Old Louisville History
A History of Old Louisville's Central Park.
Before there was a park, 1837-1871: If it wasn't kind of interesting later on, we probably wouldn't even mention that in 1837, Cuthbert Bullitt (Louisvillians will recognize the family name) built a log cabin used as a hunting lodge on the gentle rise that is now the highest ground of Central Park. At that time this whole area comprising Cuthbert's farm between present day 2nd & 6th Streets was woodland and marshes. Sometime in the 1840s or 1850s a farmhouse was built on the little hill. When Cuthbert died, the land passed to his daughter Amanthis who was married (since 1829) to George Washington Weissinger, Sr. At that time, the land was still swampy. Without any idea of the value it was to achieve after it was drained when the city expanded southward, the Weissinger's decided to dispose of the land.
Came 1859 and the Reverend (though not particularly Godly) Stuart Robinson from Ireland, pastor of the prestigious Second Presbyterian Church. He bought the 17 acres of land that is now Central Park. But before he could do much with the land, the Civil War broke out. Because of his strong publicly uttered Confederate sympathies, in an equally strongly Union-loyal city, not to mention the feds being heavily on his case, the Reverend Robinson, to save his own neck fled to Canada. He remained there until things cooled off, which happened to be after the Civil War. When the Reverend Robinson returned to Louisville in the late 1860s, he began to focus his interests on his property south of town, and either expanded or completely rebuilt the farmhouse on the hill into an Italianate country villa during the years 1869-70. But he wouldn't live there long because....
Enter the DuPont's 1871-1883: Yes, these are the same DuPont's you've already heard of, the famous family of Wilmington, Delaware who built a financial empire on gunpowder, chemicals, & rubber. One branch of the family had settled in Louisville in the late 1850s/1860s, notably Alfred Victor DuPont and his younger brother Biderman. Seemed they had their eye on Robinson's mansion and in 1871 worked out arrangements to buy it from him. Apparently, with the price offered by A.V., Robinson couldn't refuse the deal. He took the money and built himself an even finer mansion just across the road, which still stands as one of the more impressive early homes of Old Louisville.
Alfred Victor DuPont (also known as "Uncle Fred," and not to be confused with an earlier DuPont of the same name) acted as the patriarch of this Louisville branch of the family. He was the money bags. We hear that he might have built several of our Old Louisville mansions, but he certainly lived in none of them. A rather disheveled and independent fellow, Uncle Fred was a bachelor and preferred to live in a hotel room at the old Galt House Hotel. Instead, he let his brother, Biderman, and his family live in the former Robinson estate. It wasn't long, certainly at least by the late 1870s, until Biderman opened the front lawn to the public as a park and playground. Special events were often held in those early years including concerts, fireworks and other pyrotechnics, and balloon ascensions. Of course there was some method in this madness. The popular park began to attract people who would be traveling on DuPont's (then still mule-drawn) Central Passenger Railroad. And thus the park became known alternately as DuPont Square and Central Park (though Central Park was the preferred name in city atlases & the City Directory).
<...To the children of an older generation, that little green spot on the city's map was once du Pont Square, a private estate, and on its hill stood the big, friendly home of Antoine Bidermann du Pont.
Those boys and girls of the early '80s can tell you how the grounds were always open to the public; how, every spring, the school picnics were held there; how, when the big Southern Exposition took place, the whole square became a Midway. Then there was a band stand, a roller coaster, all kinds of sideshows along the walkways, and a fabulous electric railway that made a circuit of the grounds.
One of those boys, at least, remembers a memorable summer when, at hospitable Mr. du Pont's invitation, he and his cronies arrived with shovels to lay out a tennis court. He can tell you, too, about nights in wintertime when there was coasting on the hill, and how the friends of the du Pont children crowded into the kitchen to thaw out their fingers before the big coal stove and to drink up gallons of cocoa.
There was always a crowd in those days, for seven children were growing up in the big house on the hill. Their names were Meta (Margaretta), Coleman, Ermann (A. B., Jr.), Dora, Zadie (Zara), Polly (Pauline), and Evan... > Excerpt from Fond Recollection, Melville O. Briney, 1950
The Southern Exposition 1883-1887: Louisville had toyed with the idea of hosting a large exposition since the 1870s. The success of the Atlanta Cotton Expo of 1881 greatly spurred interest in Louisville to hold a grand Southern Exposition.
Biderman ("Bid") DuPont was chairman of the exposition committee. Some historians claim that this may have had something to do with the choice of the exposition location just south of and adjacent to DuPont's Central Park. By this time the Louisville city limits of development had extended to within a couple of modern blocks of the site.
Well, the swamps were drained, the woods were cut, and up rose a magnificent exposition building reputed at the time to be the largest wooden structure in the world, 13 acres under roof. Not only that, but the building and grounds (Central Park was the midway) were illuminated by over 4600 incandescent electric lights, the largest concentration anywhere at that time, more even than in New York City. This is one of the reasons that Old Louisville was one of the earliest electrically lit neighborhoods in the nation.
<...Mr. Edison's fabulous display of "4,800 incandescent lights of 16-candle power each which came on every evening to bedazzle the beholder. The contract with the Edison Company," wrote The Courier-Journal, "is the largest ever made for lighting a building with electric lights. The cost of the plant was $100,000 alone, and it is said to have taken 100 men working constantly for a month to string all the wires and to get the equipment in working order.... It is now common practice for parties to go to the exposition, arranging to take their supper at one of the places of refreshment in the evening sunlight, then pass into the dusk of the building to watch the marvelous expansion of the electric light."
Ask anyone who was a child back in the '80s and he will tell you about that breath-taking experience. For no matter how often he saw it (and families went over and over again), the miracle was always the same. There was a quiet that covered the waiting crowds. Then an amber glow began to seep through the dusk, brightening, brightening—until what had been familiar corridors of the big barn-like building became for him aisles of blinding light and beauty, touched with the gold of heaven.> Excerpt from Fond Recollection, Melville O. Briney, 1949
The three month Southern Exposition, scheduled from August through October 1883 (it actually went until mid November), with the theme "From Seed to Loom" opened in gala fashion on August 1, 1883, with President Chester A. Arthur presiding and Thomas Edison on hand to capably work out the bugs in the lighting when the first throw of the switch was a little less than satisfactory.
Central Park's Golden Years, 1883-1887: The Southern Exposition was a success. The thousands of visitors turned into tens of thousands, then many hundreds of thousands, and that in the first short season alone. The Southern Exposition, originally scheduled to last for three months, ended up closing in 1887, four years later. This was the time that Central Park enjoyed its golden years as the midway for the exposition.
For the event, a lake was built in the park for romantic paddleboat excursions. A "fire proof" Art Museum was built. It housed paintings and statuary from the collections of J Pierpont Morgan, John Jacob Astor, August Belmont, Jay Gould, Victor Newcomb, the Smithsonian Institution and works by local artists. Also displayed were Ulysses S. Grant's collection of curios and General Sheridan's collection of Gobelin tapestries.
An electric railway, designed by Edison, took visitors around the exposition grounds and all around Central Park. We heard this was the public premier of the electric trolley concept. Maybe it was, if not it was certainly a premier for the region, and quite impressive with its tunnel of incandescent lights reputed to be wired by Thomas Edison himself. A few years later Louisville had one of the best electric trolley systems in the country, and had at least double the number of street railroads of any other city its size. And of course, the most famous trolley line in the country was here in Old Louisville, the Toonerville Trolley.
A bandstand was built. Concerts of all types were held including some of the nations leading bands and orchestras:
<One of the great attractions of the 1885 and 1886 Exposition was the young director, Walter Damrosch, who brought his New York Symphony Orchestra to delight Louisville audiences. Damrosch described his stay during the two seasons: "1885 and 1886 I was invited by the Southern Exposition of Louisville, Kentucky, to come there with my orchestra to play the entire summer, giving two concerts a day. I shall always look back on those two summers with delight and gratitude . . . Louisville at that time was a small community, but with an old civilization which manifested itself in a circle of charming people of established culture and social relations."> (Excerpt from Old Louisville, U of L 1961)
<Cappa's Seventh (N.Y.) Regiment Band boasted a Roman cornet soloist named Signor A. Liberati whose limpid brown eyes and curling black moustaches were having a devastating effect on the feminine population....
...concerts always ended with the playing of "Dixie" when the Southern Exposition's unreconstructed patrons topped off the evening with the Rebel Yell.>
Excerpts from Fond Recollection, Melville O. Briney, 1949
A roller coaster, which was still a recent invention, was built on the park grounds. There was a racetrack that hosted some of Louisville's earliest bicycle races. And of course there were those ever popular fireworks, pyrotechnics, balloon ascensions....
As an aside, this is also a good time to remember another attraction during those years, the Dumesnil family botanical gardens, known then as Floral Gardens, that existed just caddy corner to Central Park near the northwest corner of 6th St. and Park Ave. (still known as Weissinger Ave. until 1888) Those gardens displayed rows of rare and ornamental shrubs and flowers, and later became the Floral Terrace "walking court," one of the many beautiful quiet residential oases that can be found within Old Louisville today.
St James Court, 1888-1890s: After the Southern Exposition, Central Park, with its recent additions continued to attract its public as the City of Louisville expanded southward and enveloped the parkland in the late 1880s and 1890s. The Expo site continued to be used for a season or two for smaller functions, such as a floral exposition (1889), and as stables, but it soon became apparent that the monstrous Southern Exposition building would not long be needed. Gradually the buildings were dismantled, many of the materials being used in other local construction projects. (Notable is the old "McMurtry's Infirmary" building still standing at 1412 S. 6th Street, clad almost entirely in the roof slate from the Southern Exposition. The chairs and many building materials from the expo found a home at the Fireworks Amphitheater & Auditorium that once stood at the southwest corner of 4th & Hill Streets.)
Land developers took over the Expo site and after early lackluster sales, formed the Victoria Land Company. They designed a residential area with a gimmick that worked. It would be centered around an elegant mall of landscaped greens centered by an impressive fountain (rumored again to be one of the Expo fountains, but we haven't found the documentation for this), along with "walking courts." The streets would be named St. James Court, Belgravia Court (after famous London neighborhoods), Fountain Court and Victoria Place (now Magnolia). Today, this area is one of the loveliest in the city of Louisville. What's important is that this green space merged with the green space of Central Park and the whole area became one of the most prestigious and desirable places in the city to live, attracting not only the local merchant princes, but also a number of artists, writers, musicians, poets and architects.
Exit the DuPonts, 1890s-1904: "Uncle Fred" DuPont was a little disappointed how few young skilled Louisvillians there had been to do the work when wiring for the new electric trolleys that brought visitors to the Southern Exposition. Rather than just complain, he went into action and provided the major funding for a new high school, the "DuPont Manual Training School" which opened at the corner of Brook and Oak Streets. Barely two weeks after attending the dedication ceremonies for the school in 1893, Uncle Fred tragically died of a heart attack. And what a nasty little heart attack that was.
A nasty little secret, really. All right, no good history is very interesting without a little sex and violence, so here's the story: Seems one of the reasons Uncle Fred liked living downtown is that he was nearer the expensive "parlor houses" he liked to frequent. A significant problem developed, however, when one of the filles de joie, one (Madame) Maggie Payne who ran an establishment at 8th & York, found herself in a family way and seemed to think Uncle Fred might like to acknowledge his part in that or at least help pay some of the expenses. When Uncle Fred refused, she shot him straight through the heart, and in broad daylight on the porch of the Galt House Hotel. What a nasty little heart attack that was. Because of the family's prominence, all was hush hush after that. Uncle Fred's nephew, Thomas Coleman ("Coly") DuPont, one of Bid's sons, smuggled the body back to Wilmington under cover of darkness. The newspapers published the fictitious account of the death, and Maggie was never prosecuted (the police even backed the heart-attack story). The truth was kept secret as much as possible until reluctantly acknowledged around the 1930s.
Biderman DuPont continued to live in the Central Park villa for several more years, surrounded by his wife and children, the neighbors children, and anyone else in Louisville who could make their way to his Central Park front yard. By and by, in the late 1890s, he returned to his family home of Wilmington, Delaware to spend the remainder of his life. (He returned to Louisville in death and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery along with many of his children.) When Bid went back to Delaware, there was no more need for the old house in Central Park, and so...
The City of Louisville acquires a park, 1904-1920: Had the transfer not taken place, Central Park may have been parceled off for residential development. The transfer (from Uncle Fred's heirs, Thomas Coleman and Antoine B. DuPont) happened on February 12, 1904. The $297,500 price of the sale was paid by a city bond issue. Uncle Fred had in theory agreed to sell the park to the city as early as 1883, so the whole deal had been at least in a conceptual stage for a generation before it was finalized. Frederick Law Olmsted, America's most famous landscape architect, whose firm had been hired by the city to design its whole parks and parkway system since 1891, finished the new ground plan for Central Park as early as 1901.
Shortly after the city acquired the park, the old Robinson/DuPont mansion on the hill was torn down. The lake was filled in and the art gallery was demolished. The old cabin that started this story was still standing as an outbuilding, and it was rolled down the hill and re-anchored on St. James Court as an outbuilding of Meta Coleman's house, used initially as a changing room for the Coleman's swimming pool. Now covered in clapboard and expanded somewhat, it still stands at 1418 St. James Court where it was the home of educator and social reformer Ethel B. DuPont from the 1940s until 1980. Ethel was the last of the Louisville DuPonts.
The walkways of the park were redesigned according to Olmsted's plan, and on the hill where the house stood, the same plan called for an athletic complex along with a picnic shelter, all in the Mission style that was the rage at the time. The athletic complex was to include a men's and women's outdoor gymnasium, the larger men's version with a track. The "Field House" would contain weight rooms and other exercise equipment. Behind that, to the west, were planned the tennis courts (which seem actually have been built at the opposite end of the park where the lake used to be and where they are today.) Nearby was a children's' playground with a huge wading pool. A colonnade led from the open-air picnic shelter to a pergola/wishing well, all in a compatible Mission style, although it seems from photographic evidence that the pergola and colonnade did not support vines until at least the 1920s.
The new park design incorporated the earlier DuPont walkways in the northwest and southeast corners, as well as most of the stately old trees that had been on the property. The entire park was surrounded by a hedge-row that had the effect of insulating the park as an oasis in the busy city that had by now fully grown around it. Most of these details can be seen on our post card views of Central Park, 1905-1920.
<Children born at the turn of the century remember Central Park the domain of the nursemaid. That now almost extinct species sat in throngs upon its benches; kept a wary eye on the wicker baby carriages; rose, when occasion demanded, to administer justice to the recalcitrants of the tricycle set.
Those children remember, too, the green mock oranges and the shiny buckeyes that were underneath the big trees. When it was fall, they shuffled their feet through the piles of yellow leaves that covered the tops of their high black button shoes. The smell of smoke that was in the winey air was something they never forgot, or how, when the swift cold dusk shut down, the lamplighter came along with his ladder.> Excerpt from Fond Recollection, Melville O. Briney 1950
Since the 1920s: Now the story gets blurry, and the written records few. Much we have divined from photographs and personal recollections. On some of this we may be in error and any help here from our website readers will be greatly appreciated.
We must assume that the park became even more popular in the 1920s to 40s, as the population density of the neighborhoods around it increased dramatically. Betty Jeffers Marlow wrote, of the 1930's & 40s, her girlhood:
When you tired of back yard games, Central Park was nearby for pumping on the swings until the squeaky chains wouldn’t go any higher; or, you could play Nyoka of the Jungle astride the smooth iron lions, or “explore” the thick bushes edging the park.
We've read accounts of the ice-cream vendors in the park in those years. But we really don't have a firm date line on when many of the further changes to the park took place. For example, we don't know when the athletic facilities closed, or even if they originally followed the Olmsted plan. The 5th District Police Station is there now, possibly since as early as the 1940s. From 1900 until at least the late 1930s, the Police were a few steps away on Magnolia between Levering & 7th Streets. We don't know exactly when the wading pool was eliminated.
Sometime the original lighting was removed and replaced by ugly modern aluminum lights. Only in the last several years, have more appropriate period-type lighting been reinstalled.
The thick hedges around the park were removed sometime in the 1970s as safety concerns arose as well as to prevent hanky-panky in the bushes.
Around the latter 1970s, the open-air picnic shelter was enclosed and became The Old Louisville Information Center, and meeting place for the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council and other neighborhood committees and organizations.
In 1960, the Carriage House Players presented their first performance of an excerpt from William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and so started the summer tradition of Shakespeare in Central Park, under direction of the repertory founder, C. Douglas Ramey. The outdoor theater that had been built was renamed the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater in 1976. The amphitheater took on more or less its present form in 1988. Around the same time Shakespeare in Central Park officially became the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, and as of this "park centennial" writing in its 44th season of giving the city free performances of of the best of Will. You can read much more at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival website.
In these latter years, the park has continued to be one of the centers of Old Louisville life. People are now usually seen in jeans & tee-shirts rather than the more formal white lacy dresses and suits of yore. The park has continued to be a place for picnics, both private and public, for reunions, weddings, weekend concerts and music festivals, for ice cream socials and auctions, and of course often just as a quiet green place to walk, to play to rest or to reflect.
The 2004 Central Park Centennial has revived and renewed interest in the old park. The Friends of Central Park has been formed to work with the Louisville Olmsted Conservancy to help repair, beautify and add improvements to the Park. Each spring, a volunteer army of neighbors and neighborhood associations come to prepare the park for its new season, weeding, mulching, cleaning and planting flowers.
Things do seem to be looking up for the old park which should provide enjoyment to residents and visitors of Old Louisville for generations to come. Happy 125th! Happy 100th!
History of Central Park
Central Park Plans 1884, 1901, 1990s
Views of Central Park before 1904
Postcard Views of Central Park 1905-1920
Louisville Guide Home Page
Old Louisville Business Directory,
Pictures, Vintage Post Card Views,
Calendar of Events,
Corner, St James Court,
Court, St. James Art Show,
Louisville Places, Our Lost Landmarks,
Old Louisville, the Way it Was,
(there are now over 1300 web
pages on OldLouisville.com)