***** ALL users will have to request a password reset BEFORE you will be able to log into the forum. See the thread in the forum issues section for further instructions. If you have issues with this, email us at *****

Author Topic: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form  (Read 278 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Jeffery

  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 2584
This post investigates the platting of downtown Louisville as a key to the morphology of downtown, investigating how downtown expanded and how the nature of the platting drove an elongated form to the downtown.

The platting history starts with Colonial Viriginia and the French and Indian War, and the royal governor, Lord Dunmore.

Dunmore gave grants beyond the Appalachians to his associates and veterans of the French and Indian wars.  Since Kentucky at this time was part of Fincastle County the surveys were recorded at the county seat of Fincastle, hence their being called the Fincastle Surveys. There were two surveys, one of 1773, and a second official one of 1774.   The head of this survey team, John Floyd, acquired the blue-shaded tract for himself. 

The survey camp was at the site of the downtown Louisville wharf, at the mouth of Beargrass Creek.

The Louisville townsite was in the red shaded survey, which went to Pittsburgh trader and Dunmore favorite John Connolly.  The adjacent orange tract, to DeWarrensdorf, was also acquired by Connolly.  In order to purchase this tract Connolly had to mortgage his first tract to another Pittsburgh trader, John Campbell.

The first mention of a projected town at the Louisville site was via an ad placed by Connolly in the Williamsburg (VA) Gazette in 1774, offering town lots.  It’s not known if a town was actually surveyed, though.

The Fincastle surveys were run using the Ohio River shore as the baseline, and became the basis for later surveys, property subdivisions and, eventually, much of the street and road system of modern Louisville, as can be seen by this 1855 map with selected Fincastle surveys tinted.

The advent of the Revolution led to the true founding of Louisville, but not by the original land owners.  John Connollay was a loyalist and was imprisoned, eventually fleeing to Canada, and John Campbell was captured during an Indian ambush.   So the land title was uncertain. 

In 1778 George Rogers Clark led his expedition to conquer the Illinois country from the British.  Clark founded a fort on Corn Island, just offshore from Louisville, as a base camp.  Later this fort was relocated to the Kentucky shore.

Clark also drew an unofficial plat of a new town at the site, which had public lands along the river, a gridiron of streets, a square, and a row of common lots at the south end of town.

John Reps, in The Making of Urban America, speculates that Clark had intended that this strip of common lots would be repeated as the town grew.   Which would have been an almost “Savannah” type of situation, a repeating system of open spaces.

The first official plat was from 1779, and was only one block wide.  The plat recognized the nature of the river bottoms here, as the town lots were set out on the flat second bottoms,  just before the land dropped into the flood-prone first bottoms along the river.

Shortly after this plat a larger fort was built in the center of the town site to protect against the Indians and British up at Fort Detroit.  This fort was eventually relocated to the Indiana shore, and closed after Fallen Timbers ended the Indian threat.

Louisville was named in 1779 at the suggestion of George Rogers Clark, who had just learned of the French alliance with the Americans,   The town recieved its charter from the Virginia legislature in 1780.
An additional plat was made in 1783, adding streets to the south (Market, Main, and Green), also adopting Clark’s proposed common lots as a sort of linear village green (which lent its name to Green Street).  A graveyard was set aside on one of the common lots.  This is modern day Baxter Square park.

John Campbell also reappeared after being freed by the British.  He claimed the town by virtue of his financial interest in the Connolly tract.  This claim was settled and a new property line was draw west of the town perpendicular to the Ohio River, separating Campbells land from the town.

…so the town had a rather odd trapezoidal shape.  The southern limit was eventually to become Broadway, but the east and west diagonals are not reflected in the modern street system.  It should be noted that the first three east-west streets back from the river, Main, Market, and Jefferson, had a 120’ width, while the numbered north-south streets were only 90 ‘ wide.   This would have later consequences for the appearance of the city.

Since the town was bounded, the town lands south of the first streets were further partitioned into ranges of out-lots, of various sizes (10, 20, and 40 aces), becoming progressively larger as one went south.  The out-lot ranges were separated by lanes, which later became Walnut and Chestnut Streets.

The row of common lots between Jefferson and Green Streets were eventually platted and sold, as were the bottom lots along the river.  This sell-off was complete by 1800.  A later strip of common land south of the Green and west and east of the original town plat was also sold off.  Later writers (some not so late, as the first remarks on the subject came from the 1820s) lamented the short-sightedness of selling off the commons.  If this strip of lots had survived Louisville would have had something akin to the park blocks in Portland, Oregon.

Population growth really started to take off with the development of the New Orleans trade starting in the 1790s but becoming more important in the 1800s.  Growth accelerated with the advent of upstream-downstream steamboat traffic after 1815

By 1831 the town had expanded into the out-lots as far south as Prather Street (Broadway) and east beyond the original town bounds into the old Floyd tract, via Prestons Addition of 1826, including the platting of the point between Beargrass Creek and the river and the establishment of a private landing.  The bottom lots between Main Street and the river were being subdivided into secondary streets during the 1820s.  Also, alleys are starting to be inserted in the original plat.

The original town plat is shaded in yellow:

A new hospital was established in 1825 on one of the out-lots, and an additional graveyard, todays Western Cemetery, also appeared.

One of the consequences of the longer distances between streets in the outlots was the platting taking a somewhat north-south orientation as rectangular blocks vs the east-west orientation in the original town plat and in Prestons Addition.

The steamboat trade led to a population take-off for three larger Ohio River cities, though Louisville shared in this growth it didn’t accelerate the way Cincinnati did.  Louisville and Pittsburgh were both older places, but apparently Cincinnati had a superior location, and boomed during the first 25 years of the steamboat era.

By 1856 the city had expanded well beyond the 1832 plats (drawn in black over the 1856 map).  What’s interesting is that the old property lines didn’t drive street arrangements in this close-in part of the city.  There appears to be some agreement to use a mostly consistent north-south street grid, overriding diagonal property lines and the staggered out-lot boundaries.   The yellow area is the original town plat.

This apparently informal agreement among subdividers was codified in the 1870 city charter, which established an official map to be followed in subsequent plats, with deviations permitted only by city ordnance.

Development sorted out via an informal zoning, with the original town plat becoming the “old downtown”, with Main, Market, and Jefferson having somewhat specialized functions.  South of Green (later renamed Liberty street) was a district of townhouses and villas, the “Italianate city”.  A mansion row developed along Broadway.

Eventually downtown expanded south of Green (Liberty), along 3rd, 4th, and 5th Streets, with 4th becoming the main spine of the southern expansion and the main shopping street.

Since the blocks south of Green (Liberty) Street were long and rectangular, the intensification at the intersections caused downtown to elongate south along 4th until it reached Broadway.

This black plan based on c. 1900 build-out is a snapshot of this process.  Older features are labled, like the original graveyard, the old hospital of the 1820s (by now rebuilt and expanded), plus a large post office and customs house on 4th Street, which was developing as the spine of the southern expansion of dowtown.

The dashed line is a rough estimate of the boundary between the solidly built-up commercial areas and the less dense villa/townhouse district, showing how downtown had also expanded east-west, but was starting to dip south.

A close-up black plan of the core area of downtown, with the streets labled…

…and a snapshot of one of the east-west streets, looking east down Chestnut toward Fourth, with the tower of the post office visible between the telephone poles

…one can catch the character of the “Italianate city” from the houses here. 

Another snapshot of downtown encroachment, the Atherton Building had just been built at the SW corner of Walnut and 4th (kitty-corner from the post office) and one can see the earlier houses on 4th next door to the left (south)

This building is also a good example of a type, not quite a true high-rise, but tall enough and massive enough to create a street canyon if there are equally massive buildings across the street.

By the early 1960s 4th and flanking streets had developed as the north-south spine of downtown, and the surrounding areas were starting erode away due to parking lot construction

Around this time (early 1960s) the planners envisioned this linear downtown extending out of the “old downtown” closer to the river; taken together they form the “core”.  The surrounding areas, the “frame” was scheduled for treatment via urban renwal

Before the 1960s skyscrapers were not clustered like in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, but really just scattered around downtown, with some clusters at intersections.  The older ones were closer to the river, in the “old downtown”, but then popping up at or near intersections of 3rd, 4th, and 5th with cross streets.

Some aeriels of downtown as it entered the 1960s.

1959, looking north.  Certain streets are labled.

Early 1960s.  Nice shot of the L&N coach yards, freight houses, and train shed at Union Station in the foreground.  The L&N Building is pretty impressive all by its lonesome on Broadway, Sears parking is next door.

A view south, showing downtown emerging from the urban carpet of 19th century Louisville.  The riverfront Central Station platforms and tracks are visible along the river.  Neighborhoods like Haymarket, Phoenix Hill, Smoketown, Shelby Park (at the upper edge of the image) are still mostly intact here, but you can see the North-South Expressway creeping in from the south.

Things were about to drastically change.

A Quick Tour

In the old downtown, about a block south from the wharf, is Main Street.  Looking west, this is the block between 5th and 4th, north side, with the high rise in the background marking the intersection with 4th

This was the Columbia Building, opened in 1890, Louisville’s first true skyscraper (at 10 stories).

(I might have a better pix of this)

All this is gone. It was removed in the late 1960s as part of the Riverfront urban renewal scheme.  The same block today

Exactly one block south, Market Street looking east, just as wide as Main.  High rises in the background mark the intersection with 4th.   In the distance, the pointy tower is Levys, which is still standing as a Spaghetti Factory.

The two corner skyscrapers.  These were the Lincoln Savings building (demolished 1973)….

…and the Todd Building, with that neat curved corner.  I actually remember this one standing, before it (and most of the block) was torn down for a parking garage.

The same block today

…the exceptionally wide streets remind me of Dayton a bit.  This width continues out into the neighborhoods west and east of downtown.
On 4th Street, which is considerably narrower than the wide east-west streets we’ve just seen.  Looking north at the intersection of Walnut (AKA Muhammed Ali Blvd).  The tall white building is the Starks Building (with a Chicag-style light well inside).  The darker one to the right is Stewarts department store, to the left the Seelbach Hotel.  A good example of how there are localized “street canyons” where buildings bulk-up near intersections.

Further south on 4th,  a long block south at the intersection of Chestnut, but still looking north.  This is another view of the Atherton Building we saw earlier.  By now the next door houses have been replaced by the Keith movie theatre.

Next, a view south on one of the north-south streets flanking 4th.  This is 3rd Street at Main, in the heart of the “old downtown”

The view today (blocked by the Convention Center, which bridges the street.

Another flanking street.  This is the SE corner of 5th and Walnut (Muhammed Ali).  You are looking somewhat south down 5th, but the back of the 10 story Seelbach Hotel (on 4th) is visible in the bacground

The same intersection today, with the corner structures replaced by the 1920s-era Kentucky Hotel (now apartments).  Rear of Seelbach is still visible in the background.

Another view looking more south down 5th.

Looking directly east on Walnut/Muhammed Ali at intersection with 5th.  Here one can see the street canyon effect as the relatively narrow (compared to Main, Market, and Jefferson) Muhammed Ali crosses the core of downtown, the two blocks either side of 4th, between 5th and 3rd.  In this case two 10 or more story high-rises act as “gateway buildings”

Entering the core area from the east.  This is Walnut/Muhammed Ali looking west, approaching the intersection with 3rd.  Taller buildings in the background are Stewarts (left) and the Starks Building (right)

One block south things become less intense. Approaching the core of downtown from the west, heading east down Chestnut approaching the intersection with 5th.  The tall building is the 10 storey Francis Building,

Chestnut approaching the downtown core from the east, heading west approaching the intersection with 3rd.  The tall building at the intersection is the Henry Clay hotel/YWCA, converted into apartments.

Finally, a quick look at two of the streets flanking the 4th Street spine, showing how empty things get just a short distance off of 4h.

First,  3rd Street looking south, approaching the intersection with Walnut

The Henry Clay visible in the background to the left.

5h Street looking south approaching the intersection with Walnut

The Francis Building is visible to the left.  Barely visible next door is the drastically modernized Atherton Building (name changed, too).

What’s not show yet is the “Magic Corner”, the intersection of 4th & Broadway and vicinity (though we are close).  That will receive it’s own post.

Offline Arcade Fiyah

  • ♫ An Apollo Legend ♫
  • Administrator
  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 21475
    • UrbanOhio
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #1 on: April 03, 2010, 11:23:57 PM »
Awesome thread!
"You don't just walk into a bar and mix it up by calling a girl fat" - buildingcincinnati speaking about new forumers

Offline oakiehigh

  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 3029
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #2 on: April 03, 2010, 11:55:40 PM »
Bravo!!       I wish I could shake your hand right now.   

Offline westerninterloper

  • Great American Tower 665'
  • ***
  • Posts: 692
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #3 on: April 04, 2010, 09:02:34 AM »
Outstanding work as always, Jeffery.

Any thoughts about what was pulling Downtown toward Broadway? I think you mentioned the differences in street width, and concentration of activity at 4th-6th and Broadway. I wonder if the L&N lines, and perhaps streetcars had any effect in your mind? I wonder too if any floods (which probably would affect the CBD equally) convinced some to push farther from the river?

Again, great job. I love reading your work.

Offline Jeffery

  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 2584
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #4 on: April 04, 2010, 06:28:36 PM »
That is one of the best questions about Louisville development.  One can see 4th being "greater among equals" as early as the 1880s as the new post office was built on it.

I've read that the more intensley used and developed part of the wharf was were 4th met the river, where Beargrass Creek met the river.  This was the landing used by the Cincinnati mail boats. So 4th and adjacent streets became perhaps more important than the other north-south streets.  I'm not sure horse car and street car lines might had that much to do with it...though 4th did have a car line. Louisville didnt have one or two streets all the lines came in was more of a network downtown.  Intersections became key transfer points, though.  But that is an interesting line of inquiry.


As promised here is a better pix of the grand old Columbia Building, opened in 1890.  Supposedly the tallest building in the South when it was built.

The street to the right is 4th, dropping down to the river.  You can see the change in grade as the Columbia Building arches get taller as you head further down grade.

Aslo note the letters L H St L in the top windows.  These were the offices for the Louisville, Henderson, & St Louis Railroad.  This was a subsidiary of the L&N and tapped the western Kentucky market, cutting into Evansville's trading area.  I don't know if it ever reached St Louis, but it did bridge the Ohio at Henderson.

The building was apparently influenced by the Romanesque styles of Chicago architecture of the time (Chicago was influential on Louisville high-rise design), as it does have a resemblance to The Rookery of 1885-1886.

« Last Edit: April 04, 2010, 06:31:50 PM by Jeffery »

Offline Eigth and State

  • Global Moderator
  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 3404
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #5 on: April 04, 2010, 06:54:41 PM »

   Interesting. Thanks for posting.

Offline dmerkow

  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 3320
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #6 on: April 04, 2010, 07:22:25 PM »
I was under the impression that Louisville's growth was weakened by the combination of having a lesser hinterland than Cincinnati which dominated the north-south trade and was a major stop heading west for those with Conestoga Wagons and the like and the effects of slavery and the political power in KY that disliked the German and Catholic urban centers at the periphery of the state.

Offline Cincinnatus

  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 5089
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #7 on: April 05, 2010, 03:01:45 PM »
When you have a chart showing statistics and it misspells cities, it just looks really bad ... you know what I mean. I mean we're we'll be in the same metro for God's sake. ;)

Offline Jeffery

  • Jeddah Tower 3,281'
  • *****
  • Posts: 2584
Re: Louisville Explainer II: First Plats and Downtown Expansion/Form
« Reply #8 on: April 05, 2010, 05:15:24 PM »
I was under the impression that Louisville's growth was weakened by the combination of having a lesser hinterland than Cincinnati which dominated the north-south trade and was a major stop heading west for those with Conestoga Wagons and the like and the effects of slavery and the political power in KY that disliked the German and Catholic urban centers at the periphery of the state.

...well, you are the professional historian, not me.  My guess was that Cincinnati had the boost of having a very productive hinterland very close by, combined with the canal access starting in 1829.  I think maybe Cincy got into manufacturing earlier, too?