Louisville’s Homes of the Centuries

Oxmoor House - interior.

Oxmoor House – interior.

Contributing Writer

 The Homes series is intended to be more than just a tour of interestingly designed living spaces. It’s also a look into how today’s Louisvillians live their lives – their tastes, customs, preferences.

Years from now, sociologists and cultural archaeologists will be able to use it as a map into Louisville in the early 21st century.

By the same token, a look at Louisville’s historic homes is a map into how we lived in the last 225 years. Starting as an outpost of the Revolutionary Army, by the 1880s Louisville was a vibrant port city and the gateway to the west, the 16th largest city in the U.S. Throughout the 19th century, residents of means were building elaborate, ornate homes using the finest available architects.

Steve Wiser, a Louisville architect, historian and author, chronicles that rich history in his new book, “Historic Houses of Louisville.” Coupling that with his previous book, “Distinctive Houses of Louisville,” Wiser provides a timeline of the way homes were built and furnished in our corner of the world.

He begins the book where it all began, a somewhat unpromising start: George Rogers Clark’s log cabin in Clarksville, Ind., just downstream from the Falls of the Ohio. This mean cabin hardly seems fitting for the man credited with discovering Louisville, but then the peripatetic soldier spent relatively little time there, preferring to be out exploring and hunting.

The real first home of consequence is Locust Grove, the estate (still standing as a museum on Blankenbaker Lane) of Clark’s sister Lucy and her husband, the surveyor William Croghan. (It also became Clark’s house at the end of his life, when he became incapacitated and could no longer live alone.)

From there, Wiser’s book skips to Zachary Taylor’s boyhood home on Apache Road off Blankenbaker (later cartoonist Hugh Haynie’s home) and to the spectacular Oxmoor House owned by the Bullitt family. What the photos in the book by Dan Madryga make clear is the way homes were built in 1790, when land and budget were not issues, and how ornately they were furnished.

Not everything in the book is a lavish estate. But everything is historically significant. There’s the somewhat modest flagstone farmhouse of John Funk at Hurstbourne Parkway and Taylorsville Road; the square, wood-frame home of Joel Scribner, one of the founders of New Albany, Ind.. and the Squire Earick House near the once-thriving Portland wharf, now the Portland Museum on North 34th Street.

And on through the 19th century we go. The architecture runs from Colonial to Federalist, urban brick to Victorian gingerbread to wooden farmhouse, from downtown to Old Louisville to Cherokee Garden to Hurstbourne and Anchorage, as the population moved out and away from the river to avoid the floods and the cholera.

Wiser even includes the familiar building façade we’ve all seen if we took the Frankfort Avenue extension past Story Avenue to River Road – and wondered, “what’s that?” It’s actually the façade of the Heigold House, built in 1857 by a German immigrant named Christian Heigold in the Point neighborhood on Marion Street. A stone mason (he constructed the steps leading up to the Jefferson County Courthouse), Heigold also had the patriotic fervor of many new Americans, which he incorporated into his building: an image of George Washington, a bust of then-President James Buchanan, and carvings of the goddess of Liberty, the stars and stripes, an eagle and shield and the words “constitution” and “E. Pluribus Unum.”

So admired was the façade, writes Wiser, that it was saved when the Point neighborhood was torn down following the 1937 flood and moved to its present location.

The culmination of all this is the beaux arts Ferguson mansion on South Third Street, built in 1905 by Edwin Hite Ferguson. The architect was William Dodd, who also built The Seelbach Hotel. Spectacular inside and out, this “suburban” treasure (for that was, in fact, the origin of the Old Louisville neighborhood) became the Pearson Funeral Home in 1926, but fortunately the Pearsons preserved all the ornate details.

Since 1986, it has been, much more fittingly, the home of the Filson Historical Society.

It’s interesting to see how the influences, of both architecture and design, swung back and forth – from the original Virginia colony to Belle Epoque Paris to Gilded Age New York – as our tastes and passions, references and benchmarks, shifted and as America emerged from the shadow of Europe to the full-out patriotism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So to that extent, “Historic Houses of Louisville” and Wiser’s companion book, “Distinctive Houses of Louisville,” is more than a collection of pictures. It’s a window into the past. And the view is spectacular.

Steve Wiser is conducting a series of lectures and book-signings. Next on the list are Monday, Nov 4, from 6-7 p.m. at the Oxmoor House, 720 Oxmoor Ave. (reservations required, call 635-5083); and Saturday, Dec. 14, at Carmichaels Bookstore on 2720 Frankfort Ave. from 2-4 p.m.

The book – 100 pages, hardcover, all color – costs $25. For information, contact the author at 502-523-6799 or wiseraia@hotmail.com.