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The Surprising History Behind This Downtown Alleyway Sign

There’s an alleyway running next to Louisville Public Media between Third and Fourth streets that I walk through every day. It has typical alleyway features: broken glass, discarded food wrappers, spray-painted tags.

But there’s also a beautiful, if slightly faded, hand-drawn sign that reads, “Pool Entrance.”

Next to it is an arrow pointing to a vertical stack of letters outlined in black that spell out “SWIM.”

This is on the back of the Henry Clay building, which if you’ve been inside anytime recently, you know doesn’t have a swimming pool.

But according to Tom Owen, an archivist at the University of Louisville, the remaining sign points to an interesting bit of Louisville architectural history that spans decades.

“Set yourself down in the 1920s,” Owen says. “It was a time of networking -- primarily men networking with other men in business and professional and community life.”

For that reason, this was also a time of clubs.

“In this case, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks -- the BPOE,” Owen says. “They were so robust locally, they built an eight-story Elks athletic club.”

It was a multi-purpose building with rooms for billiards, playing cards, facilities for banquets and rooms for overnight stays -- and, of course, the swimming pool. Archived photos show the pool surrounded by white tile, lounge furniture and a watercolor elk painting.

But the glory days of the Elk’s Club didn’t last very long; The Great Depression was imminent.

“In 1928, the Elks Club looked up and the income did not match the requirements for financing the building,” Owen says. “They had to give it up -- essentially gave it up in a pre-bankruptcy for-sale.”

The building was repurposed shortly thereafter as the Henry Clay Hotel, which operated from 1928 to 1963. During that time the pool wasn’t just for club members, it was open to the public, too.

“There were even advertisements that said, ‘On Your Lunch Break Come to the Henry Clay and Go Swimming,’” Owen says.

In 1963, the building took on a new life as a YWCA. Some people, Owen says, may remember taking swimming lessons in the building under that ownership. But then, that organization eventually moved on. And although the Henry Clay was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the building fell into disuse and sat empty for many years.

“The city acquired the building and looked for a user for, I’ll bet you, two decades,” Owen says. “Nobody would take the burden of refurbishing the old Henry Clay Hotel,” Owen says. “And finally (developer) Bill Weyland came along with the Henry Clay as it exists today.”

And while it may not have the original swimming pool -- which Owen says has long been filled -- the Henry Clay does have elements of its former lives, including limestone floors, ornate molding.

And of course, that hand-painted sign in the alleyway.

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