LGBT history ‘reclaimed’ in historic Louisville properties

Since the 19th century, the area of Main Street known as Whiskey Row has been known for, well, its namesake. But now it has been formally recognized for a history that extends beyond just bourbon. 

From 1975 to 1989, 105 West Main St. was home to The Downtowner, a popular gay bar, which was moved to the location after the original model of the bar on 320 Chestnut burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1974.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, the Whiskey Row Historic District has been amended in the national register to reflect the history of The Downtowner.

Additionally, the Henry Clay Hotel, registered in the national database as the Elks Athletic Club, on 604 S. Third St. also was amended to reflect its history as the Beaux Arts Cocktail Lounge, believed to be Louisville’s first gay bar.

Diane Comer, public information officer with the Kentucky Heritage Council, confirmed both of the amendments had been accepted to the national register.

Both amendments came as a result of the work done by Catherine Fosl, director of the University of Louisville’s Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research and principal author of the “Kentucky LGBTQ Historic Context Narrative.”

The historic narrative came from the Kentucky LGBT Heritage Initiative as a result of a matching grant from the National Park Service to increase listings of minority populations in the historical register.

“What we did was more pioneering ground work for people to follow,” Fosl said.

Beaux Arts Cocktail Lounge

Open for business on April 16, 1947, sitting at the corner of Third and Chestnut, the Beaux Arts found itself in the midst of Louisville’s business district with apartment buildings, offices and hotels surrounding it.

At the onset of the 1950s, cocktail lounges became “central to new forms of middle-class consumption,” according to the national register amendment. These venues attracted “educated, status-conscious” consumers who gathered to “enjoy drinks after work or as part of evening entertainments.”

A November 1952 ad in the Courier-Journal encouraged readers to “relax and be gay with Renee’ at the organ” and an ad two years later announced the Billy Rudolph Trio would be playing at the lounge.

Beaux Arts also found itself alongside the Plantation Room in the Kentucky Hotel and Gordon’s as part of a trio of bars, which made up a “circuit for gay men making the rounds,” according to the historic narrative.

However, the Beaux Arts, which closed its doors in 1955, isn’t the only piece of LGBT history the original Elks Lodge building has.

In the 1980s, the building was housed the Creative Employment Project, a social program headed by the Young Women’s Christian Association. Fosl identifies the program as “one of the most gay/lesbian friendly workplaces in Louisville.”

The Henry Clay still remains at 604 S. Third St. but now markets itself as a “bustling mixed-use center” sporting 14 event spaces, 11 condominiums and 33 loft-style apartments.

The Downtowner

Outliving Beaux Arts by years, The Downtowner came to establish itself as a well-known and highly popular gathering spot for gays and lesbians in Louisville.

What became known as The Downtowner opened first in 1954 as Nolan’s Cocktail Lounge, then three years later into Sam Meyer’s Downtowner and in 1969 simply The Downtowner, according to Fosl’s narrative.

Opening in 1975 at 105 W. Main Street, originally as The New Downtowner before dropping the adjective, The Downtowner first occupied half of the first floor where customers could find a large oak bar and a hallway leading to a theater in the back, according to the national register amendment.

In an interview with Fosl, Reva Devereaux, a cross-dressing performer who appeared regularly in the late 1970s at The Downtowner, said gay bars provided a sort of “home and family” unable to be found in non-gay spaces.

As noted in a previous Courier-Journal story, The Downtowner was also a hot spot for activism.

LGBT leaders in the early 1980s formed GLUE, Gays and Lesbians United for Equality, in the basement of The Downtowner. This was the first coalition of gay men and women in Louisville.

GLUE served as “an umbrella organization for all Louisville-area nonprofit groups that were supportive of gay rights,” John Kleber wrote in the Encyclopedia of Louisville.

The Downtowner’s 105 West location closed in 1989 and was later reopened as The Connection on South Floyd Street. The owners of the Connection are developing a new project in Smoketown that includes a new hotel, a spa, an event venue and two soon-to-open restaurants.

A process of reclamation

The fact the two properties amended on the national register to reflect their LGBT history are bars should come as no surprise.

Fosl said the trend of gay and lesbian bars popping up in major U.S. cities was common following World War II.

Bars still remain an important LGBT space, but less so in recent years, she said. For example, Play is an important space but is not the sole one for LGBT people to frequent.

“As queer life has expanded and become less closeted, not to be trite with that word, other spaces have expanded as well,” Fosl said.

Amending these properties on the national register to show their deeper LGBT history has been a process of reclamation, she said.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Chris Hartman, director of the Fariness Campaign and commissioner on Louisville’s Historic Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission.

Hartman said it was important Kentucky is becoming a pioneering place in chronicling LGBT history and that amending the history of these two landmarks is a step towards more history being unearthed and recognized.

“This puts us ahead of the curve of documenting a woefully undocumented population in American history,” he said.

 Fosl said she is hopeful her narrative will be a stepping stone for more history to be uncovered.

“There’s a lot more sites to be discovered,” she said.

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