Actors Theater building and strip mall comparison
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There’s a disturbing trend emerging in suburban Louisville. Resulting from what appears to be a genuine interest in creating a more pleasing suburban landscape, some new developments are pawning a fake history at once dishonest and insulting to new urban fabric and to the original reference. I will discuss two examples from the area in and around Norton Commons in the east end. It should become apparent that this model of falsifying history is not only the wrong approach for development anywhere but carries cultural baggage about the meaning of our city.

[ Please note that I am limiting the definition of architectural honesty for the purposes of this discussion to only a couple egregious examples. An endless and ongoing debate in the architectural community continues to struggle with the more nuanced ideas of design integrity and I don’t wish to cast this article upon the crucible of opposing architectural theory. Perhaps there will be another discussion in the future. ]

It appears that we are literally creating two cities of Louisville. A new strip mall called Chamberlain Pointe on Brownsboro Road on the site of a former nursery and garden center has taken for its architectural inspiration some of the iconic buildings of Downtown Louisville. While only the first phase is finished, the project calls for replicating Union Station, the Frazier Museum building, the Actors Theater building, and several others typical of West Main Street. In total, the two-story structure will be broken into over 20 facade segments.

I hope it’s obvious that creating clones of existing historic buildings is absurd, especially when our building practices cannot even replicate an historic structure accurately. While the original Bank of Louisville building built in 1838 was crafted of stone by one of Kentucky’s most celebrated architects, the modern day equivalent is crudely made from EIFS (synthetic stucco over a Styrofoam base more or less) and what appears to be a stone veneer. Take a look at the photo comparison above and it becomes clear that the end product is a joke of the original. How can we stand to build a caricature of our history and act as if nothing is wrong?

Besides dishonesty, these examples demonstrate a clear lack of creativity for shaping the built environment. Instead of contributing something original, they attempt to carbon copy an existing structure. A more productive, albeit more difficult and expensive, exercise could be to discern the rules governing the composition of the historic buildings in Louisville and apply those lessons in an original way. (Let’s ignore the implications of the urban form of strip mall development for now and focus on the facades.)

Fake historic fire station at Norton Commons
Fake historic fire station at Norton Commons. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

Similarly disturbing is a structure in the town center of the Norton Commons development. While some critics have dismissed the entire notion of building with an historical “town” aesthetic that is common in New Urbanism, I can only find fault with design that is poorly executed or blatantly dishonest. Most of Norton Commons’ town center is fine and doesn’t fall victim to the traps found in “Engine House 7,” but this building never housed a firetruck. Its first occupant was a pet store.

It’s no secret to anyone that Norton Commons is brand new and there’s no shame in that. Everything was new once including the structures that these buildings clone or emulate. Are we building ourselves a theme park to live in or do we just not care what anything means anymore?

There’s an interesting and admittedly quite challenging book called Simulacra and Simulation by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard that discusses some of what is at play here in our Postmodern world. A simulacrum is a representation of reality that becomes more real than the original. Baudrillard posits that Disneyland’s idealized Main Street has become more real to many than the real thing. The argument is more complex than I have space to write here, but interesting nonetheless.

Now that these structures are built, how will we interact with them culturally? How will we explain these fake structures to our children and what does it say about the society that built them? When the “Engine House 7” grows older and inherits a patina that gives it gravity, will it cause us to look differently upon authentic fire houses that have been repurposed? Will future generations venture downtown and say, “There’s that building from the suburbs!”

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Branden Klayko


  1. I always loved how the developers of Norton Commons used to have an ad that said that Norton Commons was just like the Highlands but better…. ( I always thought it meant – without all those icky wierd people). It makes total sense to take a cornfield and try to reproduce building stock that already exists – not. Why not build new, modern buildings in new, modern developments and leave the historic look to actual historic areas… I’ll continue to avoid going out there- I hate the traffic.

  2. Ok this is pretty offensive development. It is one thing to learn something from history, but to build cheap version of the original is sad.

  3. All those icky weird people?!?! Please stay out of the highlands, we would love for you to go to Norton Commons.

    You can’t duplicate history and character. I’ll stay in the “original” highlands

  4. I’m with you, John. If you look at other countries (France, for one), it’s amazing what they have done in their undeveloped spaces. You don’t see them trying to rebuild Notre Dame or the Tour d’Eiffel all over the place. Instead, they make room for new, bold, interesting architecture. Imagine if Frank Lloyd Wright had stuck with all the old designs!

    I think it would be interesting to use some features of old architecture in a unique way. Take Preston Point, for example. The curved roof reminds me vaguely of the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs. The suburbs are what they are: new communities. Too bad they can’t have architecture that visibly marks their place in history.

  5. I’m inclined to give them 2 points for effort, and to take away one point for cheesiness. It seems to me that for the amount of money they spent on design and construction, they could’ve come up with something original or at least more contextually sensible, but I guess we’re talking ‘burbs & ‘burb mentality.

  6. Two words: WalMart architecture.

    Cheap materials, cheap construction, wash it twice and it looks like crap. All things considered, you probably paid too much.

  7. The best part is that the strip mall near NC is still set in a sea of asphalt. Ornate buildings in an autocentric environment don’t make a whole lot of sense. Beyond the fact that these appear to be fabrications of the real thing, there is no question that this is not a pedestrian friendly environment where one would want to take the time to admire the architecture.

  8. The problem with suburban developments (these in particular) is that the orginal intent had a pedestrian scale to the design. These vast parking lots in front of what was meant to honor downtown architecture loses the pedestrian scale, and will end up looking like something on the Vegas strip = Lame

  9. The architects of the originals should be flattered. This is the sincerest form.

    For the true fans of the real art, this is your chance to get a real idea noticed. True fans have an opportunity to point out that the parking lot is ruining the look. True fans can point out how you can’t bike safely there.

    Don’t blow this by griping and playing the insult card.

  10. I’m really curious where this argument is directed. The folks anchored in the historic areas of Louisville wouldn’t leave even if – well – you built exactly what they wanted to see outside the 264 barrier.

    Is this particular opinion anchored purely in aesthetic, is financial well being of the area and the absorption rate of the residential area and community taken into consideration with simple “supply and demand” or are we talking about a few architectural copies downtown – being copied again coming under attack?

    I believe the developers intent was to build community within a predominantly solitary minded area which is quite a bold and risky thing to do. Regardless of the marketing and it’s Victorian slant it’s far from cheap assembled – and is quite true to it’s mission.

    Seriously – Actors as an original piece of architecture? I love the building and hold in high regard… but what would we refer to it as – original Greek architecture?

  11. It’s great to see so many responses. I don’t want to create divisions between different parts of town, so I’m going to stick with the architectural merits described in the post. It’s also important to have an accessible urban pattern for everyone, but that’s also beyond the scope here, so on with the architecture.

    Darrin, while it may be flattering that someone thought so much of a particular piece of architecture as to copy it, I don’t think the act if building a second version of an existing structure in the same city is an endeavor that should be going on. Pay homage to the original, study it, learn from it, and create a new original expression.

    The suburbs don’t have to be completely modern, either. There already exists an incredible mix of architectural styles in the suburban parts of Louisville, generally traditional single family houses and modern office buildings set some distance apart from each other. It’s an interesting indicator of the market as to public opinion and choice regarding style and use. Perhaps there will be more on that later.

    Jason, you’re right. I’m arguing about architecture here. The entire city of Louisville doesn’t have to be designed around the desires of the people happily living in the historic parts of the city, but there’s no excuse for facsimile versions of buildings already built.

    I already explained in the article that there’s nothing wrong with drawing lessons from history and applying them to modern buildings. Most of Norton Commons does that quite well. While it’s certainly not cheap to try to recreate an historic structure, let’s be honest and realize we can’t replicate the means that created the buildings of the past, and our attempts only make it glaringly obvious.

    The Actors / Bank of Louisville building may be Greek-revival, but it was declared a National Historic Landmark for a reason. Here’s the statement of purpose from the National Parks Service:

    “Constructed in 1837, this brick and limestone Greek Revival-style building is among the most sophisticated examples of small-scale commercial architecture in the country. Gideon Shryock (1802-1880) adapted classical idioms to a narrow downtown lot; his design is most notable in its front facade, which consists of a monumental distyle-in-antis doorway.”

    Obviously, that building has done just as I have prescribed: learn from the past and apply its lessons to a new structure. The new structure couldn’t be called Greek-revival-revival as it makes no attempts to learn from the original, only copy it in a manner entirely inaccurate to architectural history.

    I think the impetus for copying existing buildings was one dually of creating a better suburban environment and creating a distinguished retail center. Both noble endeavors. In the end, it has become clear that we can’t just replicate the existing, but must think on our own feet and create new.

  12. Well thought out and constructed response – and I whole heartedly agree that direct copies should have some distance put between them…

    Some of the editorial I felt wasn’t counterbalanced and opened up the comment floor to bring in none relevant emotional standings to the focus area that suburban living in general is under attack.

    but coming from a generalized visual arts standpoint – directed at architectural accuracy and a major complaint I have in general – why not mixed media? (in a sense) Every major art movement experiences it from culinary to auditory arts and there is no doubt that Louisville could see more of a contemporary angle, and here’s the important issue, desired by the community. Generally attention is aimed at the developers but they are in the business (important point there – business) of supplying aesthetic and functional areas of commerce or living. That said Louisville has shunned contemporary movements for quite some time. That’s great, but if you want contemporary in the near future a person might consider moving because it will be some time before Victorian era design loosens it’s collective grasp and modernism doesn’t – quite frankly – sell so well here. So is it the developer – or the average Louisvillian that needs to be approached?

    I think addressing Norton Commons mission as a whole is quite a different animal, and since the developer gives the independent contractors freedom to express their vision for the period within certain parameters it’s a stretch to lay any fault on the development but instead look at the individual contractor that actually put the bricks to the mortar and could certainly fall under some scrutiny under the post commentary… much like I can’t blame the city of Seattle for having “to many coffee shops” – that’s Starbuck’s issue but again – as long as they turn a profit they’ll keep building them And honestly, if you were a business would you decide to cap out or move forward?

    Anyway – my soapbox I suppose.

  13. The issue that sticks out the most for me is one of context. It reminds me of an art installation in West Texas, the Prada Marfa store — the idea of something being completely taken out of context. The original buildings that are being copied here were originally meant for the fabric of a walkable city. I must say, I don’t think the original architects would be flattered by this at all. I think the main attempt here was to elicit statements like, “oh look, how cute” rather than an homage. No matter how “cute” you make it, it’s still just a strip mall. Overall, it’s a good example of disconnectedness on many different levels.
    By the way, Simulacra sounds like a good name for a horror movie, this place would be a good setting.

  14. Art is made by its frame. Duchamp made a urinal art by putting the frame of art exhibition around it. Baudrillard writes, “It is no longer a question of either maps or territory. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them that was the abstraction’s charm. For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real.” To mix metaphors, it is the frame that makes the poetry of the map. The validity – and beauty and appropriateness – of the frame is important. In other words, and for the discussion of these buildings, does the frame that these forms make around these buildings make them appealing, engaging, beautiful, meaningful?

    To me, the frame, the context is simply off and inappropriate. The inspiration, the ‘territory,’ is too geographically and culturally close. It clashes, the way two near shades of blue can clash. The environment, the parking lots, as noted, are off. But to go with Baudrillard’s findings, the way we live now makes our easy and frequent acquisition, appropriation, re-contextualizing of forms an edgy kind of experience that, well, feels like a kind of art. So, even though it feels wrong and unappealing to see this lazy, awkward borrowing… something is jarred in me, the way art can jar. I am, at least, forced to look carefully at both the imitation and the imitated more carefully, and that in itself is a part of art.

    Wow. I sure can bullshit.

  15. This Potemkin Village is an attempt at counter-reformation, and it will self-document its future failure. Now we have a controlled experiment: What are the effects of land use, holding invariant the facade of the buildings? In 15 years we'll have another post on this, and it'll be not controversial, but "obvious" how bone headed the developers were. I doubt it will get many comments, because society will have moved on, just as now no one remarks that shopping malls are dead.

  16. an intriguing discussion. one comment in response to jason's "… addressing Norton Commons mission as a whole is quite a different animal, and since the developer gives the independent contractors freedom to express their vision for the period within certain parameters…"

    i'll just note that the 'certain parameters' at norton commons, in my experience, are so strict and subject to such careful review, that the 'freedom to express' becomes nearly meaningless.