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Curious Louisville: Was Colonial Gardens The City's First Zoo?

Laura Ellis

Many Louisvillians, especially those from the South End, have fond memories of Colonial Gardens, the big white building across from Iroquois Park.

Tony Wilson of Louisville says his parents’ first date was at Colonial Gardens, when it was a nightclub. Tony had also heard that it was the site of our city's first bowling alley and zoo.

So, he asked Curious Louisville: our program where you ask the questions, and WFPL helps you find the answers. Our Broadcast Editor Rick Howlett went on a mission to separate fact from fiction.

He met up with Stefanie Buzan and Rosemary McCandless out at Colonial Gardens. It's at the corner of New Cut Road and Kenwood Drive, at the foot of Kenwood Hill. Buzan and McCandless are the authors of "A View from the Top: The Neighborhoods of Iroquois Park and Kenwood Hill."

Colonial Gardens sits empty now, but in the early 20th century it was a bucolic site called Senning's Park, offering indoor and outdoor dining just across the road from Iroquois Park. An old advertisement calls Senning's, "a fragrant, beautiful eating-place."

It was established by Fred and Minnie Senning, enterprising German immigrants who had previously operated restaurants and a hotel downtown. Turns out the Sennings did open Louisville's first bowling alley — but it was downtown, not at Colonial Gardens.

In the southern end of the county, nestled next to the popular Iroquois Park, the Sennings saw a new business opportunity.

"It was a draw from all over the city," Stefanie Buzan said of Iroquois Park at the time. "Families would come out and spend the day."

And at the end of that day, they'd want to eat.

"They would frolic in the park and then they would come across the street for dinner," Buzan said. And what they found on the menu was no simple picnic fare.

"It was a very fine dinner," Buzan said. "It was steak dinner. They had nice drinks, cocktails."

In fact the old advertisement we mentioned earlier describes this genteel experience:
A well-cooked chicken, frog leg, baked duck or porterhouse steak prepared by expert chefs and daintily served. A refined atmosphere that will greatly help you enjoy your meal. In the city, yet out of the noise of it. Such is the pleasure which awaits the diner at Senning's Park.

Second-Generation Sennings

Eventually, Fred and Minnie's son, William, took over operation of the Colonial Gardens site. That's when Louisville got its first zoo. Buzan said William gathered one of the finest private collections in the country.

The zoo held lions, tigers, monkeys, lions, bears, and alligators (which were kept in the basement during the winter). Kids could even get an ostrich ride. In the summer, it wasn't unusual for neighbors on their sleeping porches to hear lions roar.

Senning's Zoo became so popular that city officials added a car to Louisville's trolley line to accommodate all the visitors. But like most businesses across the country, it suffered during the Great Depression, as people had less money to spend on recreation.

B.A. Watson bought the property, closed the zoo, and renamed the building Colonial Gardens Restaurant and Grill. Over the years, the site continued to change hands. For a while, it was a club for teenagers.

Later it became a nightclub with live entertainment, which is when a legendary Colonial Gardens story got its origin.

Elvis Was Here?

Rosemary McCandless says there are no known photographs or other hard evidence, but there's an oral history that in the 1950s, the club hosted a performance by none other than Elvis Presley.

McCandless said it's possible, since Presley's grandparents lived on nearby Beaver Street.

"The house is still there," she said. "Real close, I mean you could walk there from here. And the story goes that he was visiting with them one evening, and he came down here and did an impromptu song or two."

A Future With A Past

After this long and colorful history, Colonial Gardens closed in 2003. It's been vacant ever since. But now, after 15 years of slow decay, the historical building is getting a new life.

As part of an agreement with the city, which had purchased the property, Louisville developer Underhill and Associates is about to start work on a $5 million renovation and construction project. It's set to include four restaurants, which will share a beer garden.

Project leader Jeff Underhill says he was reluctant to get involved in the renovation — until he went to some neighborhood meetings and saw how passionate neighbors are about the property.

"It's something that people have had a long history in the neighborhood," he said. "Whether it was their time, their parents' or their grandparents', it's very meaningful for the people in this area."

Underhill said he wants Colonial Gardens not just to be a place that draws visitors from other parts of the city, but also a spot where south Louisvillians can share memories of first dates, engagements, and other milestones of life.

It's been a long time coming, and Rosemary McCandless says she's excited about what's next for the historic white building.

"I really like the fact that the Underhills are doing a lot of throwback to the history of the property," she said, "looking at doing the outdoor entertaining just like they did when the Sennings owned it."

The new Colonial Gardens is scheduled to be completed in the spring of next year.

Thanks to Tony Wilson for the question. You can listen to Rick Howlett's story in the player above, download it here, and subscribe to Curious Louisville wherever you get your podcasts.

Don't forget to ask Curious Louisville a question of your own in the form below, or at curiouslouisville.org.

Rick Howlett was midday host and the host of LPM's weekly talk show, "In Conversation." He was with LPM from 2001-2023 and held many different titles, including Morning Edition host, Assignment Editor and Interim News Director. He died in August 2023. Read a remembrance of Rick here.

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