Experience the Old Louisville Holiday Home Tour

Writer / Carrie Vittitoe
Photography Provided

You’ve probably seen the meme floating around on social media called Today Years Old, in which someone learns something new right in the moment, even if they are, how shall we say, long in the tooth, and maybe should have learned that information a long time ago.

I’ve lived in Louisville my entire life, all 50 years of it, and am Today Years Old learning just how extensive Old Louisville is. I suspect I’m not the only one. While many people can easily picture St. James Court in their minds, from attending the popular art fair, or Central Park, from seeing a Kentucky Shakespeare production, Old Louisville is considerably larger than just these two small sections. It actually covers some 1,200 acres (imagine 907 football fields from end to end). Old Louisville includes two National Register of Historic Places districts, according to the American Planning Association, and has the largest contiguous collection of Victorian homes in the entire country.Old Louisville

At one time, the area that is now Old Louisville was heavily wooded and even swampy, a hunting ground more or less, but that began to change in the mid- to late-1800s. Members of the renowned du Pont family built a mansion near what is now Central Park around 1879, leading to increased interest in the surrounding area. But it was the Southern Exposition, which took place from 1883 to 1887, that caused an explosion of activity. The land was cleared and magnificent structures were built to highlight the innovations of the time, including the installation of thousands of incandescent light bulbs personally overseen by Thomas Edison. The exposition was wildly popular, with close to 800,000 people attending in only the first 88 days of the event. Given that Louisville’s population at that time was under 200,000 people, it was decided that the Southern Exposition would not be a one-time event, but rather would take place over multiple years.

Following the success of the Southern Exposition, Old Louisville became the premier place to live, with neighborhoods popping up all over the place. The homes were grand and of varied architectural styles including Italianate, Victorian gothic, beaux arts and Georgian revival. Over time, though, people continued to move further afield into the newly developing and increasingly popular suburbs in the 1940s and 1950s following World War II. By the time the 1960s came along, Old Louisville was becoming increasingly industrial, so concerned residents began to push to preserve the area in the hope that it would retain its historic character.

Eventually the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council (OLNC) was created. It has been in existence for over 40 years and consists of some 12 neighborhoods including Belgravia Court, the 1300 Association, Garvin Gate neighborhood and Limerick neighborhood. Its leaders strive to ensure its historic character is preserved.Old Louisville

“Over the years the OLNC has worked with Louisville Metro Government to address neglected and abandoned properties, and monitor zoning and standard design guidelines which affect these historic homes,” says Shawn Fields Williams, executive director of the OLNC. “We also have planted thousands of trees to restore the canopy and reduce the urban heat island.” She says the organization also serves as a steward of Central Park and hosts two large cleanups of the park to secure its continued usefulness and beauty.

Acting as a community caretaker takes time and it requires money, which is why the OLNC hosts several fundraisers each year, one of which is the ever-popular Old Louisville Holiday Home Tour, which has been occurring every year (except 2020) since 1977.

The Old Louisville Holiday Home Tour is a feast for the senses, and planning for such an immersive experience ramps up soon after the winter holidays end. “Preparations for the Holiday Home Tour begin in January [with] the process of reaching out to homeowners who might be a good fit for this tour event, and then [we] begin to talk to them about the logistics involved,” Williams says. “Every aspect of the tour, from volunteer coordination and outreach to churches and museums, as well as schools, is carefully planned.”

This tour, which often brings in close to 3,000 visitors, requires a slew of volunteers to make it happen. Williams says the OLNC has about 300 volunteers from the Old Louisville community to help out as docents, house managers, shuttle bus drivers and ticket sellers. One of the perks of being a volunteer is receiving a free ticket to the event for each shift worked.

Homeowners who participate decorate in whatever style suits them. “I always say it is not just a home tour, but an antiques and art lovers’ dream tour,” Williams says. “Each home is unique and the tour-goers love the variety.” As if the outside of the buildings weren’t amazing enough, visitors get to see festive decorations and architecture inside these historic homes as well.Old Louisville

So what can a person expect from the tour? First, it is self-guided, which means you don’t have to worry about keeping up with a group of people who may move faster or slower than you, and the total length is about three blocks. The first location of the tour is the Visitors Center (in Central Park) where attendees pick up their ticket and brochure, which gives the addresses of the homes and shows where they are located on a map. From there, visitors begin their walk and stop at participating homes. “Once you arrive, you will be greeted at the door, your ticket will be marked and an introduction to the home will be given by a docent,” Williams says.

The tour shows off both Victorian mansions and townhomes. It will include the Conrad Caldwell House on St. James Court and the Woman’s Club clubhouse on South 4th Street, which will have a holiday boutique in the carriage house. Williams says the West End Baptist Church on 4th at Magnolia will have its gothic sanctuary open and dressed for the liturgical season. Simply walking the streets of Old Louisville during the event will be festive. “There will be people in Victorian-period costumes singing Christmas carols throughout the tour area,” Williams says. There will also be a brass band playing in Central Park.

The Old Louisville Holiday Home Tour happens December 2 and 3, from noon to 5 p.m. each day. To purchase tickets, you can visit oldlouisville.org/holiday-home-tour.

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