West Main Street today. (Click to enlarge.)

Historic preservation pioneer Ann Hassett has died.

Hassett, 70, was the first director of city’s Landmarks Commission, hired just after the Louisville Board of Alderman approved the body in 1974 under former Mayor Harvey Sloan’s administration.

Now the Historic Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission, the body has oversight of historic districts and reviews any proposed changes in architecture.

Before managing the new commission, Hassett had a number of careers and interests, said Doug Stern, who worked with her at the Landmarks Commission.

Hassett had been a case worker for The American Red Cross, a collaborator with Louisville author Grady Clay, who writes about architecture and urban planning, and John Cullinane, assistant director of the Louisville Preservation Alliance, now Preservation Louisville, said Stern, a marketing and communications executive in Louisville.

Hassett embodied the preservation movement that began in the 1970s under Sloan, he said.

“Harvey Sloan knew how important strong neighborhoods were to the livability of the city,” Stern said.

In the days of urban renewal, Hassett fought to save endangered historic districts. The main mission of the Landmarks Commission was to research and document the first preservation districts which included the Cherokee Triangle and the West Main Street areas, Stern said.

“People don’t remember this, but St. James Court was designated for destruction so Seventh Street could be expanded. St. James Court, Belgravia Court and Old Louisville were designated as ‘blighted.’ ”

Hassett was able to weather all the legal fights along with skepticism and criticism of the preservation movement, he said.

“Ann was able to stand up against all those headwinds and keep moving forward, designating historic districts and conducting the business of the Landmarks Commission – architectural review, the approval process and all the things with which we’re so comfortable now.”

It took, Stern said, a lot of skill and diplomacy, building the commission’s “equity” buy proving the historic review process could be fair and beneficial.

“Ann had a thick skin. A pleasant demeanor, but thick skin,” he said. Hassett also was very smart. When it was time to argue, she could hold her own, Stern said: “She was well read and studied, so she had stats at her fingertips. She could site the rise in property values were architectural reviews and other facts and figures supporting her case. And she had Harvey at her back.”

The results transformed Louisville.

Stern remembers accompanying Hassett, late Courier-Journal publisher Barry Bingham, Jr. and other civic leaders and community activists to West Main Street at its nadir in the 1970s,

“I remember how desolate West Main was … empty, desolate and forgotten. I almost expected a tumble weed to blow past us.

“And look at West Main Street now! Ann was a real treasure for the community.”