Sunday, December 7, 2014

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY, PART I: SPLENDOR ON THE OHIO RIVER

For the last three years, I have spent eight days in Louisville, Kentucky, scoring AP English Composition exams. It's a wonderful opportunity to hone my grading skills, to assess what material needs to be better taught, to meet other English teachers, and to (last but not least) see new places on someone else's dime.
I've fallen in love with Louisville, a city with a population of about 600,000 that retains a small-town Southern America feel and even prides itself on being "the northernmost Southern city in the United States."  It stretches along the southern bank of the Ohio River, and several picturesque bridges spanning the water connect Louisville to Indiana on the far bank.


The Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the United States
(she turned 100 this year)  at dock next to our hotel. We heard her gay
calliope music several times a day as she picked up and deposited her passengers.
The view of the river from my hotel room in the Galt House:

Looking down at the breezeway that connects two halves of the Galt House, a very nice hotel that is within walking distance of most of downtown's tourist sites:
A pedestrian mall called Fourth Street Live! with restaurants and shopping is just a couple of blocks from the hotel:

 One of the key shops in the Fourth Street Live! shopping area:

Not-so-towering skyscrapers, at least by California standards, house the city's law and commerce:


The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts has wonderful swooping lines mixed with sharp edges:
Well-maintained early 20th century buildings give the town a young, chic feel:

Even the empty buildings (and I do mean EMPTY here) are classy:
In a city known for its horse racing, I would expect horse-and-buggy carts, but maybe not something quite this sedate:
To get a feel for Louisville's history, there are a couple of must-sees.

1. THE SEELBACH HOTEL
The first one is the Seelbach Hotel, a French Renaissance structure built by two Bavarian brothers. It opened for guests in 1905, and in its heyday it was considered one of the finest hotels in America. It's still a gorgeous, very posh place.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, consummate partyer, often visited the Seelbach when he was a soldier stationed at nearby Camp Taylor. It was a good place to enjoy some Kentucky bourbon and smoke an expensive cigar. According to the hotel's website, "During his visits, Fitzgerald encountered gangster George Remus, who became the model for Jay Gatsby . . . . His experiences in The Seelbach's elegant rooms inspired him to use the hotel as a model during the writing of The Great Gatsby. . . . Fitzgerald chose the Grand Ballroom at The Seelbach as the backdrop for Tom and Daisy Buchanan's wedding reception in his American masterpiece."

Al Capone also came here to drink and to play cards, and he had two hidden doors that led to secret passageways that facilitated his escape when the odds started to be stacked against him during games.

One of the things that made The Seelbach especially famous was its Bavarian-style Rathskeller (which seems to translate to "rat cellar" but is actually just a bar in a basement of the town hall).  No doubt it was especially popular during the 1920s Prohibition Era.
It's not hard to image Scott Fitzgerald carousing down here in this cavernous room, still rented out for parties over 100 years later.

The room is decorated with Rockwood Pottery, a kind of earthenware made in Ohio and very popular in the early 20th century. Pottery pelicans, symbols of good luck, ring the pillars:

Opulence is everywhere, from the back-lit stained glass
. . . to the handpainted 24 K gold-leafed leather ceiling over the bar that depicts the signs of the zodiac:
The entrance to the rathskeller is topped with a zodiac clock:
I probably couldn't afford to stay at The Seelbach, but we did have dinner in one of their two restaurants, and it was delicious:
I think that's salmon on the left
and huckleberry ice cream on the right.

2. RIVERFRONT PLAZA
A second historical must-see is the Riverfront Plaza at Fifth and Main right next to the Ohio River.

A larger-than-life-sized statue of George Rogers Clark, considered to be the founder of Louisville, stands close to the water. Clark led an army against the British during the Revolutionary War to take control of this area, then known as the Northwest Territory. I'm not sure what he is pointing at--maybe the bridge across the Ohio that bears his name?

His younger brother was none other than William Clark, who first met Meriwether Lewis in Louisville (possibly at this very spot) in 1803 to plan their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase:


Instead of statues of the intrepid explorers, however, there is one of a man with the single name of York, a slave belonging to William Clark. As part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he became the first African American to cross the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

The bronze plaques embedded in the bricks at the base of the statue read:

"York participated in the expedition's work, dangers, and hardships and acquired a degree of equality and freedom he had never before experienced as a slave. He risked his life searching for Clark, Sacagawea, and her baby in a flash flood. He hunted and fished, nursed the sick and injured, went on scouting expeditions, and traded with the American Indians. York's important contributions are chronicled in the expedition's journals. The captains permitted York to voice his opinions on where their 1805-1806 winter quarters should be established, clearly demonstrating the level of equality and respect he had earned.

"When Indians who had never seen a black man before were encountered, York's skin--the very thing that marked him as inferior and a slave in white society of that day--signified him as someone special and spiritually powerful. They considered him as superior to his white companions and were amazed by his strength and agility. The captains used this influence that York wielded to help advance the expedition. The Indians named York 'Big Medicine' to indicate his believed spiritual power and uniqueness."

Of course, when the expedition returned, York had a hard time going back to his regular status, and there is evidence that he tried to escape and/or was ultimately freed by Clark, but not for at least ten years, and his fate after that point is unclear.
Joyce, one of my co-readers, stands in the Plaza, facing the river with the city center behind her.
Next: Louisville Art

2 comments:

  1. So now I know that when you are away from home you are partying with gangsters. Love the big river - a real river, not the California kind.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That Seelbach Hotel is impressive. I would visit Kentucky just to view it while eating my Fudgery ice cream and fudge.

    ReplyDelete

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