The Downtowner (1954-1974)
Backstory and Context
Opened in 1954 as a “gay-friendly” bar with the name Nolan’s Cocktail Lounge at 320 West Chestnut, the bar became Sam Meyer’s Downtowner in 1957. The bar changed its name again in 1969 to The Downtowner. The bar burned down in 1974 under mysterious circumstances, and it reopened at the 105 West Main location in 1975. The December after the bar opened, a bomb exploded outside. The police never found who did it.
It became Louisville’s most popular and inclusive gay bar, and it hosted drag shows with multiple floors of the bar. The bar had a large oak bar and theater in the bar. It was the first bar in Louisville, Kentucky that was dedicated to gay customers. In the 1950s, the bar shifted from being gay-friendly to an exclusively gay bar.
In 1970, the bar was the site of Louisville’s first gay rights protest by a group called Gay Liberation Front. The bar had cross-dressing performers, but they wouldn’t allow cross-dressing bar patrons.
In the 1980s, LGBTQ+ activists formed GLUE, Gays and Lesbians United for Equality, in the basement of the establishment. It was the first group of LGBTQ+ activists in Louisville. The organization was an all-encompassing group for all Louisville nonprofits that supported gay rights.
In the mid-1980s, the AIDS epidemic had placed more attention on the LGBTQ+ community. In 1984, police raided the bar while wearing rubber gloves, apparently to protect the officers from HIV. The owner demanded the police not raid the bar again, and they didn’t.
One of Kentucky’s first HIV victims was a bartender at the Downtowner. He passed away without his family, but with comfort from friends at the bar. Activists worked with realtors and churches to create the Glade House, an old Louisville home for HIV patients to receive their treatment or pass in their final days. The Glade House is still open today.
The owner George Stinson closed the bar in 1989, and he went on to open another gay bar called The Connection at 120 South Floyd Street. This bar remained open until August 2016.
Reva Devereaux, a performer who appeared regularly at the bar, said a gay bar provided a “home and family” that wasn’t found in non-gay environments. After finding The Downtowner and stage that provided an outlet for self-expression in feminine clothing when she was harassed her entire life, Devereaux said, “that’s the day I felt like I was born.” The bar was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
Henderson, Andrew. LGBT history 'reclaimed' in historic Louisville properties. Courier-Journal. June 30, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2019. https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2017/06/30/lgbt-history-reclaimed-historic-louisville-properties/424235001/.
Marshall, Anne. And then there were four. Leo Weekly. December 14, 2011. Accessed March 10, 2019. https://www.leoweekly.com/2011/12/and-then-there-were-four/.
Fosl, Catherine, Vivian, Daniel, and Coleman, Jonathan. Kentucky LGBTQ Historic Context Narrative 2016.
NPS. Accessed March 05, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/articles/upload/Statewide_LGBTQHeritageofKentucky-508-compliant.pdf
University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/articles/upload/Statewide_LGBTQHeritageofKentucky-508-compliant.pdf.