Hattie Bishop Speed: the woman and her legacy

Today’s guest blogger is James Procell, Assistant Director of the Music Library.

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Hattie B. Speed

Harriett “Hattie” Bishop Speed, wife of Louisville philanthropist James Breckenridge Speed, was a widely-known and well-respected pianist, teacher, humanitarian, and philanthropist. Born February 12, 1858 in Louisville, Hattie’s father, William Bishop, was the proprietor of the Louisville Hotel, as well as the co-proprietor of the Galt House Hotel in downtown Louisville. Her early music studies took place both in Louisville and Boston, and she made her debut when she was only thirteen, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 with the Musical Fund Society Orchestra. She continued her studies in Berlin and Italy before returning home to Louisville in 1892.

Upon her return, she began her duties as a local piano teacher while still continuing to perform regularly. In July 1906, at age 48, Hattie married prominent local businessman James B. Speed. Six years later, Mr. Speed passed away, and Hattie inherited his immense fortune, including their home at 505 W. Ormsby Ave. This residence would soon become an epicenter of musical activity in Louisville for the next four decades. This sprawling Victorian mansion, containing more than 48 rooms and 20 fireplaces, was built in 1885 by well-known Louisville contractor Dexter Belknap. Upon her husband’s passing in 1912, Mrs. Speed expanded the home by adding a music room/concert hall. The room, completed in 1916, was 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. It contained a large stage, beautifully appointed furniture and decor, and four Baldwin concert grand pianos. As seen in the photo, the interior walls of the stage were constructed so that there were no right angles, thus allowing for the best possible acoustics. Mrs. Speed hosted countless concerts and recitals in her home throughout the remainder of her life.

Music room at Speed residence

In addition to her countless contributions to music in Louisville, Mrs. Speed also contributed her time and money to other areas. In 1925, she founded the Speed Art Museum at 2035 S. 3rd St., and served as its first president and director. This institution remains the oldest and largest art museum in Kentucky. She immensely supported African American institutions, including the Red Cross Hospital at 1436 S. Shelby St., and the Plymouth Settlement House at 1626 W. Chestnut St. In addition, she served seven terms as president of the Kentucky Humane Society.

Mrs. Speed died from a heart attack at age 84 on August 8, 1942, but her legacy remains present in Louisville today. Many of her personal items, including postcards, sheet music, photographs, and concert programs, form the Hattie Bishop Speed Collection  at the UofL Dwight Anderson Music Library.

Mrs. Speed’s former home on Ormsby Street currently serves as a law office. Though much of the home has been renovated over the years, many of the original exterior and interior features remain. (It has been reported by some that the building is haunted with the presence of Hattie!)

Sources:

Kleber, John E. The Encyclopedia of Louisville. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

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