Heading south on Third Street and crossing over Broadway, it doesn’t take long for downtown’s bustling business district to fade into the distance. Stately and striking homes begin to emerge on either side of the street, an area once known as Millionaires Row. There is no question that history is Old Louisville’s preeminent asset and most endearing quality.
The mini estates are laden with lore, the trees towering over the wide sidewalks sharing a million and one secrets with these homes, tales that David Dominé has been uncovering ever since he moved to Old Louisville in 1999. David experienced this history firsthand when he moved into his own rambling Victorian house, the previous owners telling him tales of a ghost that roamed the halls. He was skeptical until, sure enough, an otherworldly presence made itself known. His interest in his new, apparently haunted neighborhood was piqued, and his infatuation with Old Louisville was born. With over six books on Old Louisville published, David is undoubtedly a local expert on what he refers to as “America’s most exuberant neighborhood.” He is the driving force behind Louisville Historic Tours and conducts thrice-daily walking tours of his favorite area of the city, taking locals and visitors down the ambling streets and through the storybook alleyways of this Victorian paradise.
I found myself strolling these streets with David on a recent overcast afternoon, determining that the best way for me to understand the depth and breadth of this corner of Louisville would be on foot. While I have visited Old Louisville countless times, I always have a destination in mind. Be it a splurge-worthy special occasion dinner at 610 Magnolia, a late-night cocktail at Mag Bar or an evening under the stars taking in The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in Central Park, my visits to this nook of the city have always been worthwhile, but limited in their scope. My curiosity was finally getting the better of me, and I was excited for David to bring life to these storied streets.
With over 90 percent of the homes in Old Louisville built between 1885 and 1905, this neighborhood has worn many mantles over the years. As one of the only Southern cities boasting a solid infrastructure after the Civil War, Louisville’s national reputation came into prominence in 1883, when the city played host to the Southern Exposition, a World’s Fair of sorts. One of the largest expositions to date, the Southern Exposition took place over five years, finding a home in what we now know as Old Louisville. Highlighted by Thomas Edison’s massive incandescent lightbulb display, the eyes of the world were firmly focused on Louisville, and reporters, developers and industrious types began to spread the word. The population of the city doubled over the five years of the Southern Exposition, and wealthy families began to put down roots, constructing sprawling homes fit for royalty. The onset of the Great Depression, coupled with the war and the rise of commuter neighborhoods, saw many of these mansions turned into businesses and rooming houses, the demand for 10,000+-square-foot homes no longer in place. Thanks to strict historic preservation laws, the majority of these homes have retained their character and are being restored to their former glory by industrious locals embracing the neighborhood, which seems to be experiencing a revitalization in its current day.
Literally every home has a story, and David knows them all. Each tale begins with a surname, the family who founded the home and inspired the stately manner within which it was constructed. It is easy to get lost in both the gild and glamour of these mansions, and it is impossible not to become immersed in the history of the home. One of the most familiar Old Louisville homes sits at the back of St. James Court, adjacent to Belgravia Court. Called The Pink Palace, this towering home once served as a casino and gentleman’s club before being sold to a new owner. In 1910, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union — one of the driving forces behind prohibition — purchased The Pink Palace (a red brick building at the time), unaware of its former life as a brothel. When the history of The Pink Palace was revealed to the WCTU, the women were so embarrassed they decided the only way to wipe the house’s slate clean was to paint it the bright shade of pink still decorating its walls today.
Our tour took us up and down the quiet, grassy walking courtyards tracing their way through the neighborhood. These courtyards — Belgravia and Floral Terrace being two of the most beloved — are kept in immaculate condition, every front yard laced with flowers and fountains, a canopy of trees helping one feel miles away from the traffic and street noise.
Indeed, the trees and gardens of Old Louisville have just as much of a story to tell, the most haunting perhaps coming to us courtesy of the Witches’ Tree, located at the corner of Sixth and Park. The Witches’ Tree is gnarled and twisted, large wooden warts and knobs pushing the bark every which way. It is a highly unique tree, large and sprawling, and I could hardly believe it had escaped my view during previous visits to Central Park. David shared with us that the Witches’ Tree is the result of a curse placed on the city by a coven of witches who met in that same spot in the late 1800s, practicing their spells around the perfectly smooth and tall maple tree that stood at the corner during that time. In 1889, it was declared that this tree would be used for the following year’s May Day celebrations. The witches knew this meant the city intended to chop down the tree and protested loudly, however they were ignored. As they departed to the woods they left a curse on the city, telling Louisvillians to “beware eleventh month!” Sure enough, 11 months later, one of the most devastating tornadoes on record befell Louisville. As the tornado roared down the road, a bolt of lightning sprang from it and landed square on the trunk of the old maple tree, giving birth to the tree that now stands in its place. Present-day visitors to the Witches’ Tree often leave small offerings, and we found the sprawling branches decorated with beads, crosses and homemade idols.
David continued to regale us with tales of days gone by as we walked through Central Park, down Belgravia Court and along Third Street. The amalgamation of architectural styles — Victorian homes highlighted with gothic, beaux arts and Italian renaissance features — is striking and merits admiration in and of itself. One of the most beautiful examples of a mix of architectural styles is The Conrad-Caldwell House, a Richardsonian Romanesque mansion sitting just off the park at the corner of St. James Court. The Conrad-Caldwell House is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday and is an excellent way to take a peek inside what life may have been like during Old Louisville’s youth.
This history and the sheer beauty of Old Louisville are reason enough for a visit, however the neighborhood has struggled to expand and to bring new businesses, including restaurants and retail shops, to its streets. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a plethora of local haunts that have been carving out a living among the towering Victorian homes for years. Take Amici’ Cafe, for example, a charming Italian eatery located on West Ormsby. I enjoyed a lunch of mussels, Caprese salad, and capellini with shrimp after my tour with David. Amici’s boasts a quaint courtyard and homey atmosphere, indicating that this is a true neighborhood restaurant.
I also fueled up for the day at Smokey’s Bean, a dog-friendly coffee shop on Oak Street. Until recently, The Seafood Lady was considered a best-kept secret in the city (read more about this dining spot here) and there are always the old standbys serving up classic fare like D. Nalley’s, Ollie’s Trolley and The Granville Inn. Buck’s Restaurant and Bar offers a more upscale dining experience and has been an Old Louisville staple since 1992, a restaurant I am embarrassed to say I have yet to try myself. I am also excited to taste the pies made at Pizza Donisi, to have a late night bite at the 24-hour Burger Boy Diner and to sample the African, Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine at Barakat Restaurant on Oak Street.
A top priority on any itinerary when I travel is to explore a city on foot, taking in its most prized and historic neighborhoods. What a pleasure to be able to travel only a few miles to experience such a wealth of history, beauty and charm. David ensured that I left Old Louisville with a greater appreciation for our city than before, and I would encourage anyone to join one of his walks this summer.
You’ll find David and his team of Old Louisville enthusiasts walking the wide and shady streets of “America’s most exuberant neighborhood” daily, with tours taking place at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. (all tours cost $20 per person). For those looking for a slightly spookier experience, a ghost tour is conducted every evening at 7:30 p.m. Just don’t forget to bring an offering for the Witches’ Tree! To learn more about the walking tour, click here.
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