Encompassing 45 square blocks and more than 1,400 structures, it's one of the country's largest preservation districts, filled with rows and rows of colorful Victorian homes designed to mirror mansions found in London. The site of the nation's first pedestrian walking courts, named Belgravia and St. James, these stately streets are even lined with flickering gas lamps, replicas of the originals installed more than a century ago. It was once home to literary stars: Alice Hegan Rice, who wrote the 1902 bestseller Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which was later turned into a movie starring W.C. Fields, lived with Cale Young Rice, known as the "Audubon of poetry" for his verse on nature. This showpiece of turn-of-the-century architecture resides in Old Louisville, a neighborhood with an intriguing history and equally engaging architecture, and a much lower profile that its blocks of historic homes warrant.
The growth of Belgravia and St. James courts, and the surrounding Old Louisville area, resulted from the Southern Exposition, a World's Fair-type gathering that came to town in 1883 and helped put the Kentucky city on the map, according to David Domine, an author and local historian. Once a swampland and wooded area that by the 1880's was home to a smattering of farmhouses, the area was transformed into a showpiece of Southern agricultural ingenuity, as well as the inventions and innovations of the day (Thomas Edison's electric light bulb made its first appearance here). This municipal party, which drew a national and international crowd, was supposed to last 100 days, but ended up lasting five years.
"There's a joke that Kentucky is the only state that joined the Confederacy after the civil war." says Domine. "In the years after the war, the south had become more romanticized. This exposition was Louisville's chance to represent the region."
It was also a catalyst for the city's growth. Relatively unscathed by the fighting, the city drew a record number of visitors during the event, with the population doubling during those five years in the spotlight. When the fair ended, the former exhibition hall, a massive wooden structure that covered six city blocks, was demolished. Buildings and roadways had grown up around the hall, so its demolition left a gap in the landscape, one that would provide a unique layout for the development that would soon fill its shadow.
Postcards depicting the neighborhood around St. James and Belgravia Courts,including the famous fountain.
That gap, in effect, became the city's first planned community. St. James and Belgravia courts became the center of a home building boom, as soon two of the more exclusive neighborhoods in the city. The Victoria Land Grant company sold lots to anxious buyers, and so many nouveau riche clients commissioned local architects to build then-fashionable Victorian mansions that Louisville soon earned the nickname "the city of beautiful homes." It was an "architecturally exuberant neighborhood," says Domine, with wealthy families constantly aiming to outdo one another with new Romanesque, Queen Anne or Italianate buildings. Nearby Third Street was nicknamed Millionaire's Row.
The design of the courts and homes, down to the gas lamps on the walkways, emulated those found in London. Amid the hundreds of charming homes, there are many standouts: the castle-like Conrad-Caldwell Home; the Pink Palace, formerly the site of a gentleman's club and casino; the St. James Court flats, an early six-story apartment building that was damaged by a fire and had its top half removed; and the William Wathen Home, a stunning chateau-esque structure with a double staircase that was trimmed in bluish-gray terracotta.
While the neighborhood has alway been a showpiece, it began to decline in the early part of the 20th century, as its massive homes, which required a team of servants for upkeep, became less practical. By the '30s, the building were being subdivided and chopped up into apartments for the new flood of single workers arriving in town, and over the next few decades, urban renewal efforts and changing tastes led to a further decline. But starting in the '60s, local preservationists, especially local journalist J. Douglass Nunn, began a movement to protect and restore this historic architecture, and the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
According to Domine, there's a lot of promise in these historic buildings, and some have said that the area may take off in the next decade, becoming the next Charleston on the strength of its historic architecture. Local real estate agent Tre Pryor, author of Louisville Homes Blog, says that while the city as a whole is booming—2015 is on pace to be a record year—real estate purchases, especially by those relocating to the city, are more focused in other neighborhoods, such as Prospect in the northeast side. Belgravia and St. James courts aren't in high demand across the board, but for those drawn to this kind of architecture, there are a range of options, from affordable fantastic fixer-uppers to restored beauties costing upwards of $800,000.