A Landscape of Artistry

Louisville’s Waterfront Botanical Gardens To Transform Trash Into Treasure

Story by Graham Pilotte

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

It takes imagination, courage and creativity to create a place of beauty in a spot that has been abused and abandoned, but that is the mission of Louisville’s new Waterfront Botanical Gardens. Twenty-three acres, nestled downtown by the river, are being transformed from a former landfill into a space that combines nature and art. For the land by the waterfront, it’s a beautiful type of second chance.

“We’re re-greening a landfill, which has its own challenges,” explains Kasey Maier, executive director of the project. “But I’m amazed at the growth and change we’ve seen throughout the years.”

The new botanical gardens have a long history. “Originally, our site was a residential neighborhood,” Maier explains, pointing out the famous facade at Frankfort Avenue and River Road. However, the floods in the 1930s and 1940s damaged the neighborhood beyond repair. “The city decided to turn it into a landfill,” Maier says. “But this house and the facade was still standing. The mayor at the time saved it.” The facade has become a symbol of strength and revitalization for the city. “Ten or 12 years ago, they moved it to its current location to serve as the icon for the future gardens,” Maier says.

The development of the gardens finally took off around 2013, and all the plans are now in place. “You’ll be coming into a beautiful botanical space. We’ll have three buildings: an education center, a visitors’ center and a conservatory,” Maier asserts. Small classroom buildings, various gardens and a greenhouse will also be featured on the property, as will two-and-a-half miles of trails and meadows for visitors to enjoy.

“Our main mission is environmental education,” Maier says. “You can go to a park, but this is more structured, planned and deliberate, with educators right there. We want to use our native plants, but also bring in non-native plants – not everyone gets to travel, and we want them to be accessible.” Maier knows the importance of raising awareness, too: “Plants are part of Mother Earth, and if we don’t take care of that organ, we won’t be here,” she says. 

Additionally, the gardens will be a beautiful venue. “When you start layering in music and visual arts and performing arts, it becomes an experience you can’t replicate,” Maier says. As part of this collaborative mission, Maier and her team are hosting a June fundraiser called Prelude, where they’ll be joined by various artists from around Louisville.

One featured performance joins professional Louisville Ballet dancers with internationally-acclaimed cellist Ben Sollee. Louisville Ballet dancer Leigh Anne Albrechta will be one of the performers that evening. “We’re the opening entertainment for the night,” Albrechta explains. “The performance will be about 10 minutes, and Ben has created brand-new music for our choreographer.”

This year will mark Albrechta’s fourth summer collaboration to raise awareness for the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. “We’ve done it in grass, barefoot. Sometimes we’ve done it raised on a real stage. And this year we’ll actually be on the facade, dancing,” she says. “Choreographically, it will be really nice to use the levels and have both the facade and nature as a backdrop.” She’s happy to have been involved for so long. “We really believe in what Kasey is doing, and we really wanted to support her and bring awareness from the ballet world,” Albrechta says.

Cellist Ben Sollee is also passionate about the collaboration. “I’ve been a longtime collaborator with the ballet – writing pieces here and there – and I have a lot of good friends who dance with the company,” he says. “Until we have the gardens built, the best thing we can do is present the arts and programming that we hope to see there.”

Like Albrechta, Sollee has been involved in the project for years. “I was lucky enough to get involved in the very first year of fundraising,” he says. “I’m excited about it. When I travel around the country or to major cities all over the world, they almost always have a botanical garden. Louisville has some wonderful gardens and lots of amazing private gardens, but not everyone can access them. This will be a botanical garden featuring the plants and flora of Kentucky in a pristine way but in a public way, too.”

The gardens will be uniquely suited to Louisville. “I believe that this city has a very special culture: loving, friendly, a little bit quirky,” Maier says. “I work a lot with younger people, and I love the thought of making our city better for future generations; more interesting, with better education, more health options and opportunities.” It inspires her to keep going despite the immense scale of the project. “The personal impact on Louisville is pretty amazing and overwhelming; almost more overwhelming than the size of the project,” she says with a laugh.

“‘You can’t do this alone,” she adds. “There’s our board, our donors and about 200 active volunteers. I’m just trying to help keep structure to it and keep some vision on it, push the conversation forward and fundraise in the meantime, as well.”

Albrechta, too, sees the new gardens as a sign of hope for both nature and the arts. “Being in a city, sometimes you can lose respect or awareness of greenery and of nature,” she says. “To bring people out of their busy lives, so that they’re able to just sit or walk around the gardens and just be in nature, that’s really important for a city. That’s really a special thing.”

Sollee concurs with the dancer. “I love the story of this place,” he explains. “I love the idea of building this amazing, intentional, curated garden on top of an old landfill.” The location that once gathered trash and debris has changed slowly, over a century, to become a place for Louisville’s most beautiful collaborations of nature and art.

“There’s a story in that,” Sollee says, “and it needs to be told.” VT

Waterfront Botanical Gardens

The Prelude: Urban Garden Party

6 to 9 p.m. June 10

Heigold Facade, Frankfort Avenue
and River Road