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A Look — And Listen — Inside The Louisville Gardens

J. Tyler Franklin

Ask Larry Chandler about the Louisville Gardens, and he'll smile.

Standing at a nearby bus stop on Thursday, Chandler rattles off the bands he saw there decades ago, before the building was shuttered: Stevie Wonder, Parliament-Funkadelic, Average White Band.

"I was right there in front," he said.

Louisville Gardens was more than a music venue. When it was built in 1905, the building was an armory. In the following century, President Harry Truman spoke there. So did Martin Luther King Jr. It was once the home stadium for University of Louisville basketball and the ABA's Kentucky Colonels.

But the last major event at the Gardens was the installation ceremony for Archbishop Joseph Kurtz in August 2007, according to a spokeswoman for the city's economic development department.

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The Louisville Gardens has history, space and a good piece of downtown real estate. But at the moment, it lacks a purpose.

Mark Zoeller, assistant director of facilities for Louisville Metro, and other city officials on Thursday gave WFPL News a tour of the building. Zoeller said beyond the chipping paint, dust and drooping ceiling, the building has "good bones."

"It was built as an armory, so it was built very solid," he said.

For the moment, the 200,000 square-foot building is used to store city government supplies: desks, chairs, old light fixtures, de-icer, some bicycles, a boat, stacks of junked television sets.

Inside, a photo of former Mayor Jerry Abramson still hangs near the ticket booth just inside the doors along Muhammad Ali Boulevard. An escalator to the second floor remains frozen in time. Empty beer taps and soda fountains can be found at the concession stands.

Some 6,000 folding chairs still encircle the auditorium that's been home to basketball and ice hockey teams. An old pipe organ collecting dust in a small room near the crumbling drop-tile ceiling can still fill the room with sound.

On the concrete floor of the auditorium — where pro wrestling matches and proms were once held — lays a statue of Louisville financier Thomas C. Simons. Remnants of the old Louisville Water Company building and Falls City Theatre Equipment Co. building lean against nearby railing. Beds from an old health clinic stand in a corner.

Backstage a door opens up to a hallway Martin Luther King Jr. may have walked through on his way to the stage from a dressing room in the basement, when he spoke at the Louisville Gardens in August 1960.

The skeletons of locker rooms and parking garages remain in the basement. Discarded pieces of the Belle of Louisville are piled in one dark room. Antique carpentry equipment collects dust in another.

The building lacks heating and air conditioning. The air is stale. The few lights illuminating hallways and empty rooms are on mainly for security, Zoeller said. Water runs only to the building's sprinkler system.

Crews are working to ready the building's roof for a needed replacement. Mayor Greg Fischer set aside $400,000 for a new roof in his budget for fiscal year 2016. The city spends about $20,000 annually on utility bills and upkeep of the building, The Courier-Journal reported earlier this year.

Zoeller said there is no doubt the building has a chance for another life.

"Personally, I think it has great potential," he said.

The potential for what, though, remains to be seen.

Metro government owns the Gardens. A spokeswoman for Fischer's office declined to say what exactly city leaders want to see done with it.

Earlier this year, a $20 million plan from Underhill Associates for a mixed-use redevelopment was shot down by city officials due to a lack of "public engagement" in the project.

The building has been at the center of other redevelopment proposals, including one from Fourth Street Live owner Cordish Cos. that ultimately failed.

The Cordish plan called for a tax increment financing district to be created for the redevelopment.  Ted Smith, the city's chief innovation officer, told WDRB in 2014 he expects a similar incentive to be a part of any redevelopment focusing on the Louisville Gardens site.

Whatever becomes of the building, many Louisville residents share the same sentiment: They just want it be something.

It's a building that housed nearly 6,000 Louisville residents displaced by the 1937 flood, according to a historical synopsis by BrokenSidewalk.com. When the Titanic sank in 1912, 10,000 people showed up for a memorial service. In 2003, Laila Ali TKO'd former world champion Mary Ann Almager at the Louisville Gardens.

Larry Chandler, at the bus stop, said the Gardens was, indeed, once a great building. He remembers it being roomy, the chairs comfortable and the tickets to concerts and basketball games cheap.

He said he spent a large part of his youth there. And he believes now is the time to put life back into it. Hotels seem to be popping up everywhere around it, he said. People are flocking to downtown like never before.

"It's a staple," he said. "They need to fix that bad boy up."

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.

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