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The Resurgence of Fourth and Muhammad Ali, Downtown Louisville's '100 Percent Corner'

On several occasions over the months since I began these commentaries for WFPL, I have addressed the state of downtown Louisville, and the bright spots in reversing what has now been a nearly 50 year decline in the fortunes of the central business district.

Three strikingly good events have occurred in recent days, and it gives me great pleasure to celebrate them.

The first, and by far the most dazzling, is the transformation of the old Stewart Dry Goods store at Fourth and Muhammad Ali Boulevard into a stylish and shiny new hotel – the Embassy Suites. The Stewart’s building, once the most beautiful and top-notch emporium in ths city, has sat empty for years, ever since Hilliard & Lyons moved out to take over what had been known as Citizens Plaza, at Fifth and Liberty streets.

Stewart’s, which was one of a number of grand department stores that failed and disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s, was sort of like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the Hollywood studio whose motto was “Do it Right, Do it Big, Give it Class.” There were counterparts all over America. They’re all gone now, either bankrupt or swallowed up into the Macy’s super-chain.

In other cities, these buildings, which aren’t appropriate for much other than big department stores, have been converted in condominiums. In New York, my own favorite department store, B. Altman and Sons, was converted into a university building and to a branch of the New York Public Library. Block’s in Indianapolis and Shillito’s in Cincinnati are condos. Stewart’s branch in Lexington became a municipal building.

Now, thanks to the vision of some impressive investors (including the Galt House’s Mary Moseley) and architect Henry Potter, the Embassy Suites is a worthy occupant of the “100 Percent Corner,” as Mayor Charles Farnsley always called the intersection of Fourth and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali). Soon there will be a big-name chain restaurant inside, as well as a very chic lobby bar. And the elevators are still in the spot where the bank of Stewart’s elevators were. All they lack are the operators, who used to announce “Going Up, Pleeeeeeuzzzzzz” at each floor.

Across the street is another venerable downtown Louisville landmark, the Starks Building, which was built in phases beginning in 1913, more than a century ago. It was in the news last week when news outlets reported that it had been sold to a Florida developer who plans to re-do it as a hotel, condos, offices and shops.

There was a time when there were just a few places downtown where most of the city’s professionals works. The Starks Building was primary, for doctors, dentists (mine still is there), lawyers, accountants, not to mention tailors, barbers, shoe shine shops, brokerages and haberdasheries. And a greeting card shop, the city’s best cafeteria, an old fashioned coffeeshop with counter, jewelers, hair dressers and a post office branch. At the other end of Fourth Street at Broadway is the Heyburn Building, which had a similar panoply of providers as well as a terrific Walgreen’s Drug Store on the first floor and a shoe store, which sold orthopedic shoes to practical people like my grandmother. Other office buildings were smaller, but not less popular including the Fincastle, the Marion E. Taylor, the Francis and the Commonwealth.

Walgreen’s at the Heyburn Building was a particular favorite of mine in my youth. My mother generally took us there for lunch when we went downtown to the dentist and the library. Even in the 1960s, it was getting just a little grimy compared to the newer drug stores in St. Matthews where we lived. The final straw for Mother was the day when we ordered Jello and the counter girl, who had extremely long fingernails, scooped it up with her hands.

The Starks Building had no drug store, but it did have Stein Brothers and Boyce, which was my family’s stock broker. I was taken there as a child to talk to the broker who, it was thought, could teach me about finance. I was far less impressed with what he had to say about reading the stock tables than I was watching the men in white shirts with rolled up sleeves, constantly updating stock prices on a big blackboard, which took up most of a wall. The sound of stock tickers gave the room a very efficient ambience, and a few rows of chairs were always filled with people who were interested in watching the ups and downs of Wall Street. I guess it was one of the better free shows in town.

If you had your fill of watching the chalk numbers written on the big slate, you could walk through the marble paved arcade to the staircase leading to the Colonnade Cafeteria, a branch of a chain that also boasted branches in Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Houston. Unlike its competitor The Blue Boar, the Colonnade was only open for a light breakfast and lunch. I think that during the Christmas holidays they may have offered a light supper, but very clearly this was a lunch place. Everything they made was the best. Carrot and raisin salad, potato salad, chili, cheese soufflé, meatloaf, hamloaf (you don’t hear of this anymore), pot roast, stewed tomatoes, braunschweiger sandwiches. And the desserts—coffee gelatin with custard sauce; bread pudding, rhubarb tart with custard, Nesselrode and Boston Cream Pie.

In other words, this was no place for dieters, but it was great food. I have recently been able to revisit the Colonnade, closed since 2006, and it was remarkably intact. A few of the mirrors are broken or removed, but all the tables, the kitchen and the cafeteria lines remained in place. Maybe the new owners will be smart and bring it back to its peak.

It was more than a bit ironic that within days of the sale of the Starks Building, it’s longtime owner and proprietor, Franklin Starks, passed away at the venerable age of 91. Mr. Starks had the vision in the 1980s to upgrade the arcade and atrium of his building to bring beautiful sunlight into once dim offices. He also enjoyed holding court at a round (or oblong) table in the Colonnade, where his companions included well-known lawyers, judges and so forth.

The understanding and respect for these landmarks gives me great pleasure, as a native Louisvillian. The “100 Percent Corner contains three century-old treasures (the Seelbach Hotel is the third), but the fourth spot, occupied by the Meidinger Tower, represents the failure of vision in our city in the era before Historic Preservation had gained a kind of respectability. Once upon a time that site was occupied by the Atherton Building, home of the Selman’s store, the finest of its kind in the region. (I remember as a child being immensely impressed by the brass sign on its façade: “H.P. Selman Co. – Louisville and Paris.” That was Paris, France, not Kentucky.) It was stupidly razed in 1979 for the non-descript first of Louisville’s Twin Towers.

There is a great deal of concern this week for the demolition of two old buildings on Third Street, between Liberty and Ali. One was a parking garage, unused for most of my life, and an office building that rented motion picture cameras back in the days before home video and computers. They were charming, in their way, but they were neither distinguished nor as promising for our city’s future as the plan for the Omni Hotel, with adjacent grocery store and shops. I’ve been a devoted preservationist all of my life, and I still have on my terrace the floret from the façade of the old Courier-Journal Building, which my wife mysteriously delivered to me for a Father’s Day present in 1989.

Louisville is lucky to have so much of its past being fully in use today. We were a great city in 1862, and in 1912, and we are still in 2015. Happily, I see interest in both new construction and adaptive reuse. Most of all, it gives me pleasure to once again go through the revolving door at Fourth and Muhammad Ali into the place where Stewart’s once existed.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

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