It isn’t difficult to imagine the sounds and smells of Louisville’s Main Street in the mid-1800s, just before the Civil War. Clip-clopping horses’ hooves, creaking wagon wheels, shouting coachmen and cart drivers. A litter of pigs would snort and squeal east toward the packinghouses of Butchertown. Clanking iron chains heralded the arrival of the whip-cracking slave driver, forcing men, women and children into pens on Main at Second Street, just across the road from what today we call Whiskey Row.
After the Civil War, the 100 block of West Main Street enjoyed the boom that made Louisville a big, rich city—the second most populous in the south (after New Orleans). During this period, Whiskey Row became the official home of the biggest railroad in the region (later known as the Louisville & Nashville), distilleries, and Belknap, which was the world’s largest hardware company. Later, though, commerce gravitated south to Broadway, and by the 1960s, most bankers and developers disparaged the central part of Main Street, from Preston Street to 12th.
With modern architecture pushing its brash way from the canyons of Manhattan to the streets of San Francisco, many considered the Victorian charm of Louisville’s Main Street to be as outdated as the buggy whips, plows and horse collars once sold there. City leaders saw the blocks of dingy buildings with cast-iron fronts as fit for one thing: the wrecking ball. In the decades after World War II, the balls swung furiously over broad sections of the heart of downtown, to make room for I-65 and, later, I-64.
In the late 1960s or early ’70s, a few local visionaries, notably former Mayor Charles Farnsley and Dr. Harvey Sloane, who would become mayor in 1973, began to question the wrecking-ball approach to urban redevelopment. Encouraged by projects in town—such as the restoration of Farmington (the Federal-style home that once stood on a hemp plantation planned by Thomas Jefferson) and Locust Grove (a Georgian mansion that dates to the 1790s and has ties to Lewis and Clark) and the adaptive reuse of an old railroad station by Actors Theatre—a preservation movement blossomed. With the passage of an ordinance in 1973, the city created a Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission to identify and protect what was architecturally significant. Saving Louisville’s historic structures became fashionable.
Throughout the 19th century, Main Street was a noisy and crowded commercial thoroughfare. Before the Civil War, most of the buildings were two to three stories, and perhaps the most famous of them was the original Galt House, a 60-room hotel at the northeast corner of Second and Main, on the site of the building that now houses Whiskey Row Lofts. Charles Dickens stayed there in 1842 and said he was “handsomely lodged as though we had been in Paris, rather than hundreds of miles beyond the Alleghenies.”
“The interval, after breakfast, we devoted to riding through the town, which is regular and cheerful: the streets being laid out at right angles, and planted with young trees. The buildings are smoky and blackened, from the use of bituminous coal, but an Englishman is well used to that appearance, and indisposed to quarrel with it.”
Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Zachary Taylor and James Buchanan stayed at the Galt House. At the hotel, Gens. Grant and William T. Sherman are said to have planned their military campaigns, including the siege of Atlanta and the March to the Sea. Celebrity visitors included actor Edwin Booth (accomplished older brother of Lincoln’s assassin) and showman P.T. Barnum, with “General” Tom Thumb. The first Galt House burned on Jan. 11, 1865, the result of a fire in its primitive heating system, and its successor opened one block east (on the northeast corner of First and Main) in 1869.
A far grander building, designed by famed local architect Henry Whitestone (also architect of the clock tower at Louisville’s City Hall and the steeple of the Cathedral of the Assumption), this Galt House became one of the nation’s most famous hotels, mentioned with the Palmer House in Chicago and the Parker House in Boston. That version of the Galt House remained in business until 1919 and was torn down in 1921. (The site would become the headquarters for Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Co., a building that remains standing today as part of Humana’s office complex downtown.)
Lincoln came to Louisville to visit his friend Joshua Speed at Farmington in the early 1840s. Lincoln had been here as a child, with his parents, bundled into a covered wagon as they sought a new life in Indiana. It was in Louisville where Lincoln witnessed the brutality of slavery, almost certainly in the block of slave pens between Main and Market on Second Street, just south of Main, right across from Whiskey Row. Although Louisville harbored much anti-slavery, pro-Union sentiment, shackled slaves squeezed into pens before being sold or shipped “down the river” to New Orleans, until the 13th Amendment was enacted in 1865. How ironic that Union troops marched down Main Street in October 1861, past those hellish pens operated by a Matthew Garretson.
Despite periodic interruptions in its rail service (and, until 1863, the closing of the lower Mississippi River—including New Orleans—to northern steamboat travel), Louisville was abuzz with commerce, with some 80,000 Union troops stationed here. Along Main Street, arriving riverboats, too large for the fledgling Portland Canal, unloaded their cargo to be portaged across the city to Portland, where it was reloaded on boats heading south and west.
What we know today as Whiskey Row began to take shape in the decade just before the war. The facade at 105 W. Main is thought to have been designed by Whitestone. It was erected circa 1877 as a whiskey warehouse, following a fire that consumed a structure previously occupied by Cochran and Fulton, the city’s oldest liquor wholesaler on record. Vacant since the late 1980s (the bars and nightclubs had shuttered), it was acquired (along with the majority of the block) by developer Todd Blue, who unsuccessfully attempted to redevelop the properties as the mixed-use development dubbed the Iron Quarter.
For $4.85 million in 2011, a group of investors called Main Street Revitalization—including Laura Lee Brown and husband Steve Wilson of 21c Museum Hotel, Christy Brown, Edie Bingham and the Rev. Al Shands— acquired the structures at 111 through 119 W. Main from Blue, who still owns what, in recent years, has became a parking lot on the block’s easternmost edge, where two facades (which Main Street Revitalization paid to stabilize) are all that remain of the buildings that once stood there.
“This is one of the most extraordinary blocks in America, and it is a miracle that all of this was not bulldozed over the years,” Christy Brown says. “We’re now creating this wonderful bridge on east to NuLu. If you had a bunch of parking lots here, it would be an absolute desert. We would have lost a huge part of the heart and soul of our city.”
Among the most architecturally ambitious structures on Whiskey Row are at 107 to 109. This is, according to a landmark-designation report, “a four-story, three-bay Chicago Style commercial structure with a white glazed- brick facade.” Design has been attributed to D.X. Murphy, one of Louisville’s notable architects of the time who also designed the old Jefferson County Jail, Churchill Downs and the Bourbon Stockyards.
The Main Street level of 107 to 109 is rich in the building’s heritage: The name J.T.S. Brown and Sons appears above the central doorway. John Thompson Street Brown Sr. was a native of Hart County, Kentucky, and today is best known as the father of George Garvin Brown, Brown-Forman’s founder. J.T.S. Sr.’s other son, J.T.S. Jr., moved to Louisville in 1855 and started a wholesale whiskey business, which expanded during the Civil War. In 1870, George (J.T.S. Jr.’s half-brother) became a pharmaceutical salesman and a year later formed his own company, which began bottling Old Forrester (the name later dropped an r to become Old Forester), the first whiskey to be sold in sealed bottles. In later years, 107 to 109 housed a wholesale grocery company, a coffee-roasting company and other tenants, but it has been vacant for nearly a half century. That will all change in 2016, when Brown-Forman plans to open a new Old Forester distillery in the space.
“We’re returning to our roots,” George Garvin Brown IV, the board chairman and fifth-generation descendant of the company founder, told USA Today.
In the early 1870s, Whitestone designed and built 111, and the first tenant was food broker McFerron, Armstrong and Co. Over the next 15 years, a series of food-related distributors were tenants, until 1887 when the Eclipse Woolen Mills, manufacturer of “Kentucky Jeans,” moved in. (An 1895 publication noted that Louisville “was the largest market in the Union for the production of jeans and jean clothing.”) The building was also home to several distilling operations by the 1890s. The growing reach of the Belknap empire soon absorbed 111, as well as 113 and 115, which are four-story brick buildings highlighted by Renaissance Revival-arched windows on the third and fourth stories and vertical cast- iron piers. By 1910, 111 became home to the Old Kentucky Distillery and Thompson Straight Whiskey Co., whose labels included Country Club, Forelock, Lucky Stone, Old Kentucky and Thompson Old Reserve, among others.
In September 1881, Belknap purchased 113 and 115 for the company’s headquarters and salesrooms and remained there until 1923, when it moved to a massive complex on the northeast corner of First and Main. (The company remained there until going out of business in 1986.) In 1924, Belknap sold the buildings to H. Wedekind and Co., a wholesale grocer. Later occupants included the United Furniture Co. and, finally, ware- houses for Bacon’s Department Store, which was long one of the city’s largest dry-goods operations from its founding in 1845 until it was absorbed by Dillard’s in 1998.
At various points, Brown-Forman occupied a number of offices along Main Street, including 117, which was built after the 1857 fire. Like its neighbor at 119, the interior of 117 became waterlogged over the years and, in an effort to preserve and stabilize the two facades, the rest was demolished in 2012. A separation wall remains. Pork dealers used to operate at 119. Another important 19th-century Louisville architect, C.J. Clark, who trained in the Whitestone office, is thought to have designed the Beaux-Arts structure at 121. Unlike the other buildings on the block, this one boasts a red sandstone facade. In 1900, George P. Weller purchased 121 and it became the House of Weller Distillery.
On a recent early-November morning, 10 of the Main Street Revitalization investors gathered for a photo at under-construction Whiskey Row, a huge cavern in the sidewalk. After the photographer shot his last frame, 21c’s Laura Lee Brown said, “A process like this can be so complicated and so awful in the beginning, but there are light years of enjoyment after you’ve struggled through that phase. That idea of enjoyment is the carrot in front of the horse. Yes, the horse can be reluctant for a long time.”
Her husband, Steve Wilson, said, “When you go to Europe, you see people living with their history, and in America too often we tear something down and build something new. The craftsmanship of these cast-iron fronts, the brickwork, is so often lost to newer construction—fiberglass, plastic, concrete and things that have no character.
“I think of us as caretakers,” Wilson continued. “There have to be those of us who take care of the past.”
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.
Read his past WFPL commentaries here.
This commentary was originally published in Louisville Magazine.