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A sturdy, orange-brick building has been keeping SoBro clean for almost a century. Puritan Uniform Rental’s simple yellow lettering above its doorway at 206–208 West Breckinridge Street near Second Street has long been a fixture of SoBro, playing off the building’s signature brick color.

But since the business closed several years ago and the passing of Puritan owner Ernest Carl Bowen, Jr., in 2014, that orange edifice began to collect dirt and grime. Last fall, the structure was acquired by Spalding University with plans for its demolition.

For Spalding, the building has become an eyesore that makes attracting students more difficult, but for a neighborhood already beset with surface parking lots, the building means a lot more.

“The dry cleaners actually did a lot of work for the Sisters of Charity,” Spalding President Tori Murden McClure told Broken Sidewalk on a tour of the property last week. “They did all the habits for the sisters who were working in the area, and they did all the linens for the residence hall.”

The structure has roots within the community.

Plans for the Puritan Building date back to October 1914 when the Benzole Garment Cleaning Company, headquartered at Third and Chestnut streets Downtown, announced they would build a new plant at the site, previously a residence.

The L-shaped parcel containing the Puritan Building. (Courtesy Google)
The L-shaped parcel containing the Puritan Building. (Courtesy Google)

That structure was completed in 1917 under direction of architect Oscar Reuter1. According to a report in the journal Domestic Engineering from that year, the 30-foot-by-200-foot plant was built of fire-proof brick and concrete at a cost of $5,500, or about $103,300 today. And walking around the interior today, it’s clear that this building was built to last.

Inside the Puritan Uniform Rental building. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)
Inside the Puritan Uniform Rental building. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

The site has operated as a cleaner almost consistently throughout its life. After the floodwaters of 1937 inundated the area, the Benzole company went bankrupt, and by 1939, Puritan Cleaners was listed at the site, formally incorporated in 1941 at 206 West Breckinridge Street.

A rapidly changing neighborhood.

The site of the Puritan Building in the larger context of SoBro. (Courtesy Google)
The site of the Puritan Building in the larger context of SoBro. (Courtesy Google)

Shortly after the turn of the century when the Puritan Uniform Rental building was built, SoBro was undergoing distinct transition. The neighborhood was first developed following the Civil War as a residential enclave of Louisville’s top families, but according to the 2007 SoBro neighborhood plan, it was quickly changing with a greater mix of residents and commercial uses spilling over from Downtown.

The Puritan Uniform Rental Building. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)
The Puritan Uniform Rental Building. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

This push south also brought with it the neighborhood’s eventual decline. New businesses, including many of the city’s first car dealerships, converted or demolished housing for commercial use, the neighborhood plan continued. During this transition, the wealthy continued south to Old Louisville and old mansions were quickly converted into apartments and rooming houses. “Seemingly overnight, the neighborhood south of Broadway would go from being a handsome Victorian-era neighborhood to an amorphous commercial and tenement district,” the neighborhood plan reads.

Over the course of the next half century, SoBro would take on a reputation more for its barren parking lots than its historic architecture. Earlier this year, the neighborhood was named the country’s worst “Parking Crater” in a national competition held by New York–based Streetsblog.

Mother Catherine Spalding Square. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)
Mother Catherine Spalding Square. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

“There’s the joke that we’re the giant parking lot between Downtown and Old Louisville,” McClure said. And Spalding has been trying to counter the plague of asphalt with fields and trees, most notably with the creation of Mother Catherine Spalding Square near the heart of its campus. The university also plans to convert a former used car lot at Second and Kentucky streets into a grassy play field for its students.

“The lack of architectural cohesion and the absence of continuity in urban form create a vortex effect for the SoBro neighborhood,” its neighborhood plan continues. “As a result, it has become a ‘placeless’ no-man’s-land that interrupts the connection between Downtown and Old Louisville/Limerick.”

SoBro shows signs of life.

Spalding University's new dormitory at Second and Breckinridge streets. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)
Spalding University’s new dormitory at Second and Breckinridge streets. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

Today, most of SoBro’s grand mansions are gone, but the neighborhood still clings to its mixed-use heritage of proud housing and commercial space. Since 2007, several missing teeth around Second and Breckinridge streets have been infilled in with housing for the Louisville Family Scholar House, the Center for Women & Families, and with a dormitory for Spalding. Some older commercial buildings have been renovated for private and academic use. A Kroger grocery still keeps the neighborhood supplied with food. In many ways, the resurgence of SoBro is centered right around the Puritan Uniform Rental building.

But if Spalding’s plans advance, the Puritan building won’t play a role in that revitalization. President McClure said the university planned from the outset to demolish the structure because they consider the property an eyesore.

The problem for Spalding, McClure explained, came when admissions tours would walk prospective families past new parks and renovated classrooms on the main campus east to the new dormitory nearby the Puritan. She said the sight of a vacant property was turning prospects away.

“Our admissions folks literally talk about how they have to be creative to get past this building without the parents just deciding, ‘No, our child is not coming here’,” McClure said. “It’s not an advertisement for our neighborhood.”

But, then again, neither is another parking lot. And as we toured the former Puritan Uniform Rental structure, a larger, and more difficult, challenge lay just across the street: a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk.

Questions over contamination.

The L-shaped Puritan parcel contains a vacant lot where underground storage tanks were removed years ago. (Courtesy Google)
The L-shaped Puritan parcel contains a vacant lot where underground storage tanks were removed years ago. (Courtesy Google)

Before Spalding closed on the property last November, the university hired Louisville-based environmental firm Micro-Analytics to test the site for possible contamination from its former use as a dry cleaners and to prepare a Property Management Plan to submit to the state for the site’s use as a parking lot, calling for capping the site with asphalt.

Our review of Micro-Analytics’s findings in its “Limited Environmental Site Assessment” did show groundwater contamination in excess of the EPA’s Regional Screening Levels. Four chemicals typically associated with gasoline, not with dry cleaning, were detected in groundwater deep under the structure. A source familiar with such contamination said these groundwater issues are not uncommon to urban parts of Louisville where industry has been polluting the community for centuries.

“These aren’t really even chemicals a dry cleaner would have used,” the source said. “This particular site might not be where these chemicals originated from.” The environmental report turned up no soil contamination. “For this property, the depth of ground water is so great, there’s really a small chance of any problems,” the source added. “It’s generally just a precaution.”

Still, the Puritan Uniform Rental building sits awaiting its day with Spalding’s wrecking ball, its yellow letters replaced with yellow Intent to Demolish signs.

A neighborhood opposed to demolition.

A notice of Intent to Demolish posted to the Puritan Building. (Courtesy Tipster)
A notice of Intent to Demolish posted to the Puritan Building. (Courtesy Tipster)

But not everyone in SoBro finds the Puritan Building to be an eyesore. “The act of demolishing a handsome anchor building such as the Puritan is anything but sustainable or compassionate,” Stephen Peterson, a Limerick resident adjacent to the Spalding campus, told Broken Sidewalk. “Without these older commercial buildings we can’t welcome new investment into the area—at least not as easily.”

Peterson pointed to the successful renovations of the stylistically similar Milk Building into offices for Genscape and the conversion of a former LG&E structure, itself on a contaminated site, into offices for Metro Louisville and the Kentucky Agricultural Extension as examples of the type of development SoBro needs. “The neighborhood deserves better than another swath of asphalt,” he said.

Thomas Woodcock, an attorney and president of the board of Preservation Louisville, agreed with Peterson. “We don’t want to see the building demolished,” he told Broken Sidewalk. “We really hope there’s some way for Spalding to use the building in some capacity without removing it.”

The SoBro Planned Development District plan from 2011 backs Woodcock’s call for preservation, noting that “existing structures that are identified locally or nationally as having significant historic character should be retained” rather than demolished. The plan adds that sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places—and the Puritan building is eligible—should not be torn “for the creation of surface parking lots or open space.”

“The principles for development in the Neighborhood Core Subarea are to encourage an eclectic mix of modern development within the historic fabric,” the plan reads. “This could result in lively street activity, provide multi-family housing opportunities, allow for businesses that will support both the neighborhood and Spalding’s students.”

Woodcock and Peterson have watched too many buildings in SoBro succumb to parking lots over the years, adding nothing to the neighborhood’s vitality and contributing to Louisville’s Urban Heat Island problems.

“I grew up in Old Louisville,” Woodcock said. “People were talking 20 years ago about the SoBro area and how many buildings had been demolished. We want to see the building saved using adaptive reuse.” He added: “We’re willing to help.”

Can a compromise be reached?

Perhaps Spalding can reach a middle ground that would clean up the Puritan Building’s act, benefiting both the university, its students, and the neighborhood. After all, everyone agrees more parking lots are not the answer.

Could the Puritan Building, a complex of three commercial storefronts, be revitalized instead to create a real neighborhood asset? Sometimes it takes the threat of demolition to spur a community into action—and we certainly hope that might be the case here.

So far, President McClure has been open to discussion. While she said Spalding is not interested in developing the structure itself, it could potentially partner with a local entrepreneur to give the building new life. “We hoped for a long time someone would come along and buy it,” she said.

It’s now or never for the Puritan Building. “I’d sell the building for what we paid for it,” McClure said. “If someone assured me it wasn’t going to look like this, and wasn’t going to stay like this.” Spalding paid $255,000 for the complex last November, according to a deed on file with the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office.

But for McClure, the clock is ticking. “They have a couple weeks, sure,” she said. “I all but promised the students the building would be gone when they came back.” We’re hopeful this spirit of community improvement can help make an asset of the Puritan Uniform Rental building for Spalding and for SoBro.

Let’s make this work.

If you’re interested in working with Spalding to renovate or purchase the Puritan Building to improve the SoBro neighborhood, please get in touch with Broken Sidewalk right away and we can help make the appropriate connection that could save the Puritan Building. Just email us at tips@brokensidewalk.com. We’re always listening.

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Branden Klayko

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

Notes

  1. Thanks to professor and local historian Christopher White for help tracking down the Puritan Uniform Company building’s history and architect.

10 COMMENTS

  1. It seems like the compromise is obvious. Save the attractive, historic front of the building on Breckinridge, and tear down the unattractive industrial portion in the rear. There are plenty of potential good uses for the front of the building, but the back portion has been an eyesore for years and it would be difficult to redevelop.

  2. Eyesores are just buildings nobody took care of . Spalding did no better to the Sisters of Charity buildings than they have done with any of the unique interesting and one of a kind structures they’ve destroyed for that shopping mall experience education ought to be.
    We walk down Market and see the same reclamation and adaptive reuse Spalding can never seem to wrap it’s insular small
    Mindedness around. And in Portland, and in Germantown. Imagine Louisville. This
    Could be a great coffee shop gaming center study/work engaging space with outdoor seating ……… What was once an amazing little stretch is now simply another heat island disconnect. There is no urgency to this demolition and Mme Murden might do well to lengthen the stay of execution and address the very real duties of urbanity . Roller rink, kayak storage, hostel , art studios, planning station for world voyages…….pop up lecture hall, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.
    Porter Todd and Cornwall Brown Houses, this rant is for you.

  3. “coffee shop gaming center study/work engaging space with outdoor seating…
    …Roller rink, kayak storage, hostel , art studios, planning station for world voyages…….pop up lecture hall, and I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”

    After you’ve had your coffee, try to write a business plan for any of those uses that makes enough money to cover maintenance costs and property taxes, let alone pay down the upfront capital to refurbish the building. Kayak storage?

    As for outdoor seating, the large homeless population in the area would make that unpleasant for typical modern customers, assuming a normal frequency of begging, scamming, and mental illness. The homeless camp under the I-65 overpass on Breckinridge is getting pretty ripe this summer, and that is two blocks from your potential outdoor coffee shop.

  4. Based on the PVA square footage of 2,400 s.f. of two-story space at the front (30′ wide x 40′ deep), and 4,800 s.f. of one-story space at the rear (30′ wide x 160′ deep), here’s one “back of the envelope” scenario: 1,200 s.f. of first floor office/retail at $12/SF/YR, NNN; (2) one-bedroom apartments upstairs at 550 s.f. each, renting for $500/month (based on nearby Olympic Apartments rent); for the rear 4,800 s.f. – (17) 5′ x 10′ self-storage units at $40/month and (17) 5′ x 15′ self-storage units at $60/month with a 5′ wide corridor, for an overall average of $6/SF. Assuming $2/SF of expenses, for $4/SF of NOI, and a big assumption of $30/SF for renovations of the first and second floor space, and $15/SF for the storage space (heat, no A/C, metal dividing walls), add $144,000 to the $255,000 purchase price. That comes to $55/SF with $4/SF NOI for a 7% cap rate. Also, the adjacent lot (37′ wide x 200′ deep) would allow for roughly 20 parking spaces (9′ x 18′ per stall), would give you 18 spaces for the retail tenant (6.6 spaces per 1,000 s.f. of GLA) and one space for each apartment.

  5. I agree with Jeff. I live in SoBro/Limerick and would much rather them save the facade than demolish the structure completely. Of course, I don’t understand why this prime area has been neglected while NuLu, Germantown, Smoketown/Shelby Park — and even Portland — have piqued interest from developers. It’s centrally located between the central business district and the University of Louisville campus. And both of those areas are also continuing to expand with new housing and businesses.

  6. @C. If you haven’t already, send your proforma to Branden! Let’s make something happen with this!

  7. This building & lot has been an eyesore for years. It visually blocks the surrounding area. I don’t have a problem with tearing it down, but I don’t think a parking lot is going to make any kind of improvement, especially because surface lots are a major contributor to our heat island problem. I’d like to see Spalding come up with a green plan for the area, extending the work they’ve already done around their student center. My daughter goes to Spalding & I own a house that we renovated & rent out in Limerick.

  8. How disappointing that instead of helping students expand their vision, Spalding chooses instead to reinforce the myopic perception that the buildings are an eyesore. And made a promise that the building would be demolished before fall semester starts, in part because potential students ($) were turned off by the sight of an old storefront and series of industrial buildings. With all of the construction & development plans that Spalding has, why can’t President Murden foster innovation by encouraging repurposing of the site. In addition to “coffee shop gaming center study/work engaging space with outdoor seating… Roller rink, kayak storage, hostel , art studios, planning station for world voyages…pop up lecture hall” (sic), I’d also suggest new, loft-like student housing, a Gray’s Bookstore or facsimile thereof, conversion of some of the asphalt cover into park or garden space, some recreational lawn, some market space (swap meets, Farmer’s Markets, “Flea on Breckenridge”, St James Court Art Fair market of whatever sort and some motor vehicle parking space. It doesn’t seem that difficult to me and I’d think Spalding should have some of the talent on campus there.

  9. McClure said ““I all but promised the students the building would be gone when they came back.” Is that what this is all about? It reminds me of the U of L President saying we are removing the Confederate Statue because of student complaints ( as if it is his statue). U of L just wants a wider turning lane for south bound third street traffic to left turn into their NEW Museum. Students are here for 2 or 4 years and gone from the neighborhood, they don’t live there. Should the students and their professed advocates be allowed to rearrange the neighborhood for their comfort, social opinions, or artistic taste? The new Spaulding dormitory and the aluminum looking wishbone in front of U of L are (in my opinion) just as ugly as the 1950’s modern design on front of the Puritan Cleaner building. Obviously the Universities are incrementally gobbling up land for their expansion and business purpose. I guess I won’t miss the Puritan building, the gas station and warehouse portions have been a eyesore for some time, I just hope Spaulding could make-over the offending first floor storefront and do something with the remaining area to benefit us all. Maybe the lot could be a place for the many student’s parents to pick up and drop them off, and a staging area for the school buses instead of blocking Breckenridge during the heavy traffic hours several time each day. Because the “Bike Lanes” are taking up half of the street (I suppose for the comfort of the non-existent bikers) this main traffic artery is almost shut down. I guess the (unintended ?) goal of controlling the neighborhood has been achieved if many local residents, like myself, just avoid the area on my daily trips through the neighborhood. Thanks for reading my comments

  10. Andy – your reply has several odd misconceptions. You indicate that U of L wants a turning lane for “their NEW Museum.” The Speed Museum is independent; it is not affiliated with U of L. You also write about traffic from school buses and parents dropping off students in the morning at Spalding (not Spaulding). You may be confusing Spalding University with an elementary school in the area.

    You mention that you think Spalding should to do something that will “benefit us all.” When they buy, develop, and use property, they do it for the benefit of their students. That is the way private property works. They purchased this property for the use of their students, not the general public. Even though they probably want to be a good neighbor, their first responsibility is to their students and to the long-term stability of the college. Remember, Andy, this is a private college campus, not public property. With that said, I sincerely hope that the front portion of the Puritan Building can reused in some way.

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