Architect and historian Steve Wiser points out Louisville’s ‘missed opportunities’

The Old Post Office at Fourth and Chestnut — shown here in the early 1900s — was torn down to make room for a drugstore.

Is Steve Wiser merely tilting at windmills when he says we should have built the proposed Museum Plaza a few years ago? Or, before that, the proposed Vencor Tower on the same property?

Or when he says Louisville should not have abandoned its streetcar lines? Or should have saved the Old Post Office building?

Not at all, says the Louisville-born and bred architect and historian. He feels these “missed opportunities” were steps backward in the city’s efforts to remain commercially and culturally viable. But, more than that, he wants to revive those as reminders that we ought not make the same mistakes again. And to learn from those mistakes.

That will be the theme of Wiser’s presentation — “Missed Opportunities: How ‘Lost’ & ‘Unbuilt’ Projects Might Make Louisville Great Again” — on Thursday, April 6, at noon, at the University of Louisville’s Urban and Public Affairs building at 426 W. Bloom St. (the old Standard Oil Building).

In the past, he says, there was a tendency to tear down buildings someone felt had lost their utility and to replace them with something quick, efficient and — in too many cases — cheap.

That, he says, is what happened in 1943, when the Old Post Office and Customs House on Fourth and Chestnut streets was demolished and replaced by a drugstore.

The Post Office had indeed lost its viability and had stood vacant for 10 years after the site was decommissioned. According to the website, “it was considered to be nothing more than a pigeon roost. Its 4,500 tons of steel, copper, brass bronze and lead were given for the war effort.”

Admirable. But what if instead, Wiser says, “we’d kept that great old building standing, repurposing it into a nice residential complex, or hotel, or office building?

This structure now stands at the site of the Old Post Office building — and it’s vacant. | Photo courtesy of Steve Wiser

“If they had wanted a drugstore, they could have turned the old building into an urban retail mall. Projects exactly like that have been done to old commercial buildings in cities all over the country.”

The lesson, he insists, “is to think long-term before we tear things down, and to replace them with equally good projects of high value — not something quick and inexpensive that will be old and obsolete in 20 years.”

For instance, he notes, the drugstore building that replaced the Post Office is now itself vacant — and a downtown eyesore, Wiser feels.

A good example of a positive decision on a wonderful old building that became obsolete is the Railroad Terminal on West Broadway, now TARC headquarters. Or the old Jefferson County Courthouse on Jefferson Street that was slated for demolition in 1948, but instead was preserved as city hall and now contains the mayor’s office, among other city offices.

The building that now houses Metro Hall was spared demolition and transformed. | File photo

“I’m so glad they made those decisions,” Wiser says. “In both cases, they retained better, higher-quality buildings than the new ones they would have built instead. Today, those newer, more-modern structures would probably be getting torn down already, having outlived their usefulness, their designs in disfavor.

“Why tear down a building that was built to last centuries and replace it with a building built to last decades?”

Wiser regrets decisions based on short-term vision unduly influenced by local interests. Such as, he says, the city of Anchorage defeating Reynolds Aluminum’s effort to build a research center there in 1958.

“Reynolds Aluminum was headquartered in Louisville,” Wiser recalls, “and it commissioned the noted architect of the time, Eero Saarinen, to create something memorable. But the residents blocked it because they didn’t want ‘that sort of development’ in their neighborhood.

“The citizens said it would be dirty manufacturing, but in fact it was almost entirely white-collar research.”

So, says Wiser, Reynolds not only folded that project but it also picked up and moved its headquarters to Richmond, Va.

“We lost a whole economic engine because of that, a world-class development and a big company’s headquarters, with all its hiring and local investment.”

A less-obvious loss of smaller magnitude was the elimination of Louisville’s streetcar lines. Streetcars had outlived their utility by the 1940, because the automobile had ascended, lifestyles had changed and the economic viability of streetcars had disappeared. There seemed no reason why they should have survived.

The streetcar at Fourth and Liberty streets | Courtesy of Steve Wiser

But Wiser isn’t simply pining for a romantic notion gone forever. He’s wistful about what else we lost when we lost the streetcars — three lines, in particular: the Fourth Street Line from downtown to Churchill Downs; the Market Street Line that extended from downtown into West Louisville; and the Daisy Line that ran from downtown to Southern Indiana, across the K&I Bridge.

“The loss of the Fourth Street Line led to the loss of commercial viability in Old Louisville,” he says. “And losing the Market Street Line was costly to the neighborhoods on the West Side.”

It’s Wiser’s contention that streetcars contribute to neighborhood growth in a way buses do not. “Buses stop at every corner,” he says. “Streetcars stop only every few blocks. And those stops become a locus of retail, banking, restaurants, residence, etc. — and foster neighborhood development — because that’s where people gather when they get on and off the streetcar. Nodes of commerce sprout along the streetcar stops. Whereas buses’ more numerous stops water down the economic impact.”

Perhaps more important, he says, is the fact that western-traveling streetcars would have encouraged more development in neighborhoods like Portland and Russell, and easier transportation between downtown and West Louisville, “breaking down that Ninth Street barrier we currently have.

“Yes, we have buses on West Market Street. We also have empty lots, vacant stores and less-quality development.”

As for the Daisy Line, he says if we’d kept it we might have had years of an alternate means across the river and less wear and tear on the bridges. “We might not have had to spend billions of dollars to improve the bridges. Plus, the K&I Bridge would still be viable for public use.”

Even if the streetcars, as technology, had become outdated, Wiser notes we still had the infrastructure to build something more modern — as they’ve done in Cincinnati, Portland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and other places. “Louisville could have been on the cutting edge of light-rail surface transportation, instead of spending billions of dollars on bridges.”

It’s true, he says, that many of these decisions were made at the time because the suburbs were growing. People and businesses were fleeing downtown. “I even remember reading an article questioning whether we even needed a downtown anymore.

“But sometimes,” he says, “it makes sense to try looking beyond what’s in front of our eyes. That’s called ‘vision.’ There’s a future worth anticipating. Even if you don’t want to preserve the valuable icons of today for historic or aesthetic reasons, it’s worth trying to figure out the roles they can play in a world that’s yet to come.

“And that’s a win-win for everyone.”