Originally known the Jefferson County Armory when it was built in 1905, the Louisville Gardens building now stands as a multi-purpose arena for a variety of events. First opening in 1905 as an actual armory complete with drill halls and ammunition for the local branch of the state militia, the historic building has witnessed more 20th-century Louisville history than most other buildings. Because the armory included a swimming pool, rifle range, and other recreation infrastructure, the Louisville community used the building as a gathering place right from the beginning. After 1945, the building became home to the University of Louisville basketball and later, at various points, both the Kentucky Colonels and the Kentucky Wildcats. In 1963, the building was converted into the Louisville Convention Center where many famous individuals would eventually host events in Louisville. However, when the Kentucky International Convention Center was built in 1975, the building was renamed yet again to what it is today, the Louisville Gardens. Currently owned by Metro Louisville, it was used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2004, and it currently is in use as a warehouse. Its future remains uncertain as developers make bids on the building.
Backstory and Context
History of the Louisville Gardens
In 1893, state legislators ordered that all first and second class cities in Kentucky provide an armory, and that same year, the city began planning the eventual building. Twelve years later in 1905, at a cost of $440,000 (equivalent to about $12 million today), Louisville architect Brinton B. Davis and firm Caldwell & Drake finished the Jefferson County Armory on December 31st. Nearly 10,000 people showed up to the dedication ceremony.
In the following years, as Louisville didn’t have a centralized community center at this time, the Jefferson County Armory began hosting community events and giving locals an opportunity to take part in recreational activities as well as speaking events. For example, in 1911, President William Taft visited the armory to give a speech outlying his policies for international peace. A year later, over 10,000 people came to the armory during a dedication after the Titanic disaster. During the Ohio River flood in 1937, the Armory served as a refugee center for people looking for dry accommodations.
By 1937, however, the University of Kentucky and Notre Dame basketball teams played at the Armory, the first of many such games. Basketball games thereafter became a popular and common activity at the Armory, and when Leo A. Seltzer leased the building in 1945 with a 15 year lease as the Kentucky National Guard moved out (ending the military function of the building), the space boosted its entertainment appeal. The Polack Bros. Circus would eventually set attendance records in Louisville.
On September 30, 1948, President Truman gave a speech from the Armory during the 1948 Presidential elections. Elvis, Scotty, Bill, and DJ would make their second appearances in Louisville at the Armory (the first being at the Rialto Theater) on November 25th, 1956. Prior to the show, with fears of riots over Elvis’s superstar status, Louisville Police Chief Colonel Carl E. Heustis enforced a “no wiggle ban” for the concert. As Don Freeman from the Courier-Journal wrote about the concert:
“Teenagers deliriously squealed, the flash bulbs of shutterbugs shot off all over-the whole armory suddenly felt like the inside of a heavily pounded drum.
Elvis Presley had sprung forth in all his glory, plus a green dinner-type coat and black slacks.
Elvis-the ideal of every red-blooded American girl.
He wheeled squeals out of his fans with 23 minutes of high emotion singing, then disappeared under heavy escort.
Unable to corner him, fans did the next best things.
A bevy of girls shriekingly touched the microphone he had used and some other girls kissed the palms of their hands after rubbing them over the stage dirt he hard trod, police said.”
Martin Luther King Jr. would also addressed residents of the city in this venue on August 23, 1960.
By 1963, large-scale renovation took place and the building was thereafter named the Louisville Convention Center. Under the new name, the building took on a much different role, hosting smaller meetings, music acts, and so forth. The convention center changed its name to the Louisville Gardens in 1975. By 1980, the National Park Service listed the building on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1998, the name was changed once again to the Gardens of Louisville.
At the moment, the city is in talks about the future of the building.