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‘Forgotten Foundations’ highlights 19th-century Louisville architecture lost to revitalization efforts

Architectural records for the old Greyhound bus station make a change in downtown Louisville as people beacme more reliant on car and less on mass transit.
Filson Historical Society
Architectural records for the old Greyhound bus station make a change in downtown Louisville as people beacme more reliant on car and less on mass transit.

A new exhibition at Filson Historical Society entitled "Forgotten Foundations: Louisville’s Lost Architecture" uses models and architectural records to show the transformation of downtown since the Civil War.

Danielle Spalenka and Jana Meyer are the exhibit's curators. 

Spalenka, who serves as the digital initiatives and preservation archivist at the museum, said records reveal a larger story about the River City. “We noticed a pattern, that as we looked at the architectural records, we saw how the beautiful, exquisite architectural details really mirror a rise in decline with Louisville,” she said.

The exhibition begins with the 19th-century rise of Louisville. 

“We really talk about the manufacturing, the businesses that were essential in really building it as a hub,” Spalenka said. 

During this time, Louisville acted as entertainment, transportation and an industrial hot spot for the country. 

Spalenka said while the design of the buildings came from several backgrounds, they had one thing in common.

“What was lost were really mindful buildings that really took into presence not just how it looked from a distance, but how it looked from the pedestrian point of view,” Spalenka said.

One such building highlighted in the exhibition is the Todd office building.

The first two levels of the structure were designed to entice pedestrians to enter the building as they walked past. 

At higher levels, the design changed for those who would be viewing the building from a distance. 

Another highlight of the exhibition is a focus on Walnut Street, where Black Louisvillians created their own downtown space as they weren’t allowed to own businesses in downtown proper. 

“It was often compared to Beale Street or Harlem,” Spalenka said. 

Goldie Beckett, a former owner of the A. B. Ridley funeral home, is featured, talking about Walnut Street before urban renewal efforts destroyed the area. 

The next section of the exhibition looks at the destruction of the architecture in the name of urban renewal. 

A model of the Greyhound bus station and its architectural records is included. A shift from public transit to cars changed downtown Louisville, as did white flight to the suburbs. 

As city officials tried to attract people downtown, they began to destroy buildings, like the Todd Building, that displayed mindful architecture.  

“It was like getting rid of blights downtown,” Spalenka said. “What did that do? It misplaced people, it displaced businesses that had been down there for a long time and put up parking lots.”

A lot of those changes created problems that persist today, like the lack of trees and pedestrian-friendly spaces. 

“How are people supposed to engage and feel that they want to be a part of downtown and stay there when you don’t have this inviting space?” Spalenka asked.

Spalenka said she and Meyer chose to end the exhibition on a note of hope by highlighting efforts to restore some of the architecture and feel of 19th century downtown.

The exhibition will be on display at the Filson Historical Society through September. An online version of the exhibition is also available.

Spalenka said the Filson Historical Society plans to offer trolley tours in May that will take guests through some of the areas where the buildings displayed in the exhibition used to reside.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.