LOUISVILLE — I can think of no better place with which to kick off this new bi-monthly column, focusing on drivable destinations from Lexington, than the lush enclave of Old Louisville.
Just a few blocks north of the University of Louisville and south of downtown is one of America's largest National Historic Preservation Districts (ranking with Savannah, Washington's Georgetown area and Boston's Back Bay) and the largest in the country featuring intact Victorian-era architecture.
Old Louisville is a throwback to a time when so-called "robber barons" ran the nation's commerce, when trolleys and trams were the preferred modes of transportation, when gas lamps flickered along shady streets, when the Southern Exposition was opened with much fanfare by President Chester A. Arthur in August 1883, and when opulent mansions were the settings for glittering parties thrown by the city's bluebloods.
The robber barons are long gone, the Southern Exposition is consigned to the history books, and only a few trolleys and gas lamps remain, but the mansions — 1,400 in a 48-block area — are still there, testament to a more ostentatious time. The mansions of Old Louisville represent a cornucopia of architectural styles: Romanesque, Italianate, Queen Anne, Federal, Beaux Arts, Chateauesque, and Arts and Crafts.
Don't look for minimalist here. Along elegant avenues such as Third and Fourth streets, and clustered in pedestrian courts such as Belgravia and St. James, are fantastic "mini-palaces" with fairy-tale turrets, leaded- and stained-glass windows, wrought-iron gates, even guardian gargoyles and lions.
All of this plus Central Park, a grand oasis designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, architect of New York's Central Park, although the name of Louisville's park probably has more to do with the now-defunct Central Street Railway Line than any connection with Gotham's park.
Some non-residents are likely to be familiar with Old Louisville through its famous St. James Court Art Show, held the first weekend in October, but you don't have to wait until then to enjoy the neighborhood's charms.
You can strike out on your own any time to check out the Conrad/Caldwell House, one of four museum houses in the area; wander over to the former Ferguson Mansion, now the headquarters of the Filson Club, where Kentuckians are welcome to research their history and genealogy; photograph the showy St. James Court mansion known as the Pink Palace; or stroll through the park, the home of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in June and July.
If you prefer a guided tour, you can choose from several, including the two-hour Grand Walking Tour (daily except Sunday) and the Friday night Ghosts of Old Louisville Bus Tour. There is much fodder for the latter, said tour guide David Dominé, author of Ghosts of Old Louisville.
Among the specters likely to be encountered are the Lady of the Stairs, who, dressed in white, paces nightly under the colonnade at First Church of Christ, Scientist, on South Third Street, waiting for her betrothed to arrive. Another is the ghost of a boy killed in a fire who is seen wandering through the Fountain Court area.
Almost as prolific as the area's spirits are its bed-and-breakfast accommodations in these historic mansions (11 altogether). I checked into Central Park Bed and Breakfast, where my room overlooked the park. Innkeepers Bob and Eva Wessels, transplanted Californians, renovated the 1884 mansion to provide guests a combination of 19th-century charm (18 rooms, seven of which are guest rooms, and 11 fireplaces) and 21st-century amenities (wide-screen TVs and whirlpool tubs).
From the moment I arrived and was met with the aroma of chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven, I thought I was going to feel right at home. When Bob escorted me to the third-floor St. James Suite, with its canopied bed, faux ivory dressing screen, heart-shaped bathtub and "Happy Balls," bourbon candies made by Jane and Ron Harris, owners of Old Louisville Candy Co. on the nightstand, I was even more convinced. By the time I had finished breakfast the next day (Eva's blueberry bread with creamy butter and French toast souffle with homemade maple syrup), I was pretty sure I didn't want to leave.
Still, I was comforted by the knowledge that the urban treasure that is Old Louisville — and the charming Central Park B&B — were just an hour's drive down the interstate from home.