Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fourth Street, Louisville

Up through the 1960s, Fourth Street was bustling with activity. There were several local department stores, grand movie theatres, unique and charming record stores and bookstores. Like so many American downtowns, by the early 70s, it simply curled up and died. In the years since, many valiant attempts have been made to resurrect it with varied and usually frustrating results. At one time part of Fourth Street was closed off. That didn't work. The latest concept is Fourth Street Live, which apparently has had some degree of success.

We'll start the tour with the very last of the big movie palaces, The Louisville Palace, now fully restored. Originally the Loew's/United Artists, it was designed by the reknowned theatre architect, John Eberson. This is one of his rare, so-called 'atmospheric' theatres. It creates a feeling of sitting outdoors in some exotic plaza on a summer evening, complete with stars twinkling overhead in an azure blue ceilinged sky. Some pictures of the interior can be seen here. To say they don't make 'em like this anymore is an understatement. In the early 60s, the balcony was closed off to create the Penthouse Theatre. Cleopatra played there for ages. When the Rialto across the street closed (see below), its Cinerama screen was relocated to the United Artists, and it became one of the vew few D-150 theatres in America (though it never played a D-150 film). I saw Star!, Fiddler on the Roof and Hello Dolly! here in 70mm.

This non-descript storefront had once been the entrance to the chic Mary Anderson Towne Cinema. The Mary Anderson was known for employing 'usherettes' who routinely dressed in costumes relating to the film. For example, during the run of Cactus Flower, they wore nurses' uniforms. This engagement was also memorable to me because a friend and I rushed downtown after taking the National Merit Test. When it was over, we emerged from the theatre to find Louisville was in the throes of a ferocious ice storm. The car was encased in ice a half inch thick. All the way home, we had to dodge downed trees and sparking electrical wires.

Below, the Kentucky Theatre.

Strangely, the facade is all that remains of the Ohio Theatre.

To several generations, the Rialto Theatre was probably Louisville's most beloved movie theatre. It hosted a number of reserved seat 70mm engagements and Cinerama movies like How the West Was Won. Incredible as it may seem, The Sound of Music played here for a solid year. But after the Rex Harrison musical Doctor Dolittle, it was all over. To tear the place down, the excuse being it needed a costly new air conditioning system, was a short sighted decision to say the least. Once the Rialto was gone, Fourth Street began its steep decline. Go here for pictures of its construction and when the Rialto was in its prime. Following are pictures of the exterior during construction and of its demolition.

This is what they built in its place, an undistinguished parking garage.

This was Shakleton's, a high-class music store. They sold pianos, sheet music, stereos and records. It's now used as a lounge for the Louisville Palace next door.

Below, Byck's, which had been an elegant women's clothing store.

Various 4th Street buildings.

This was Stewart's, Louisville's premier department store. If you wanted the very best, this is where you went. When I was a child, we used to make special trips to see the animated displays in the windows at Christmas. It's a tragic loss.

Ads from The Louisville Times, September 17, 1963.
The the Beginning played the Rialto during the Christmas season of 1966. D-150, a 70mm process designed to be shown on deeply curved screens, looked great on the Rialto's Cinerama screen. The only other movie shot in the process was Patton.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Nostalgic tour of West Broadway, Louisville

We'll start today's tour at the streamline modern office building of the Courier-Journal, headquarters of a once-great newspaper. Fresh out of art school, I interviewed for a job in the art department. It was the only time I was in this impressive building and hoped I would get the job. Though they gave me some encouragement, I didn't. I suppose I hoped I could one day be the next Hugh Haynie, their fine editorial cartoonist who was nominated for a Pulitizer in 1970.

Not having lived in a city with a White Castle since 1977, I'm always keen to go, but rarely do. This recent trip, however, I was determined to make a pilgrimage. When I was a kid, White Castles looked more like miniature castles with tiny turrets and inside were all stainless steel. But the good news is the food tastes exactly the same. How many fast food chains can make that claim?

The downtown Sears, designed by architects Nimmons, Carr and Wright and built in 1928, is typical of Sears built in America's downtowns in the 20s and 30s -- Art Deco and blocks away from the retail district. Fearing Sears powerful discount competition, retailers across the country banded together to keep Sears as far away from them as they could and in Louisville, that was 4th Street. Sadly, all of Louisville's grand old department stores have closed, including this Sears, and those that weren't torn down were converted to office space. My family generally relied on the catalogs (see this site about the Sears wishbook for some fun) but every few months we would pile in our Rambler and head downtown. Naturally I went directly to the large toy department, with model trains chugging above shoppers' heads.

Just past Sears and before Union Station is the Beaux Arts styled Louisville and Nashville Railroad Building, designed by architect W.H. Courtenay, completed in 1907 and expanded in 1930.

Just past L & N is Louisville's limestone, Romanesque Union Station, which opened in 1891. There are rose windows at opposite ends of the station. Now the offices of Transit Authority River City, the front doors were locked. When I was in the first grade, I missed out on a school field trip on a steam train excursion because I had the mumps or chicken pox or some childhood malady, so my mother took me the following summer of 1960 to see my grandparents in Pennsylvania. We left from here, then changed trains at Cincinnati's spectacular Art Deco Union Station. Somewhere in Ohio, we were left on a siding for hours and didn't arrive in Pittsburgh until the next morning. It was clear even then the railroads were on their way out.

Main Street Louisville

Louisville's West Main District's elegant iron cast facades are second in number only to New York's Soho District. Many of the structures were built in the 1870s and approximately five blocks are mostly intact.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The 800 Apartments, Louisville

You have to look hard for mid-century modern architecture in Louisville, but it does exist. Case in point, The 800 Apartments downtown, completed in 1963 and considered the very height of luxury at the time. At 29 stories, it was the tallest building in the city until the Citizens Fidelity Tower (now PNC) was completed in 1971.

It was designed by Arrasmith and Tyler of Chicago.

Looking straight up at the 800's distinctive turquoise curtain wall.

Groovy decorative block graces the drive to the entrance.

What this porte cochere with its suspended roof needs is a 1963 Imperial.

The old girl is looking a bit tired these days but perhaps now that mid century architecture is very hot again, the 800 will enjoy a sensitive and responsible restoration (keep it turquoise).

Old Louisville part 8

Having walked north through St. James Court, I then proceeded north on Fourth towards downtown.