On Friday, January 16, Mayor Greg Fischer launched a new opt-in signage program to label historic buildings in Louisville. The plan would allow interested property owners within the city’s seven historic districts or individual landmarks program to purchase a $125 cast-aluminum plaque noting that the structure is, in fact, historic.
Louisville’s seven historic preservation districts include Butchertown, Cherokee Triangle, Clifton, Limerick, Old Louisville, Parkland, and West Main Street. You can apply online to purchase one of the signs. Old Louisville’s Conrad-Caldwell House anchoring St. James Court received the first plaque.
Eligible structures must meet the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which, according to the National Park Service, were developed to determine eligibility for federal grants:
Initially developed by the Secretary of the Interior to determine the appropriateness of proposed project work on registered properties within the Historic Preservation Fund grant-in-aid program, the Standards for Rehabilitation have been widely used over the years–particularly to determine if a rehabilitation qualifies as a Certified Rehabilitation for Federal tax purposes…
The intent of the Standards is to assist the long-term preservation of a property’s significance through the preservation of historic materials and features. The Standards pertain to historic buildings of all materials, construction types, sizes, and occupancy and encompass the exterior and interior of the buildings. They also encompass related landscape features and the building’s site and environment, as well as attached, adjacent, or related new construction.
The announcement left me a little bit puzzled as to what these signs actually accomplish and why they are necessary. Ostensibly, it’s to help point out historic buildings and draw attention to preservation success stories in the city. But was that a problem that needed solving? Most people don’t need an extra sign to know there’s something special about Louisville’s designated landmarks. West Main Street stands out on its own. So does Old Louisville, especially St. James Court where the Conrad-Caldwell House watched over Central Park. The integrity of individual landmarks like Locust Grove or the Main Library also don’t need signs to let people know that they are historic.
Louisville has deeper seated preservation issues that it needs to work out—and this bric-a-brac signage won’t help address those issues. If anything, they sugar-coat the city’s lackluster preservation legacy. Almost three years ago, the city’s preservation ordinance was rewritten to the chagrin of local preservationists. Since then, a number of high profile battles, most notably over the fate of Whiskey Row, tested the will of the city’s preservation leaders. Another battle is shaping up on the Water Company Block, where four city-owned historic structures are at risk. Many on the front lines have told me personally that the repeated reactionary approach that is common in Louisville—wait for someone to apply to demolish something important and then put up a fight—and the frequent losses sustained from such tactics, has worn them out personally. It really is easy to burn out.
City observers including myself know what kind of historic architecture the city once had that, in many places, has largely been torn down. We also know that the city is still hemorrhaging historic buildings, inside and outside its preservation districts. Much of the worst demolition goes unnoticed to the larger community as it takes place on the other side of the Ninth Street Divide. I have seen it repeatedly and cringe every time I walk down West Market Street, hoping not to see a yellow “Intent to Demolish” sign.
The only way to get historic protection for a property currently is to have it listed as an Individual Landmark (if it doesn’t sit within one of the city’s preservation districts), which, especially today, is not an easy task. There are only 81 such landmarks in the entire county (and some like the Bauer’s structure on Brownsboro Road have been torn down despite the designation). The resources required to petition for a landmark are often beyond the means of average citizens and sometimes beyond preservation groups as well.
Further, it’s been over a decade since the city added a preservation district—Clifton in 2003—despite countless neighborhoods that should qualify or existing districts that should be enlarged. The coverage of the districts today protects only a small fraction of the historic urban fabric in the city. There is no demolition review process for buildings that qualify for the National Register, which would help preservationists get ahead of the game and help stop extraneous demolition. We’re lucky to even have the paltry 30-day stay-of-demolition for National Register–eligible properties that gives our under-funded preservation groups meager time to scramble and attempt yet another fight.
In front of the Conrad-Caldwell House during the press announcement for the new plaque campaign, Mayor Fischer told the Courier-Journal, the city is “on the verge of a new era with preservation.” But unless there’s a bigger announcement planned soon, I don’t see how that can be the case. I hope this plaque program doesn’t become something the city points to as an example of preservation friendliness. The city isn’t particularly preservation friendly and and these plaques do not effectively advance preservation in the city overall. I do hope they draw attention to historic buildings, but also that the mayor has a surprise up his sleeve that could usher in such a “new era.”
There is reason for optimism, though. Many in the community are beginning to see the benefits of reusing older buildings. A slew of renovations, rehabilitations, and adaptive reuses are taking place across the city. Further, the city is the subject of a multi-year study being conducted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that is looking for ways to bolster historic preservation and historic communities in Louisville.
Louisville is lucky to have its remaining historic building stock, which remains very much intact in many core neighborhoods—both inside and outside the preservation districts. Louisville has done a particularly nice job of preserving houses. Just look at block after block of Old Louisville’s mansions still standing tall today. It’s an impressive sight to behold.
Even more, Louisville has a dedicated group of preservationists that keep a close watch on the city’s built heritage. While relentless and repeated preservation fights can wear people out, Louisville’s preservation community keeps coming back, ready for the next challenge. Mayor Fischer has also pushed for preservation of key buildings during his time in office, which should also be applauded. This is also an impressive sight to behold.
Louisville is also facing new preservation challenges such as preserving corner commercial buildings—a perennial favorite on Preservation Louisville’s endangered list—and industrial architecture. Many blocks of these types of buildings have been torn down in recent years, yet they are just as important as historic houses to creating livable neighborhoods. Additionally, mid-century modern architecture is coming of historic age, and new types of buildings will demand our attention. These are the conversations we need to have as a community—not more signs.