Photo mystery in the archives: SOLVED!


By Tom Owen, Archivist for Regional History & Heather Fox, Archivist for Metadata and Scholarly Communication

One recent morning on the 4th floor of the Ekstrom Library, as Heather worked describing digitized historic images of Louisville to be uploaded to the UL Digital Collections website, she came across a mysterious panorama of what appeared to be downtown Louisville.  Heather prides herself on having a reasonable grasp of the downtown geography, but she just couldn’t get a fix on what she saw so she hollered down the hall, “Tom, I need your help!”

Heather often requests Tom’s help with street and building identification due to his deep knowledge of local scenes acquired from almost four decades of historical hikes and bikes and local history reference work. Tom, the seasoned sleuth, scrutinized the photo carefully and finally exclaimed:  “This isn’t Louisville!”  Persisting, Heather replied:  “But isn’t that the old Jefferson County Courthouse—now City Hall–in the distant left-center of the image?” and “if I zoom in here you can see Seelbach spelled out backwards (HCABLEES) atop the building in the center background.”  Despite evidence of these local landmarks, Tom just couldn’t make sense of what he saw:  What was that massive brick structure without façade ornamentation in the foreground? Or the building just to the left with the mansard roof?  Or the substantial office building a little further to the left?

The two archivists turned to one of the trustiest and most–loved reference books in the ASC collection, Caron’s Annual City Directory.  First published for Louisville in 1832, the directories contain householder name, occupation, and address as well as businesses and their addresses and, beginning in 1884, included  a criss-cross section that listed householders and businesses by street and house number. By zooming in on business signs painted on buildings, then corroborating addresses with the criss-cross section, the archival team concluded that the photographer likely stood on the roof of the recently completed YMCA—now St. Francis High School—at Third and Broadway directing his lens on a broad sweep north and  northwest  toward the Ohio River.

Heather and Tom were thrown off by the fact that the two massive structures in the foreground were demolished long ago and by the fact that the substantial old Atherton Building—now the Francis Building—was “modernized” almost fifty years ago with an aluminum envelope.  The U. S. Post Office and Customs House on the northeast corner of Fourth and Chestnut—demolished during World War II—had an iconic Renaissance Revival clock tower that was easily recognizable but who knew its far eastern wing ended with a mansard roof?  In addition, Tom and Heather both couldn’t believe that the Masonic Temple with its auditorium which was almost mid-block on the south side of Chestnut between Third and Fourth was so large.  Further, they were trying to “read” that massive structure from the rear.   One of the “occupational pleasures” of being an archivist is the delight you experience identifying historic photographs but that panoramic view from ca. 1910 sure had the two sleuths stumped for some time!

Once identified, Heather added the image to the Caufield and Shook online collection.  Take a look for yourself and see what kind of interesting things you can find!

5 Comments on “Photo mystery in the archives: SOLVED!”

  1. Jack Welch says:

    Sam Thomas provided most info on the Custom House pp. 134-35 in The Architectural History of Louisville 1778-1900. Nice photos.

    • xheatherfox says:

      Hi Jack, we consulted Sam’s book “Views of Louisville Since 1766,” to confirm the architectural style of the Custom House. Where would Louisville be without Sam’s work? Thanks for your comments!

  2. Jack Welch says:

    Oh, and coincidentally, we’re running a piece on the Atherton Building in our September issue, a monthly tidbit called “Building Bloodline.” JW, Louisville Magazine

  3. Jack Trawick says:

    It’s possible this may have been taken from the roof of the Weissinger-Gaulbert annex rather than from the roof of the YMCA. Also, note the skeleton of the Starks Building, rising on the northeast corner of Fourth and Muhammad Ali. The set of buildings in the left foreground are probably the original St. Joseph’s Infirmary, which was replaced in the 1920’s by what is now the Louisville Palace and the Theater Building. My great-grandfather owned a house a few doors down on Fourth, on a site where the Kentucky Theater later stood.

  4. Tom Owen says:

    The Caulfield and Shook photo–as I recall–did carry a 1913 date. The YMCA was built/opened at about that time and we speculated that construction debris MAY have been in the extreme right foreground.

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