Old Louisville: America’s best preserved Victorian Community

Louisville Kentucky is home to the nation’s oldest and best preserved Victorian community. Seeing these hollowed streets first hand is akin to walking back in time, to a long forgotten era. A time when horse drawn carriages lined the streets and electricity wasn’t the norm.

I recently took this stroll back through time to historic old Louisville and thought I would share a couple of interesting facts that I learned along the way.

  • Old Louisville is America’s oldest preserved Victorian community.
  • The Southern Exposition was held in what is modern day Central Park from 1883 to 1887.
  • Thomas Edison’s light bulb was displayed publicly for the first time at the Exposition.
  • St. James Court is home to America’s largest annual outdoor art fair.
  • The Pink Palace and the Conrad-Caldwell House are two of the most recognizable homes in Old Louisville.
  • Louisville’s Central Park was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the same man that designed New York’s Central park.

History of Old Louisville

House across from the Pink Palace in St. James Court

Old Louisville isn’t old in a sense that it’s the oldest part of the city. Most of the 48 blocks actually began construction in the 1870’s. In the 1830’s, the land was home to country estates and farms. In 1839, in what is now Old Louisville (near 7th street) Oakland Race Track was constructed. Oakland served as the cities horse racing venue prior to construction of Churchill Downs. From 1850-1870 the western part of Old Louisville was constructed. Finally, the land south of Broadway was annexed by the city in 1868.

Southern Exposition

Leading up to 1883, the area was growing but at a slow rate. Seeing the potential in the region, Courier Journal editor Henry Watterson urged city officials to hold an annual Exposition in this developing part of town. This in part led to the city hosting the ‘Southern Exposition’ from 1883 to 1887. The area chosen for the annual event was the grounds that would later become Louisville’s Central Park.

The Exposition was a huge success and attracted nearly one million visitors in the first year alone. The Southern Exposition was also the first place that Thomas Edison’s light bulb was displayed publicly. Another notable attraction was a light display that included over 4,600 lamps, in a time when the majority of homes were without electricity.

Old Louisville flourished

After the success of the Southern Exposition the area quickly filled with wealthy residents. It was a time of decadence, a modern day renaissance if you will, and most of the upscale Victorian Style homes reflect that sentiment.

St. James Court’s orgins

The entrance to St. James Court

St. James court was constructed in the 1890’s with one thought in mind. Luxury! Construction was finished by 1905 and the extravagant homes quickly filled with residents the same year. The court is the home of two of Old Louisville’s most famous houses, the easily recognizable Pink Palace and the Conrad-Caldwell House.

Old Louisville Today

Over the past 20 years Old Louisville is experiencing somewhat of another renaissance. The city has worked with residents and contractors to restrore and preserve this unique piece of our nation’s history.

St. James Court Today

The Fountain at the center of St. James Court

By the mid 20th century, Old Lousiville was in a period of decline. The city was looking for a way to reinvigorate the area, similar to the way the Southern Exposition had over 60 years prior. In 1957 the city began holding the St. James Art Fair, mere yards from the place the original Expositions were held in the 1800’s. Once again the plan worked to perfection and the now world famous event has been held annually since.

St. James Court Lamplighter sculpture located in the court

Today, St. James court is home to the nation’s largest annual outdoor art festival. The art fair has been held every year since 1957 and attracts over 300,00 visitors annually. In 1975 the city declared Old Louisville a historic district, thanks in part to the success of the St. James Art Fair.

The weekend art fair includes over 700 artists and vendors from all over the world, selling items that range from landscape paintings to one of a kind sculptures.

Conrad-Caldwell House

The Conrad-Caldwell House

One of the more unique homes constructed on St. James court is located at the entrance, on the corner of Magnolia Avenue. The Conrad-Caldwell House (also known as ‘Conrad’s Castle’) was constructed by Theophile Conrad for his wife and himself in 1893, for about $35,000. Conrad, who had amassed a small fortune in the tanning business, spared no expense in the mansions construction. After Conrad passed away in 1905, the house was purchased by William Caldwell. The home later served as a Retirement home for over 40 years.

Aside from the houses eye catching castle like appearance it also has other bizare features, like carvings of animals and gargoyles engraved in random places around the structure. Today the historic mansion serves as a museum, tours are available if you schedule in advance.

The Pink Palace

The Pink Palace

Built in 1891, the Pink Palace is possibly the single most popular mansion in all of Old Louisville. The ‘Pink Palace’ has been painted pink since 1912. The house originally served as a gentleman’s club and casino for the courts residents to unwind and socialize.

The house also has somewhat of a haunted history. When researching for his book ‘Phantoms of Old Louisville’ Author David Domie interviewed current and past residents of the Pink Palace. Domie concluded that the mansion is haunted by a friendly spirit named Avery. Avery is described as a six foot tall southern gentleman, clean shaven with white hair who looks over the mansion and those who call it home.

Louisville’s Central Park

Louisville’s Central Park

The park was originally part of the Dupont family’s country estate and used as the site of the Southern Exposition. On June 15, 1872, The Dupont family opened their estate up for public use and the 17 acres became the cities first public park.

During the Exposition the majority of the park was covered with a roof to house the attractions and inventions. Later the structures were demolished and a trolley was installed, that would take visitors around a lake allowing them to see various exhibits along the way.

In 1904, after years of negotiations the city of Louisville purchased the park from the Dupont family for $297,500. The family had undergone tumultuous times since the heir to the fortune Alfred was murdered by a scorned lover and the sale marked a new beginning for the land.

In the years prior to the Dupont family selling the park they commissioned Fredrick Law Olmsted (the same man who designed New York’s central park) to design a park on the grounds. The project began in 1905 when the old Dupont Mansion was tore down to break ground on Central Park.

Central Park is famous for it’s annual Shakespeare in the park plays. Shakespeare plays have been performed in the park dating back as far as 1895.

Beautiful Southern Charm

If you haven’t had a chance to check out old Louisville, Shakespeare in the Park or the St. James Art Fair, you should, it’s well worth the time. There’s not another place in America where you can walk through an old Victorian neighborhood on a cool fall weekend, look at beautiful art and eat amazing food. Enjoying our content? Check out another article- Fort Duffield, Kentucky’s impenetrable Civil War Fort.