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Preservationists Hope Not All Is Lost For Louisville's Water Company Block

For nearly a century, what's now a heap of bricks, twisted metal and glass made up the façades of the Morrissey Parking Garage and the Falls City Theater Company building in downtown Louisville.

On Saturday, at the behest of Louisville Metro Government, heavy machinery began clawing at the historic structures on Third Street near Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Structures that withstood floods, tornadoes and a changing downtown landscape were crumbled.

Standing outside the demolition site on Monday, Preservation Louisville executive director Marianne Zickuhr said it's always upsetting to see an iconic building demolished.

This one, though, packs an extra punch.

"What is frustrating for me in this particular situation is that we lost a very important part of our streetscape," she said, whose organization is a non-profit that works to save historic places in Louisville.

"When you lose a section of that streetscape you are losing a sense of place."

Zickuhr, along with national preservation groups, have been fighting to save the façades of the buildings since it was announced that an Omni Hotel would be developed on the site.

"It would have been a creative way and a wonderful juxtaposition to include new development behind (the façades)," she said.

Louisville city officials sent out an alert last week notifying the public that the structures needed to be demolished immediately because of their dilapidated state.

On Friday, John Hildreth, eastern regional vice president for field services National Trust for Historic Preservation, sent a letter to Mayor Greg Fischer pleading him to hold off on razing the buildings for two weeks in order to "perform a second engineering study of the Morrissey Garage and the Falls City Theater Company buildings prior to initiating demolition," the TheVilleVoice.com reported.

"We certainly are not asking you to risk the health and well being of your citizens and would call for the temporary fencing and, if needed, temporary closing of a traffic lane if merited. We are moving with utmost speed to arrange for this secondary review and ask for your cooperation," the letter stated.

But Louisville officials chose to go ahead with the demolition.

A spokesman for Develop Louisville said the "buildings were in such a state of deterioration and could collapse, and public safety being the highest concern, the process had to proceed."

So, on Saturday, the wrecking crew moved in. But on Tuesday, the rubble— including asbestos, snarled metal and glass—remained in a jumble along the sidewalk.

In a statement, Hildreth said officials with the National Trust for Historic Preservation were "disappointed with the decision to proceed with the demolition."

"Going forward, we're hoping that our work in Lousiville will illustrate the value of reusing the city's historic buildings and making them once again an acitve part of the community," Hildreth said.

Zickuhr said she still has trouble understanding why city officials gave the go-ahead for the demolition to begin with the fronts of the buildings. The façades, she said, were the lone aspect of the buildings that preservationists wanted to incorporate into the new development.

A Develop Louisville spokesman said Omni developers were promised the buildings would be demolished and they continue to work with city officials to consider options for other buildings on the site.

But Zickuhr said without the façades of the two structures in question to save, this piece of Louisville history is soon to be nothing but a memory.

"At this point, the old adage of you don't know what you've got till it's gone is completely true," she said.

There are still two historic structures standing on the block that will become the site of the Omni Hotel, Zickuhr said. What is known as the Water Company block, bounded by Second, Third and Liberty streets and Muhammad Ali Boulevard is also home to the old Louisville Water Company buildings and Odd Fellows Hall.

"It's time that the citizens say what they want from Omni, it's time to be heard," she said.

But a contract between the city and Omni developers state that all structures on the development site must be demolished, according to a recent report by Insider Louisville. The Omni development is a project of nearly $300 million.

The remaining structures are prime to be incorporated into the new development, Zickuhr said. And she is making sure officials know it.

"I definitely think now is the time to be proactive, not reactive," she said. "There are two other buildings that are still here and therefore we have the opportunity to be heard and we want those to stay, we want a guarantee they'll stay and we also want good, new development."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.