission, the commission also determines whether individual properties or buildings can be classified as local landmarks.
One of the biggest changes to the current ordinance is laying out in more specific language how community members and property owners can recommend a site be designated as a local landmark. And now, there is a clear protocol to follow if one of those sites is already slated for demolition — petitions for appealing demolition must now include research detailing why the site is significant in a historic or cultural way.
But while the new recommendations may aid in curtailing disputes between developers and preservationists, there is some ambiguity in the language that could impact a controversial Louisville structure: the statue of John Breckinridge Castleman in the Cherokee Triangle.
Castleman & The Landmarks Commission
The Castleman statue has been a source of community dispute since it was first vandalized in August 2017. Some people believe the statue should be removed because of Castleman’s service in the Confederate Army, whereas others point to his contributions to the Louisville parks system as a reason the statue should stay.
In August 2018, after extensive review by the city’s Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer announced intentions to remove the Castleman statue.
But that proposal was shot down on January 23 by the Cherokee Triangle Architectural Review Committee. That committee was able to vote on the city’s plans for removal since the statue is located in a historic preservation district — which is also Councilman Coan’s district. When asked whether the Castleman statue should be removed, Coan said he’d wait for the report from the Public Art and Monuments Advisory Committee; following the release of their review, he recommended it be removed.
Now, the city will file an appeal with the Landmark’s Commission, which is supposed to have the final vote on whether it’s appropriate to move the statue from the historic preservation district.
And this is where the language in the landmark’s ordinance is important.
Per the document, if 200 community members would file a petition requesting a structure, defined in the ordinance as “any man-made object having an attachment to, or location upon, the ground or water, including buildings,” be recognized as a landmark, the commission has the responsibility to conduct an investigation and produce a report determining whether the structure is “architecturally, historically or culturally significant.” That is the exact conversation the city has been having about the Castleman statue for over a year, which means debate over the fate of the monument could continue on even longer.
The next meeting of the Louisville Landmarks Commission is Thursday, Feb. 21.