The Kentucky Center for the Arts | Courtesy of the Kentucky Center

In quick fashion, the Louisville Fire Department extinguished a possibly catastrophic fire this month on the roof of the Kentucky Center for the Arts. The building sustained some interior damage and remains closed while repairs are made and safety inspections carried out.

But the 35-year-old building generally withstood deluges of water from fire hoses and interior sprinkler systems — with much of the overflow rolling out of the lobby and right down the aisles of the center’s two theaters, flowing away through drains near the stages.

The building had taken a licking. And will soon — everyone hopes — keep ticking.

Kentucky Center officials Christian Adelberg and Chuck Schmidt explained the clean-up, dry-up process underway. | Photo by Bill Doolittle

Contractors quickly went to work removing peeling paint and plaster, and drying soaked carpeting. Industrial-level air cleaners circulate fresh air through the lobby and theaters to remove a thick smell of fire smoke.

And the roof needs additional repair. But the seats stayed dry as water rushed by.

Chuck Schmidt, the Kentucky Center’s vice president of facilities, said the lobby of the theater is sealed to deal with the water and humidity.

“We’re going to turn it into an Arizona kind of climate here,” said Schmidt. “A much reduced humidity and high heat — mostly to dry out the walls and the floor.”

And in what must be the ultimate in fortunate irony, the center’s renowned collection of modern art — including several massive sculptures hung in the lobby beneath the fire on the roof, and in the direct line of water sprayed from sprinklers — appears to have survived almost totally unscathed.

The “fortunate irony” of that is the fire began as an accident during roof reconstruction to fix a leak. But because there was construction scheduled, the art had been covered to prevent damage from normal worksite dust and exposure.

The canvas coverings were never meant to resist floods of water, but that was the hope as center officials and expert conservators on loan from the Speed Art Museum anxiously awaited the opportunity to get inside the building after the fire to make an inspection. What they found was the canvas held.

The Louise Nevelson wooden sculpture “Night Wave: Moon” that hangs center stage in the lobby, was not damaged. And the bright, wrecked car slices sculpture on an opposite wall, “The Coloured Gates of Louisville,” by John Chamberlain, that was really deluged, was simply cleaned and is fine.

“Night Wave: Moon” hangs center stage in the lobby. | Courtesy of the Kentucky Center

During a tour conducted by Schmidt and Christian Adelberg, the center’s senior marketing manager, Schmidt noted the high level of attention paid to the art. The Nevelson piece has been covered in a thick, padded black plastic sheath that looked very substantial.

The large, sculptural art piece by Louise Nevelson has been hermetically sealed to keep in humidity while the theater is dried. | Photo by Bill Doolittle

“It’s hermetically sealed,” explained Schmidt. “That’s to keep a normal level of humidity in. We want to protect the pieces by keeping them at a normal level, a constant humidity, while the air around it is being dried.”

All in all, it appears that with careful conservation through the clean-up and refurbishing process, the art collection — valued at $18 million — is going to be fine.

And maybe offers an opportunity to take a fresh look at the art. Just what are the pieces everyone is so relieved that they’ve survived?

And how did they get there?

How, in fact, did the Kentucky Center for the Arts manage to pop on Main Street 35 years ago to launch a revitalization of downtown Louisville that seems to be rolling along at allegro speed today?

‘A Center for All’

The construction of the Kentucky Center for the Arts certainly is the start of the story.

By the 1970s, Louisville was a city with a strong post-World War II economy and an ambitious cultural urge. Civic leaders, headed by attorney Gordon Davidson, and others began dreaming of a 20th century theater showcase — and especially a home for its Louisville Orchestra.

Founded in 1937, as the city bounced back from a historic great Ohio River flood, the Louisville Orchestra had steadily built a loyal fan base and gained some wider fame by launching its own First Edition recording label. But it was still performing in long-ago-built auditoriums.

Davidson’s theme was, “A first-rate city needs a first-rate arts center.” And the notion resonated not only with wealthy arts patrons with season tickets, but everyday Louisvillians who had grown pretty proud of their orchestra—- which got out in the community and played more than Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Louisville Orchestra at the airport on their way to Carnegie Hall. | Courtesy of Louisville Orchestra

Those cultural ambitions did not just begin and end with the symphony, according to a film documenting the creation of the Kentucky Center called “A Kentucky Treasure: A Center for All,” by Joanna Hay.

“Success begets success,” said banker David Grissom. “When the community saw it could form a world-class orchestra in the Louisville Orchestra, then it said maybe we need to have a ballet, and an opera, and an Actors Theatre.”

A “big stage” for the arts became a cause for newly elected Kentucky Governor Julian Carroll, in 1974. Carroll was a self-styled “country boy” from Paducah, Ky.

“I had never even seen a symphony orchestra before I got to college,” Carroll said.

Gov. Julian Carroll

But he liked what he heard and came to view arts and culture as necessary amenities in his effort to create an economic boom in Kentucky.

The new governor — limited in those days to one four-year term by the Kentucky constitution — got the ball rolling quickly and, remarkably, was able to bring the Kentucky legislature along with him to finance the project.

But the first spade was barely turned when Carroll’s term expired and a new Kentucky governor, John Y. Brown Jr., took office.

Brown said hold on a minute.

“It came along when I was running for governor, about the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, which I was against,” said Brown. “I was more into sports and was not an arts patron.”

Crit Luallen, who worked for both governors on the Kentucky Center project, explained the situation.

“Governor Carroll came from a more traditional Democratic position of government having a strong role in making these types of things happen,” said Luallen. “Governor Brown came in as more of a businessman.”

Gov. John Y. Brown Jr.

But the businessman in Brown could also see potential in the project. He cut the commonwealth’s share of the budget from $35 million to $23 million, and challenged Louisville’s business and civic leaders to come up with the rest.

“He believed that would give the business community ownership, and they would buy into the center’s future,” said Luallen. “I think ultimately it proved to be right.”

Brown called upon business colleagues David Jones and Wendell Cherry, the founders of Humana, to take the lead.

Jones said Cherry was the one who knew art and architecture.

“He (Gov. Brown) turned to my partner Wendell Cherry, who was in charge of all the construction for Humana and was tremendously experienced in working with architects and builders, and asked Wendell to be the president of what was to become the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts,” recalled Jones. “I was called upon to be the fundraiser for the project.”

Both Jones and Cherry came though handsomely, and with plenty of local help.

“All that came together and we got it done,” said Carroll, who also enlisted an ally in Brown’s wife, the former Miss America, Phyllis George Brown, who turned the first shovel of ground at the site in 1979. “Maybe it was not with everybody’s 100 percent agreement at the time. But certainly we got the result that we wanted.”

Building Boom

Construction began on the Kentucky Center in 1979. | Courtesy of Kentucky Center

The Kentucky Center project took shape in dramatic curves and sweeping glass faces designed by architect Michael Wilson.

The design seemed to reference the new Sydney (Australia) Opera House that people were talking about — the glass reflecting open sky and the streetscape of Main Street, with its signature brick-front buildings from the 19th century, and the soon-to-be built Humana Building, by architect Michael Graves.

The new arts structure was placed on a “Belvedere” with views of the Ohio River, a tall Galt House Hotel, and an adjoining new American Life Building designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Whether it nurtured a Renaissance of art or was simply a spark for a long-needed building boom that’s boomed big in the last 20 years, the Kentucky Center for the Arts became a downtown landmark for the city, surrounded by museums, hotels, bourbon-making visitor sites, a neat retro baseball park, a greensward riverfront park, a bridge converted to a cross-river walkway, a new college basketball arena and clusters of restaurants and ever-nicer landscaping.

Trees grow on Main Street!

Opening Night

Opening night was held Nov. 19, 1983. | Courtesy of Kentucky Center

The Kentucky Center opened on Nov. 19, 1983, with a tremendous gala that included a raft of entertainment personalities, including emcee Charlton Heston and special theatrical guests soprano Jesseye Norman, actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and actress Lillian Gish.

But the show was the thing, starring a flock of Kentucky-grown celebrities, backed musically by the Louisville Orchestra — with performances by the Louisville Ballet and Kentucky Opera.

The show was directed like a big Broadway revue by George Stevens Jr., with a cast that included Lily Tomlin, Diane Sawyer, Florence Henderson, Marsha Norman and more — singing, dancing, joking and, in the end, leading some 2,000 guests in a singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“What a night to be home!” said Diane Sawyer.

Tickets for the gala were $750 apiece. But this writer was in attendance as a lucky invited guest. Two tickets came my way courtesy of the design firm Gerard Hilferty and Associates, for which I was working in creating the exhibits for the new Kentucky Derby Museum — which opened the next year, 1984.

Things were popping in Louisville.

In coverage of the event, The New York Times noted that the project enjoyed solid support from Louisville labor unions. A week before the opening, 2,000 workers were treated to a concert that featured singer Roberta Flack — with “some sitting in seats that were not yet bolted down,” the Times reported.

Construction head H.G. Whittenburg Jr. said the event was intended to “recognize the contribution of the job the skilled workers have done.”

And done well, in fact. Glass and metals, with tall cherry paneling.

The center’s 2,400-seat auditorium is named for Louisville Orchestra founder Robert Whitney. The smaller 619-seat auditorium is named for Kentucky Opera founder Moritz Bomhard. Both men were in attendance.

Aspiring young performers such as Bela Fleck caught the fever.

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones | Courtesy

Fleck said performing in the Kentucky Center “had the most profound effect on my career of anything.” For a pioneering show in the Bomhard Theater, Fleck got a jazz band to go with his banjo, and the group clicked. “After the show we were loading up on the loading dock, and we said, ‘I guess we’ve got a band. What are we going to name it?’ — and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones was born.”

“It was a time,” said Thomson Smillie, the director of Kentucky Opera and later an arts columnist for Louisville Magazine. “The 1980s was a Golden Age of the Arts in Louisville.”

Next, the Sights and Sounds

Whitney Hall | Courtesy of Kentucky Center

There are criticisms of the Kentucky Center.

The continuous-row seating in Whitney Hall is odd. More importantly, the acoustics — which have been addressed with several tries for improvement over the years — are still not as resonant as in other musical halls.

The hall, itself, might just need a complete makeover. Maybe moving the stage forward and reconfiguring the seating around it, as other auditoriums have done. And maybe create a modern accommodation for telecasting concerts.

But the place remains elegantly beautiful. Or will, when they get all the scaffolding and tons of renovating equipment out of it and get back to the show.

Which brings us to the Kentucky Center’s art collection.

“Personage” by Joan Miro | Courtesy of Kentucky Center

It’s not old-masters paintings of Mozart and Enrico Caruso. No bust of Beethoven. It’s all about modern, contemporary art, fitting in nicely with the Kentucky Center’s sweeping glass curves and at-the-moment excitement.

Jones said credit for the art should go to Cherry. Not just because he wanted art in the lobby, or because he put up lots of his own money to make that happen. But because he knew art and understood how it could enhance the Kentucky Center experience.

“Wendell grew up in Horse Cave, Ky.,” said Jones. “He played on the basketball team at Caverna that made it to the semi-finals of the Kentucky Sweet 16. As a reward, the team was sent on a trip to Washington, D.C. — on a school bus. The first place they went was the National Gallery of Art, and Wendell spent the whole two-day trip there.”

And must have learned something.

“He bought a Picasso for $5 million, and people said he was crazy,” said Jones. “The he sold it for $47 million.”

Arts pieces most familiar to patrons are the aforementioned sculpture, “Night Wave: Moon” by Louise Nevelson; the white plastic and color “Personage” by Joan Miro; “Red Feather” by Alexander Calder; and the ingenious tinker-toy twosome “Faribolus and Perceval” by Jean Dubuffet.

And gleaming in mangled color is “The Colored Gates of Louisville” by John Chamberlain. Crushed car fenders and smashed chrome.

“The Colored Gates of Louisville” by John Chamberlain is made of crushed car parts picked out of junk yards. | Courtesy of Kentucky Center

With the fire, there was much concern about the Chamberlain because it caught the brunt of deluging water. But the paint jobs held. Conservators gave it a “car wash,” and it shines like a Lincoln.

Jones said he loves the Chamberlain. “I thought at one time an old car I had was part of that sculpture. But I was persuaded that it wasn’t.”

But the Nevelson dark wood sculpture that hangs in the center of the lobby — 1,001 pieces connected as a collage by bits of found pieces, many from the construction site — is the Kentucky Center’s star.

“Louise Nevelson, she’s passed away now,” said Jones. “But back when the center was new, she was 84 years old. Wendell called her and said, ‘Miss Nevelson, the back wall of Whitney Hall is the perfect place for one of your sculptures. You’re not represented in this part of the country, may I fly up and bring you down and show it to you?’

“Well, she was intrigued,” continued Jones. “Wendell was good at convincing people. So he flew up there and brought her down, and she said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it — for $400,000.’ The next day, Wendell called (Louisville philanthropist) Jane Norton and said, ‘Come down and have lunch with me.’ Jane was, herself, an artist, and a wonderful civic leader.

“Wendell said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get Louise Nevelson to do a sculpture for us there?’ She said that would be fabulous. He said, ‘If I had $400,000, I bet I could get her to do it.’ She said, ‘Done!’”

And that’s how the art, and the Kentucky Center for the Arts, came to be … “Done!”

An Update

Kim Baker | Courtesy of Kentucky Center

On Thursday, Kentucky Center President & CEO Kim Baker sent out a letter to subscribers and members detailing the latest news regarding the fire damage. She indicated that the Commonwealth Finance and Administration Cabinet is working closely with the restoration efforts and is assessing the damage.

While the PNC Broadway in Louisville performance of “Waitress” was canceled, the staff of the Kentucky Center is hoping to find alternative venues for events planned in the next few weeks.

It was announced on Tuesday that Louisville Orchestra’s “Harry Potter” concerts have been rescheduled from July 7-8 to Nov. 3-4 at the Kentucky Center.

Baker said updates will be given via social media.

“The dedication of our staff and love from our community reminds us all that the Kentucky Center is more than a building, it is an idea that binds us together through the joy, love and power of the arts,” she added. “The wonderful artists and audiences we serve at the Kentucky Center can rest assured we are doing everything in our power to return the building to a fully operational state as quickly and safely as possible.”

Correction: This feature has been updated to correct the surname and job title of Christian Adelberg; in addition, to note that the Louise Nevelson wooden sculpture “Night Wave: Moon,” which hangs center stage in the lobby, was not damaged; and that the estimated value of the lobby art is $18 million, not $19 million. Also, we updated the new dates of the “Harry Potter” concerts.