Lewis & Clark, Muhammad Ali, Kentucky Derby Leave Mark
By Karen Rubin
Louisville was the 10th largest city in America when steamboats crowded its port and plied the Ohio River, steamboat construction was a thriving industry, and it was at the crossroads as well as the cross-currents of the nation history.
Today, signposts and plaques that seem to literally pop up out of the street mark the city’s connection to Lewis & Clark, who started out on their epic expedition from here; the spot where Charles Dickens stayed in the original Galt House Inn stood; where Mark Twain spoke in 1885, where Sarah Bernhardt performed in 1880; the house where 19-year old Thomas Edison lived while working for Western Union.
On historic Fourth Street, where there is today a downtown mall, all points on a compass are notable for their connection to Civil War persona: look east to where Jeff Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor in 1835; look west to where Abe Lincoln visited a law office in 1841; look north, where John Wilkes Booth performed on stage in 1864; and look south to where Ulysses S. Grant visited in 1879.
Louisville was at the cross-currents of the nation’s geopolitical, cultural and ideological landscape, so it is not surprising that it was also a city of firsts. Eighty-five years before Rosa Parks took her bold stand for civil rights on a Montgomery bus, African-Americans in Louisville won a lawsuit upholding their right to sit anywhere on the streetcar. Berea College was established in 1853 to serve both blacks and whites and by the 1860s, the student body was equally mixed (then, when the state of Kentucky and the U.S. Supreme Court forced it to segregate, the school funded the Lincoln Institute for black students). In the reform-minded progressive era of the 1880’s the city was the first in the nation to introduce the secret ballot, significantly reducing vote fraud. It was the first city in Kentucky to adopt zoning and planning measures to control and shape urban growth. Louisville was also the birthplace of Mary Millicent Miller, the first woman in the United States to receive a steamboat master’s license.
Not surprisingly, then, Louisville has been home to a surprising number of men and women who made significant contributions to the course of American history. President Zachary Taylor was reared in surrounding Jefferson County, and two U.S. Supreme Court Justices, including Louis D. Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice, were from the city. John James Audubon was a local shopkeeper in the early years of his career, drawing birds in his spare time. Second Lt. F. Scott Fitzgerald, stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor during World War I, drew upon his familiarity with the Seelbach Hotel, in his novel The Great Gatsby; and perhaps the most famous native son of all, heavyweight boxer and Olympic champion Muhammad Ali.
Louisville was at center-stage in recent years because of its connection to two other prominent Americans, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, and the 200th anniversary of their exploration.
William Clark’s brother, George Rogers Clark, a Revolutionary War hero, founded Louisville in 1778, naming it for King Louis XVI of France in appreciation for his assistance during the Revolutionary War. In 1803, William lived with his older brother at the George Rogers Clark Homesite. Then, at what is now Falls of the Ohio State Park, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis departed for their epic 8,000-mile journey to explore the west on October 26, 1803.
While Louisville’s initial growth was slow, the advent of the steamboat in the early 1800s sparked booming industrial development, and by 1830 Louisville had secured its place as the largest city in Kentucky.
Just as Louisville’s riverfront and port are being revitalized, so is its history taking on contemporary incarnations, from the iron façade buildings in the downtown district that are being renewed, to the trolley barn that is being transformed into the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, to the tobacco warehouse that is being converted into a museum of arms and armor.
The charm of Louisville is that even with its renewal and a fair amount of modern structures, it has preserved its history and heritage. A new “oldtime” trolley, with wood and brass, provides transportation (and a pleasant tour) around the downtown for just a quarter. You can still stay grandly in the Seelbach Hotel and visit the bar that F. Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed so much, and each May, just as it has done for more than 100 years, Churchill Downs hosts the Run for the Roses, known as “the greatest two minutes in sports.”
We were so impressed by the thoughtful, people-focused renaissance that has transformed the city, with over $750 million invested in hotels, attractions and other facilities that have made Louisville so attractive for tourists and meeting goers. Tourism has helped the community replace obsolete industries including tobacco growing, and now generates $1.2 billion in revenues and supports 26,000 jobs.
The magnificent riverfront, for example, is now a 6.9-mile long Riverwalk and a Waterfront Park with playgrounds, great lawns and public gardens, running and biking paths, where you will find paddlewheelers like The Belle of Louisville, a National Landmark and the oldest Mississippi-style sternwheeler in the country.
Falls of the Ohio State Park (which is actually in Clarksville, Indiana, across the river and 2 1/2 miles from downtown Louisville), has been certified by The National Park Service as an official site on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. It was here that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark formed their famous partnership, recruited and enlisted men in the Corps of Discovery, and departed for their journey west on October 26, 1803. The Visitor Center features exhibits and a movie, “Spirit of the Land,” depicting Lewis & Clark’s regional story (shown at 1 and 3 p.m.). The George Rogers Clark Homesite has a representation of the cabin where William Clark lived with his older brother George Rogers Clark in 1803. Mill Creek, just below the cabin site, is where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their famous journey together (201 West Riverside Drive, Clarksville, IN, 812-280-9970 www.fallsoftheohio.org ).
Filson Historical Society (1310 S. Third Street) offers a rare Lewis and Clark collection provided by the Filson’s benefactor and longtime president, Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston, of manuscripts, books, expedition artifacts and letters written by William Clark during the expedition. The plethora of research and relics preserved by the Society also include the actual tree stump on which Daniel Boone carved his initials. (502-635-5083,www.filsonhistorical.org ).
Historic Locust Grove, built by William Clark’s sister, Lucy Clark Croghan and her husband William Croghan, is where Lewis and Clark were entertained on November 8, 1806. It is the only known surviving Lewis and Clark structure west of the Appalachians. A National Historic Landmark, Locust Grove was the last home of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark, and also hosted three U.S. presidents – James Monroe, Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor. (561 Blankenbaker Lane, 502-897-9845, www.locustgrove.org).
‘Greatest 2 Minutes in Sports’
Since 1874, Churchill Downs has been one of the world’s most legendary racetracks (its grand Victorian style evoking a similar reverence as the National Tennis Center in Newport, RI). The annual “Run for the Roses” which takes place each year on the first weekend in May, is the first race, or jewel in the Triple Crown, a series of championship races for three-year old colts and fillies; it is followed by the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and then the Belmont Stakes in Nassau County, New York.
(There is even has a Lewis & Clark connection: Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., William Clark’s grandson, created the Kentucky Derby in 1875.)
Kentucky Derby Museum, at Gate 1, is a premier attraction that successfully captures the pride, tradition and excitement of “the greatest two minutes in sports
You enter through a starting gate to a 10-foot square video of racing horses coming at you head-on. The first section conveys the pageantry, color and events of Derby Week, with exhibits of everything from the Derby Hats and Mint Juleps, to a replica of the infield Winner’s Circle featuring the current Kentucky Derby winning horse, jockey and Garland of Roses, and an entire collection of trophies. Derby aficionados can listen and view footage from various runnings of the Kentucky Derby dating back to 1918 on the Warner L. Jones Jr. Time Machine, including Secretariat’s record-setting performance in 1973.
A second section proved more interesting than I would have imagined, in that you get to learn what makes a champion thoroughbred, what the life of a thoroughbred is like and personal histories of famous Derby horses. A Winner’s Pyramid shows just how long the odds are for the owners, trainers and jockeys. (Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, bought for $17,500, generated $12million in career winnings). In The Winner’s Stable you can examine the career of six Derby winners, including audio narration of jockeys, owners and trainers talking about the winning horse.
A third section focuses on the life of a jockey and his or her importance as a “teammate” to the horse, with saddles, jockey scales and equipment, as well as photographs, graphics and artifacts, and audio quotes. A particularly inspiring exhibit focuses on the contribution of African Americans in thoroughbred racing, particularly as the first jockeys (prior to 1902, 15 of the 28 Derbies were won by African Americans). There is even an International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame, honoring the craft of the farrier.
At “The Starting Gate,” you can sit on a life-size model horse and see what it is like to be a jockey in the original modern electric starting gate that was used in three Kentucky Derbies between 1940 and 1977.
You get the full excitement of a famous running of the Kentucky Derby in a cleverly done video projection all around an oval room the size of a ballroom.
Backside Track Tours, offered from March through November ($5), are one-hour walking tours of Churchill Downs and the Museum’s paddock area (weather permitting), where the resident thoroughbred (a retired competitor) lives with his companion, a miniature horse. The current resident is 1997 Derby contender Phantom on Tour, whose bloodlines include Derby winners Secretariat, Northern Dancer and Reigh Count.
(Kentucky Derby Museum is open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., 502-637-1111, www.derbymuseum.org.)
Of course, in spring and fall, you can watch thoroughbred horse racing (check schedule, 502-636-4400).
Grand Hotels with History
For a truly grand experience, that perfectly captures the charm and tradition that is Louisville, stay at The Seelbach. Built in 1905, The Seelbach is a nationally registered landmark that was immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 Great Gatsby. In the course of its illustrious history, The Seelbach has hosted eight U.S. presidents as well as Al Capone and scores of other interesting characters.
The European-inspired four-star, four-diamond hotel, managed by Hilton, is in ornate baroque style. You are immediately awed upon entering the stunning lobby of marble, mahogany, surrounded from above by Arthur Thomas’ extraordinary murals of Kentucky pioneer days, including a masterful painting of Daniel Boone telling stories by the campfire. The front desk looks more like a library with mahogany bookcase; a grand staircase of solid bronze and Italian marble stairway leads to the mezzanine.
There are exquisite architectural features throughout the hotel (you can readily imagine the scene of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding), but the most intriguing are in the basement “Rathskeller.”
Added in 1907, the entire 80 sq. ft. room, is made principally of Rookwood Pottery, with hand-drawn decorations and glazes –one of only two surviving rooms utilizing this art form. The room (one of the first air-conditioned rooms ever built and now used for private functions), is made with graceful arches and columns that create a cathedral-like effect; archway pillars are encircled with Rookwood pelican frescos, and the ceiling above the bar is covered with hand-painted 24-karat gold leaf leather with the signs of the zodiac.
The guest rooms and suites of the Seelbach have all been renovated and elegantly appointed with 18th century reproduction furnishings, four-poster beds, and marble baths, and modern amenities including coffee maker and remote control TV.
The Seelbach is also a Louisville landmark because it houses Kentucky’s only five-star restaurant, The Oakroom. The Oakroom does not merely offer fine food exquisitely presented and served in opulent surroundings, but its selections offer the essence of Kentucky’s heritage and culture to the extent that such things can be conveyed through food.
Off to one side of The Oakroom, which was a billiard room in the days when Al Capone would visit, is a private room where Capone used to play poker; there are two hidden doors leading to a secret passage from the room.
The Seelbach also offers a fun café/bistro just off from the lobby, and a grand ballroom (what else?), where many of Louisville’s top functions are held.
Located on historic Fourth Street (on Louisville’s street map since 1779), The Seelbach is within walking distance of the downtown attractions, theater, galleries, convention center, and business district. The hotel provides complimentary scheduled transportation to and from the Louisville International Airport. There is no charge for children under 18 sharing parents’ room. The AAA Four Diamond, Mobil Four Star hotel is part of the Hilton collection.
The Seelbach, 500 Fourth Ave., 502-585-3200, 800-333-3399, www.theseelbachlouisville.hilton.com .
Another historic hotel exuding character and gracious charm is the Camberley Brown Hotel.
Built by wealthy Louisville businessman J. Graham Brown as a tribute to his brother, Martin, The Brown Hotel opened in downtown Louisville, on the corner of Fourth and Broadway on October 25, 1923. At that time, Louisville was the 34th largest city in the country with a population of 235,000. Fourth Street was already an established promenade, and The Brown became the cornerstone of “The Magic Corner,” playing a central role in the activities and events of downtown Louisville over the decades.
The 16-story, concrete and steel hotel is in the Georgian Revival style, faced in brick and trimmed in stone and terra cotta. The hotel quickly became the city’s business and social center, bringing a new energy to downtown Louisville. Soon a lavish Brown Theater, a church and a large medical and professional building opened adjacent to the hotel.
These were memorable years. Lily Pons, while playing at the Brown Theatre, let her pet lion cub roam free in her suite. Al Jolson, also playing at the Theatre, got in a fight in the hotel’s English Grill, but said everything was all right…his makeup would cover the shiner. Queen Marie of Romania visited in 1926 and was entertained in the Crystal Ballroom, complete with red carpet and a gold throne on a dais. Victor Mature had a brief career as an elevator operator at the hotel before earning fame in Hollywood.
In 1990, The Camberley Hotel Company and its president, Ian Lloyd-Jones, assumed management of the hotel and restored The Brown to its original splendor. In 1993, Lloyd-Jones purchased the hotel, and it remains a cornerstone in downtown Louisville, a tribute to its heritage with a reputation for exemplary food and superior service.
The four-star, four-diamond hotel offers 293 elegantly appointed guest rooms and suites. One of these is the Muhammad Ali Suite, which was dedicated in December of 2001 by Muhammad Ali himself during the premiere of the movie “Ali”; the suite is decorated with signed Ali memorabilia including a photo and boxing gloves. Two floors of the hotel have been designated as The Camberley Club, affording a private lounge with a complimentary continental breakfast, afternoon snacks, hors d’oeuvres, and evening cocktails and cordials; rooms that feature specially designed bedding with triple sheeting, 250-thread count sheets, a duvet cover and down comforter, and six down pillows; and services of concierge.
It also offers 16,000 square feet of meeting and function space, Business Center, three restaurants and a famous Lobby Bar. The use of the 24-hour fitness center is complimentary, and guests may also enjoy a nearby athletic club with an indoor pool for a small fee; golf can be arranged at a course just 10 minutes away.
The Brown’s fine dining restaurant, The English Grill, decorated with 100-year old equestrian paintings and rich rood paneling, is ranked among the best in Louisville.
Other Historic Attractions
The preserved Victorian-style homes of Old Louisville provide a glimpse of life in the late 19th century.
Farmington, the Federal-style home of the Speed family built in 1810, was designed by Thomas Jefferson and features two octagonal rooms and a hidden staircase.
Riverside, The Farnsley-Moremen Landing, with more than 150 acres of spectacular waterfront land, interprets 19th century farm life on the Ohio River. You can tour the restored 1837 Farnsley-Moremen House and garden and cruise on the Spirit of Jefferson (July-October), 502-935-6809.
Brennan House Historic Home, downtown Louisville’s only historic residence, offers a look at the elegant lifestyle of a successful Irish immigrant and his family more than 100 years ago, and is one of the few historic homes in the country furnished completely with items original to the home.
The American Printing House for the Blind is where you can see the evolution of the Braille system since 1858, learn about the history of the education of blind people, and tour the plant to see Braille and talking books being made (1839 Frankfort Ave., 502-895-2405, www.aph.org ).
Historic Homes Foundation Inc., owns and operates the Thomas Edison House, where the great inventor lived when he was 19 and employed by Western Union (729 E. Washington St., www.edisonhouse.org ); Farmington; Whitehall, an antebellum-style mansion, circa 1855/1909, as well as Locust Grove (502-899-5079, www.historichomes.org ).
For further information as well as to book accommodations and packages, contact the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, 888-LOUISVILLE (568-4784), or visit www.gotolouisville.com .
© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com .