Some of the best news for West Main Street in years was handed down last Wednesday as Mayor Fischer, Governor Beshear, and officials from Michter’s Distillery gathered to celebrate plans to renovate the long-vacant Fort Nelson Building at Eighth and Main streets. The distillery plans to invest $7.8 million with up to $380,000 in tax incentives coming from the state.
The Fort Nelson Building, dating to the 1870s has been standing strong over Louisville through the 1890 tornado which knocked the top floors off of neighboring buildings and the disastrous 1937 flood. The cast-iron, limestone, and brick structure has been vacant for decades as a series of proposals fell by the wayside over the years.
At one point, the John Conti Coffee Company planned a coffee museum for the space, later donating the building to the city in 1990s. After some structural work, which likely has kept the building standing over the years, Paul Bariteau purchased the building for a large mixed-use entertainment project on the block including a restaurant and music museum. Bariteau placed the Fort Nelson and two other structures on the market two and a half years ago. Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck as an internal stairway collapsed as Bariteau, his wife, and Patti Clare and Alan DeLisle of the Downtown Development Corporation toured the property looking for redevelopment ideas, seriously injuring Clare and DeLisle.
Now with plans to open a small bourbon distillery on the site, the building is assured new life. Owned by New York-based Chatham Imports, Michter’s bills itself as the nation’s oldest distillery with origins in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. The brand closed in 1989 after filing for bankruptcy and was afterwards purchased and moved to Bardstown in 2004.
To be designed by Joseph and Joseph Architects, the Fort Nelson will eventually contain not just a distillery, but also tasting rooms, a gift shop, offices, and potential event, bar, and restaurant space. Tours will also be offered. Architect Cash Moter said the building’s interior is a blank slate. “There’s not much to speak of inside,” he said. “There are only brick walls and floor joists.”
Renovation work will adhere to National Registry standards and the exterior will be brought back to its former glory including refurbishing a metal turret on the corner. Construction could begin as soon as March 2012 with a potential opening in the spring of 2013.
With Michter’s bold vision of returning bourbon production to Louisville, a city once replete with distilleries, perhaps other brands will take note and form a sort of “Bourbon Embassy Row” in the area to further expand the already thriving Urban Bourbon Trail.