The Filson Historical Society Digital Projects

Urban Renewal & Lost Louisville

No 14 -  rear view mansion on gray st being demoloished, 1959_web.jpg

Old mansion on Gray Street being demolished, 1959. Once lined by fine mansions, medical facilities, light industry, and surface parking now dominate the area. Only a few houses remain today.

The history of Louisville, like so many cities, is one of expansion and change. Over time the landscape of the city changes. Buildings come and go; residential areas shift farther from downtown as businesses increase; once fashionable areas fall into decay; and the old makes way for the new. In short, to put a twist on an old saying - what was here yesterday is often gone today.

In the Name of Progress

The urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century leveled entire city blocks deemed substandard and not worth preserving. It also displaced viable and often vibrant communities (this is particularly true for African American areas of Louisville, especially the old Walnut Street business district) in the name of “progress.” Granted, some areas had declined to the point that demolition was a reasonable solution and modern and much more useful buildings were built. But the frequent “scorched earth” approach of urban renewal all too often destroyed structures that today might be considered gems of 19th century architecture. The preservation movements that often battled this practice enjoyed some successes, but the wrecking ball often left gaping holes in the city’s landscape; holes that fifty and more years later sometimes remain as vacant lots.  

Documenting What Was Lost

Projects to document this urban “renewal” and what was being razed have provided important visual documentation of these lost buildings and streetscapes. Professionally and sometimes personally photographed, they record the visual history of the city and its neighborhoods that the wrecking ball permanently changed. Anyone with a camera could walk the streets snapping photos of buildings destined for destruction. Louisville was no exception. Agencies involved with urban renewal efforts documented their work. While the photos can be quite plentiful there inevitably are views missingThus, photos snapped by individuals can help fill those possible gaps.  

The images in this exhibit are from a collection of photos from the Filson's collection that in part document areas of Louisville razed by urban renewal. They focus on the area on the western side of downtown near the primary African American business district along Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Blvd.).The photographer is unidentified but apparently lived at 734 Dixie Highway. The listed owner at that residence during the time these photos are dated (1946-1959) was Gertrude Simmons. She was a senior citizen and it is doubtful that she was the photographer. It is likely that we’ll never know who took the photos, but because they did, these images of a “lost” Louisville were preserved. 

See the entire photo collection on Past Perfect Online.

Interactive Map

The map below features the photographs from the Simmons Collection featured in this exhibit.