Architectural Mystery

When working with historical photographs of a town or city, it’s exciting to come across images of recognizable buildings. This is partly why so many people visit the Photographic Archives to search for old photos of their home or street – to compare and contrast the now and then; to get a glimpse into the past of something that is familiar. In fact, looking at old photographs is a great way to learn the history of a city like Louisville, and now websites like Historypin make is very easy to compare old photographs with current-day views according to location.

While comparing images of a location from different eras, I often notice significant architectural differences in the buildings. Usually I see a reduction of ornamentation – which coincides with architectural trends through much of the twentieth century; Victorian and Beaux Art architecture is quite ornate, while later styles like Art Deco, International and Modernism favor more streamlined and functional design. Comparing historic photographs with current day views can reveal the removal of decorative elements such as turrets, parapets, finials and cresting (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.

(Figure 1.) 309 E. Market St., Louisville, KY

Recently I came across an image of a Louisville building from around 1909 that I recognized. I checked the address and indeed the photograph was of a building that I had photographed last year, on South 4th Street, near the UofL Belknap campus (Fig. 2).

Figure 2.

(Figure 2.) 2532 S. Fourth St., Louisville, KY

Comparing the historical photograph with the Google Street View of the same address revealed a peculiar change in the building from 1909 to present day: the removal of the top floor! Close inspection shows that the building pictured in the historical photo is the same building that stands today. The placement of the windows, flat arches over the windows, structure of the façade, and the columns all match in both images. However, the brick building contained a third floor in the 1909 photograph, and now only shows two floors. Perhaps a fire could be the cause of this, but it’s a brick building and it’s hard to imagine a fire destroying the top floor entirely… Does anyone have any other ideas for why the third floor may have been removed from this building?

8 Comments on “Architectural Mystery”

  1. Pam Yeager says:

    Good stuff!

  2. Don Reilly says:


  3. Tom Owen says:

    The building is across from the our development site. KYVL’s 1905 Sanborn and our 1905 Sanborn (updated to 1926) shows a 3 story bldg. Suggests alteration occurred after that.

  4. Amanda Strickland says:

    This is a really cool piece. Reminds me of a book by Stuart Brand:

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks to student Savanna Darr, the mystery of the third floor has been solved! An arson fire in 1975 that resulted in the deaths of 3 people is the likely explanation for the removal of the top floor.

  6. raymond cook says:

    A fire gutted the top floor in 1946 killing 4 people….oddly enough the fire station stands right across the street. The top floor was removed and the ground floor remodeled and opened as the whirlaway tavern in 1947. The second floor remained inaccessible until a second remodel in 2005. I was a regular at the bar in the early 1990’s and got to know the owner who gave me the history of the building.

  7. donald long says:

    The 3rd floor was destroyed by a fire late 60’s or early 70’s ,The 3rd floor was removed to save the bldg.Donnie retired louisvllie fire dept.

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