Beneath the gaudy white and gold plastic facade of the River City Bank on Muhammad Ali Boulevard at Sixth Street, glimpses of the Mammoth Life Building which housed the Lyric Theater can still be seen. The area around the bank, now dominated by large surface level parking lots, was once the epicenter of an African-American entertainment and commercial district, featuring music halls, theaters, and grand urban architecture.
The area met its demise with the onset of urban renewal when the entire area was declared a slum and bulldozed. A few architectural examples can still be seen standing along this stretch of Muhammad Ali, then known as Walnut Street, including a couple churches, a public library, and a former masonic temple (now the Chestnut Street YMCA).
The Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company was Kentucky’s largest African American–owned business with offices in major cities around the country and the Lyric Theater was one of four theaters in Louisville admitting African-Americans before desegregation.
Located behind the Mammoth Life Building, the theater area had a capacity between 700 and 800 people but has since been demolished for parking.
The Mammoth Life building represents the third home of the company which was growing quickly in the 1920s. The six-story brick and stone structure was designed by Joseph & Joseph Architects and was completed around 1925. The company lasted until 1992 when it merged with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
Today, peering between the gold louvers on the River City Bank facade reveals the original brickwork and stone-trimmed windows beneath. The theater lobby, auditorium, and sidewalk level terracotta work has all been destroyed. The lobby went through several renovations in the 1960s onward, destroying any original grandeur that once existed and the auditorium behind the building (along with smaller urban buildings of either side) were razed for parking lots.
Given the cultural importance of this area for Louisville and the intact nature of the Mammoth Life facade, it seems like a future renovation is in order to peel away the mistakes of history, especially given the proposed renovation of the old armory / Louisville Gardens on the next block as part of the Cordish Company’s City Center project.
For now, this once vibrant urban pocket of downtown will remain a windswept field of parking lots, but with selected infill and the expansion of the Glassworks district, it could one day again become a dense downtown neighborhood. Be sure to check out what the area looked like in 1906, before the Mammoth Life Building was built.