In a working-class neighborhood in western Louisville, near a fire station, Baptist churches and homes with gray vinyl siding, some tall red-brick structures stand out – in part because one of them seems to be propping up a giant bottle of bourbon.
Visitors who stroll down this part of Dixie Highway are inclined to pay more attention to the building on the east, the official headquarters of Brown-Forman Corp., which impresses with neatly cut shrubs, smooth lawn and majestic, white columns.
But it is the HQ’s two unassuming neighbors across the street whose modernist interiors prove more interesting.
The Garneau Building
The shorter of the two structures, called the Garneau Building, dates back to the turn of the last century.
The building has a timber frame, and all floors and columns were made of wood, which was standard for the late 1800s, said Eric Doninger, Brown-Forman’s vice president, global director of Brand Homeplace Operations. Doninger formerly served Brown-Forman as director of design and of corporate real estate.
Brown-Forman bought the former distillery warehouse in 1923. For about 55 years, it held up to 40,000 barrels in which the company aged Old Forester Kentucky Bourbon.
Brown-Forman is one of the largest American-owned spirits and wine companies. Started in Louisville by George Garvin Brown, the corporation now employs 4,000 people globally, including 1,000 in Louisville. Its more than 25 brands include Jack Daniel’s, Korbel and Finlandia.
The structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, and when the company decided to renovate in the late 1980s to accommodate growth, it wanted to keep the designation and chose to alter only the interior.
To redesign the building, Brown-Forman executive Owsley Brown II recruited Chicago architect Harry Weese. Brown had gotten to know Weese about a decade earlier when he oversaw the restoration of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, over which Brown presided at the time.
The redesign proved tricky, in part because the building had staggered windows. Doninger said while that feature enhanced air circulation in the warehouse, it also meant the windows did not line up from one side of the building to another. Weese overcame the challenge by splitting the building into four floors on one side – and five on the other.
Given the building’s small windows and extensive sections of brick, Weese’s options to bring in natural light – a key element of modern architecture – were limited. He “left the center of the building’s interior open, creating a large atrium extending from the ground floor to a skylight rooftop,” according to “The Architecture of Harry Weese,” by Robert Bruegemann.
Doninger said that while the Garneau is “stunningly beautiful,” the open spaces overlooking the central courtyard created challenges for the occupants.
The layout, with offices on the exterior, and office assistants on the interior, overlooking the central courtyard, was radical at the time, Doninger said. A little too radical, in fact, for some, he said.
Bruegemann wrote that “staff complained of feeling insecure and exposed. To ease their discomfort, Brown-Forman added louvered screens to shield work stations and improve employees’ sense of well-being.”
The Forester Center
About a decade later, Brown-Forman had outgrown the building and hired Weese’s firm to redesign the Garneau building’s neighbor, another whiskey barrel warehouse, built in 1935, and also designated for historic preservation.
The building has almost no windows, Doninger said, so Weese again designed a large, central skylight that allows light to flood the entire building. Landscape architect Joe Karr, who also had worked on the Garneau, installed bamboo trees in the atrium and planters on each level, evoking a tropical garden.
A focal point in Weese’s design is a fountain on the ground floor, which branches out as it moves upward, like a reverse ziggurat, Doninger said.
Brown called the design “most ingenious,” according to Bruegemann’s book.
The company initially occupied only the first floor, he said, and expanded upward as needed.
While company officials said the work environments improve employee performance and well-being, some of the designs also have created headaches: For example, Doninger said, with monitors and mobile devices everywhere, the natural light flooding in through the ceilings of both buildings can create an intense glare. Employees have mitigated the effect with large umbrellas.
The skylights in both buildings also have leaked and required repairs and redesigns, Doninger said.
In the early days after the Forester Center’s redesign, some visitors also became so mesmerized by the atrium, waterfall and plants that they stepped beyond the edge of the floor – and into the shallow pool in the lobby. The company has since extended the walkway.