Spalding’s Honorable Mansion

webhomesSpalding University is one of Louisville’s hidden gems, tucked into the urban fabric of the city.

And tucked into the Spalding campus is another hidden gem: the Spalding Mansion, the school’s original building when it moved to Louisville in 1920,  and became Louisville’s first four-year Catholic college for women, after 106 years in Nazareth, Ky.

The founding Sisters of Charity, whose mission was to serve those in need, wanted to be where the need was greatest, and that was determined to be in the city. The mansion building, at Fourth and Breckenridge Streets, was at the time one of a row of elegant Italianate residences in the neighborhood bordering Old Louisville. It had been designed and built in 1871 by noted Louisville architect Henry Whitestone for Joseph Tompkins, a local businessman.

Over the next 47 years, ownership passed through two other families – the Buchanans and the Rankins, both in the distillery business – before being put up for sale during World War I. The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth bought it in 1918. Then composing the school’s entire campus, it housed pretty much everything – classrooms, offices, conference rooms, even a few sleeping rooms. But the Sisters maintained the design integrity of the beautiful residence.

Spalding Mansion_CH01As Nazareth College grew (it didn’t become Spalding College until 1969, named in honor of founder Catherine Spalding, the first Sister Superior and a pioneer in education and social work), it built around the Mansion – literally. Today, the Mansion is preserved, as if in amber, within the school’s administration building, which surrounds it. It remains largley untouched by time.

Not untouched by the school, though. It is respectfully treasured and maintained, but it is not roped off like a museum. There are still function rooms, conference rooms and offices on its three levels. And there are comfortable seating areas throughout  where staff members can hold unofficial meetings or students can come in, turn on a lamp, tuck themselves into a comfortable old chair and read or study – or nap.

The school holds receptions and fund-raising events there. Like any other grand old home, there’s a full dining room behind etched Viennese glass door panels. There’s furniture and space to lay out a buffet or host a small sit-down dinner.

The admissions department loves to take new college applicants through the house. Not many schools have a mansion within their midst. “We do get traction from this historic space,” says Rick Barney, the school’s executive director of marketing and public relations. “It tells our story, in that we’re not a newcomer school that just popped up here in Louisville out of nowhere in the 1970s or ‘80s. Our roots in Louisville are deep.”

Barney says, “We have maybe 30-40 events in here, of various kinds, during the year.” Otherwise, the home retains its Victorian splendor. The heavy wood-trimmed, stained glassed, entrance in a hallway of the administration building – the house’s street entrance in its previous life – leads into a 19th century world of 20-foot ceilings, inlaid wood floors, period Oriental rugs, wood trim and moldings, multiple carved fireplaces, hand-painted tiles and medallions, elaborately painted ceilings and a graceful walnut staircase. At the very top of the staircase is a spectacular stained glass skylight.

On the second floor, behind wrought iron gates, is a small chapel that hosts a weekly Mass officiated by Fr. Isaac McDaniel, the university priest.

The quiet serenity of the mansion masks an energetic, vibrant college on-the-go headed by its new president, the equally energetic and vibrant Tori Murden McClure. It has taken over other buildings in the SoBro neighborhood, and last year acquired land to build athletic facilities and other green fields to the west of its main campus. There’s a new focus on the intercollegiate athletic program.

Campus housing is being upgraded. Enrollment is up now to more than 2,500 full-time and part-time students. Originally an all-girls school, it has been coeducational since the 1960s.

“We have 13 buildings now,” Barney says. “I think many people think Spalding University is just that one building they see when they drive by on Third Street.”

Identity remains a critical issue for Barney, whose role is to help spread the Spalding story. “People still say to me all the time, ‘Oh you’re the culinary school.’ I say, ‘No, our white coats are in the hospitals, not the restaurants.’ Perceptions die hard.” VT

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune