There’s been a lot of news lately about the corner of Fourth and Chestnut Streets as Bill Weyland and City Properties Group announced plans to renovate the old Caperton Block and build a parking garage with a boutique hotel and apartments. What makes these announcements so exciting is that the current state of this intersection is, to put it lightly, lacking. That wasn’t always the case, however, as the corner was once among the most grand in Louisville.
The loss of important buildings at this intersection has been tremendous and is one of the reasons why I advocate for historic preservation. It’s hard to imagine what the city was thinking when these buildings were deemed worthy of the wrecking ball. They are forever lost but should provide valuable lessons on why we should value our past. Imagine how much easier it would be today to revitalize Downtown is we had only a few of these buildings back.
Pictured in the engraving above (and in photos after the click) is the old U.S. Post Office and Customs House built in 1892 on the northeast corner. The absolutely monumental stone structure marked a trend of businesses expanding from Main and Market Streets into the largely residential area to the south. The Renaissance Revival structure contained one of Louisville’s first atriums that served as the site to many events.
In my own opinion, this was the finest building in Louisville ever to be demolished (and really one of the best ever built) and it’s a little depressing every time I see a photo of it. According to the book Louisville by John Findling, the structure was abandoned in 1933 when a new facility, still standing, was built at 6th and West Broadway. After sitting vacant for a decade, the structure was demolished in 1943. Some in the community decried the demolition instead proposing a cultural center or museum but the majority of Louisville considered the building an eyesore and home to pesky starlings and pigeons.
Demolition cost $100 and supplied “more than 9 million tons of iron and steel, 80,000 pounds of copper, 20,000 pounds of brass and bronze, and 20,000 pounds of lead” for World War II. If you can bear it, check out a couple photos of the demolition underway here and here. The site was briefly converted into Lincoln Park but was again cleared in 1950 and redeveloped into a JC Penney and Grants department stores and a parking garage which still stand today on the site and are currently for sale.
If that’s not bad enough, the grand 2,000 seat Masonic Theater also was on this intersection just off the corner next to the Henry Clay (photos after the click). The massive theater opened in 1902 as a stage theater and was the site of the first true talking motion picture in the 1920s. The theater was designed by the firm of Dodd & Dodd and was also known as the Shubert and later the Strand. Operations closed in 1952 and it was demolished for a parking lot in 1956. Check out a view of the auditorium and a view of its demolition.
One report of the opening night at the Masonic Theater read, “It was a scene to dazzle and to please. It was a theater to be proud of. It was enough to make not only the builder’s glad, but to send the people generally into enthusiasm. Few in the South can compare with this Masonic in design, decoration, comfort and all the other things that make for a complete theater building.” (via Actors, Audiences, and Historic Theaters of Kentucky)
Many other large buildings were demolished in the area and the Atherton Building which housed the large Mary Anderson Theater has been substantially altered but still stands. Luckily, we have largely learned the error of our ways but it’s unfortunate we had to lose so much along the way.