As the in-demand neighborhood gains high-income homeowners and businesses, will longtime residents be able to afford the change?
By Mary Chellis Austin | Louisville Magazine
“The dirt’s great here,” Germantown resident Nora Christensen says one morning in early April. “All of these houses are built on black, delicious dirt.” In 2004, Christensen and her daughter, Stella, moved into the 1,000-square-foot shotgun cottage on Ellison Avenue, with a sliver of a backyard for growing vegetables and composting. Christensen, who followed her sister to Louisville in the ’90s, is founder of the Squallis Puppeteers, which is one reason she keeps a sewing machine on a table in her bedroom. “It made me love the city even more — that you could first of all earn a living as a puppeteer and then buy a house,” the 40-year-old says.
A forgivable loan for single mothers helped her put a down payment on the house that she says was “dirt cheap” — $70,000 12 years ago. This was before the Nachbar opened a block away in 2007, replacing a motorcycle bar called Charlie’s Tavern. “It was pretty rough,” Christensen says of Charlie’s. “In the first few months someone was stabbed outside. It was terrifying because it was the first time I was living by myself with my daughter. I always lived on the second floor in all my apartments and here I was on the first floor. But I had my dog and my daughter and the three of us were fine. Dogs are essential in Germantown. I tell everyone that.”
In 2008 Christensen met Shawn Hennessey; they got married at the house. A couple years later she had a son, Oscar, so Hennessey reconfigured the home’s layout by adding a third bedroom. They’ve made cosmetic changes here and there, stripping away lowered ceilings and wood paneling, but Christensen says she has preserved some of the history of the home, which was built circa 1904. “I believe I was the second owner,” she says. “The woman who was born here, her parents had owned it and then she inherited it and then passed away. There are all these little systems in the house, like the fly swatter goes here and this is where you hang this, so I kept all the things that worked.”
The dirt that accommodates Christensen’s asparagus patch welcomed German immigrants in the late 1800s. They kept farms along Beargrass Creek, which often flooded the area and led to the nickname “Frogtown,” until the city rerouted the creek in the 1920s. Germantown — the section northeast of Goss Avenue between Eastern Parkway, Beargrass Creek, Barret Avenue, Breckinridge Street and the CSX railroad tracks — developed as a Louisville suburb. Now it’s just about the only place in town where you can actually get anywhere else in 10 minutes.
Historian Don Haag was born on Ash Street and grew up on Lydia Street in Schnitzelburg (bounded by Goss Avenue and Poplar Level Road to the east, Clarks Lane to the south, Shelby Street to the west, and the railroad to the north). Haag’s great-grandparents settled on Goss in 1887. At that time, Haag says, Schnitzelburg was mostly dairy farms. In 1889, the Louisville Cotton Mills plant was built on Goss near the tracks. At 250,000 square feet, the plant was one of the largest of its kind in the country. This is where, according to the book Louisville’s Germantown and Schnitzelburg, cotton warp for Kentucky jeans and Fincastle fabrics were made. “The completion of the mill and the Shelby Streetcar Loop…led to an explosion of growth in Schnitzelburg,” says Haag, who is 77 and now lives in Okolona with his wife. (“I always tell people I live in Okolona but my home is in Schnitzelburg,” he says.) The Louisville Cotton Mills built many of the houses surrounding the plant for its workers. Photos in the U of L Archives from several years after the turn of the 20th century show the area around Goss Avenue dotted with houses, thick grass, dirt roads and outhouses.
For decades, German families — a lot of them Catholic, but Protestants too, like Haag and his family — populated the area. (The name Germantown often lumps together Schnitzelburg and Paristown, just north of Germantown.) In 1901, Elizabeth Cherry Waltz wrote an article in the Courier-Journal about her trip to Germantown, “far out…not in Louisville at all.”
Heitzman Bakery got its start in the amalgamated neighborhood in 1891 and for several years stood at the corner of Burnett Avenue and Hickory Street, which is now where Monnik Beer Co. stands. Hauck’s Handy Store, its 95-year-old proprietor George Hauck a fixture in the neighborhood today, opened on Goss in 1912. Hauck introduced the World Dainty Championship, a German street-ball game, to the neighborhood in the ’70s. The neighborhood has several other community events, such as the Germantown baseball parade, the Shotgun Festival, history walks (which Haag leads), and a blues festival.
Hank Oechslin, known as the “Mayor of Lydia Street,” has lived on Lydia since he was born in 1932, right after the roadbed was paved for the first time. “Manual Stadium was my grandmother’s potato farm years ago,” he says of the Burnett Avenue football field.
I meet him and his wife Nancy for coffee one morning at the AMVETS Post No. 9, at the corner of Shelby and Forrest streets. “Typically blue-collar, hard-working, beer-drinking neighborhood, if I had to say three things. Sharkey, would you agree?” he says to a man sitting at the bar. “That gentleman up there is 90 years old. He’s the Mayor of Milton Street.” Sylvester “Sharkey” Breit nods and adds “Friendly” to the list. At 83, Oechslin is still dark-haired and sharp. He can remember the day this AMVETS post opened (“June the 30th, 1948”) but forgets the name of the new “pizza pie place” on Goss Avenue that always has a long line (The Post). He wears a denim jacket and overalls, a look you might expect more from one of the dairy farmers generations ago than from an old man who walks his dog to Check’s Cafe and keeps an eye on neighborhood businesses and home sales.
He and Nancy met in the ’70s when he owned Old Hickory Inn on Lydia. She came in one morning looking for Hershey bars to share with her friends during her shift at Kingfish.
“Cute little gal,” Hank remembers.
“Well, I knew his cook and I had forgotten to go to the grocery before my shift,” Nancy says. “Hank comes back and asks me if I wanted a beer. Ten o’clock in the morning. I thought, Who is this idiot?
“All the grandkids live in Germantown. They move out and move back because they don’t like it anywhere else.”
Hank’s brother is 89 and lives in Okolona, where a lot of Germantown folks went when the GE Appliance Park and nearby subdivisions were built in the ’50s.
Louisville’s newer suburban homes enticed many, and Germantown went through a decline. The mills (Hope, Bradford and Louisville Cotton) that had been economic engines eventually closed, with Louisville Cotton Mills becoming Goss Avenue Antique Mall in the early ’80s. Though a hit-or-miss gem to antique lovers, the mall’s shattered windows and unkempt grounds became blights on the neighborhood. Residents often dealt with crime, but for years, Nora Christensen’s story was not uncommon for the neighborhood: A young family could afford to at least start out in trusty Germantown.
Starting in about 2010, Eiderdown and Four Pegs, both bar-restaurants, and Yesternook, an antique furniture store, opened on Goss, which some call the neighborhood’s Main Street. At that time, with home prices barely reaching $100,000, the walkability factor attracted a new wave of young people.
Two years ago, Jared Langdon and his boyfriend Kyle Griffith opened JB Cakes, a bakery that features build-your-own cupcakes, on Goss across from Mo’s Food Mart. The rent was “stupid cheap,” Langdon says — not even $1,000 a month compared to the $7,000 to $10,000 they could expect to pay along Bardstown Road. Two months after they arrived, local developers Underhill Associates announced that they’d be converting the antique mall into 189 units and calling it the Germantown Mill Lofts.
Ann Lorimer had lived in Oldham County for the past 20 years, but once her kids were grown and out of the house, she decided she wanted a fresh start. When she found out the antique mall she had visited many times before was being converted into lofts, she was one of the first to sign a lease, sight unseen.
“I pictured what the lofts would look like and said, ‘I’m moving there,’” she says. She sold her house and all her furniture, lived at the Crescent Centre downtown near where she works (as a physician assistant in the heart surgery unit at Kosair) for about six months and waited for her unit to be completed. “I started worrying, like, Oh, gosh, have I made it into something in my mind that it’s not going to be?” she says. When she was finally allowed to pick which unit she wanted, the floor had holes and there was bird poop everywhere, but she says she could picture what it would look like. She especially loved the large master bathroom that’s in one of the building’s towers. “That’s what you get when you get first dibs,” the 53-year-old says when I visit her in early April, a couple weeks after she moved in.
The Germantown Mill Lofts smell like mothballs and fresh paint, a mix of new construction and remnants of the building’s past life. The floors are different depending on where you stand — some are metal or concrete, some are hardwood, some of it sun-bleached, some had been hiding under furniture, each panel with its own scars. Same with the brick walls — some yellow, some blue, some white. Underhill Associates’ goal, says project coordinator Elizabeth Rivers, was to preserve the building’s history and not touch as much as possible.
The tall ceilings and giant arch windows are urban and grand, like a preservationist’s dream. “On sunny days, I say it decorates my living room,” Lorimer says. “It puts all these really cool markings on everything.” Lorimer has an eye for decorating. Her space is a mix of Mid-Century Modern and Anthropologie, adorned with pieces from Yesternook and online auctions. Two Selig Z chairs by Danish designer Poul Jensen, which sell online for anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 apiece, balance out her living room. She points out her window to where a coffee shop and workout studio are going in, and to Eiderdown and other restaurants she’s excited to be able to walk to. “I didn’t even know what a great neighborhood I was moving into a year ago. Now I know this is the up-and-coming place,” says Lorimer, who thinks she may be the oldest tenant so far.
Monthly rent for a studio or one-bedroom unit ranges from about $600 to $1,500, $1,000 to $2,800 for a two-bedroom loft. Lorimer pays somewhere in the middle for her two-bedroom. “I worked for a year getting my big four-bedroom house ready to sell and I was just over it,” she says. “I was like, I want simplicity. I want to write a check and be done. At least for a while.” She says she could see herself buying a house in the neighborhood eventually, but that she’s hoping Underhill will sell some of the units. A similar loft-apartment concept is planned for the corner of Oak Street and Reutlinger Avenue at the former Bradford Mills, which is now surrounded by razor-wire fencing and covered in graffiti and broken windows.
Several bars and restaurants have cropped up since construction started on the lofts — The Post on Goss, Lydia House in the former Flabby’s at Hickory and Lydia streets, and Monnik, where a bar called Zeppelin Cafe was previously — and more are on the way, including a Craft House, which will serve beer from local breweries; a dive-bar-style place from Silver Dollar owner Larry Rice and his team; a cocktail lounge in the former Groucho’s karaoke bar; and Finn’s Southern Kitchen at the former daycare on the Germantown Mill Lofts lot.
Paristown, a major entryway to downtown, is getting a boost with $28 million in public and private investment that includes a renovation of 200-year-old Louisville Stoneware, a Goodwood Brewing Co. brewhouse with a rooftop bar and a Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts mixed-use venue. The Art Sanctuary, at the corner of Shelby and Lydia streets, rents studio space to more than 30 artists and hosts visual-, literary- and performing-arts events. Mark Foxforth, an architect who lives and works on Lydia Street, has designed a set of 640-square-foot, cube-like homes made out of shipping containers to be constructed at the corner of Ash and Shelby streets, right in the backyard of the Germantown Mill Lofts. Some investors plan to plop down six of the so-called tiny homes on the lot, unless zoning restrictions limit them to three.
Community-led projects have energized the area, too. A couple years ago, Jennifer Chappell led a beautification project at Three Points, where Schnitzelburg, Germantown and Shelby Park meet, with a mural and landscaping. The Schnitzelburg Area Community Council and the German-Paristown Neighborhood Association have been working to get public funding for things like new street signs, landscaped medians and updated trashcans to help restore the area’s charm — on Goss avenue especially. Downtown and U of L have been growing on either side of Germantown and those who might have looked to buy a house in the Highlands have been priced out. A boom was inevitable.
“Even four years ago, a lot of my investors were like, ‘No, I don’t want to mess with Germantown,’” says Julie Broghamer, a realtor and investment specialist with Keller Williams Realty. She has been fixing houses in the Germantown area and other older Louisville neighborhoods for 15 years, and she has built a team of investors under her called Property Pros Louisville. “I wanted them to hold and rent,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I’m telling you: couple of years.’”
I meet with Broghamer one early-spring afternoon at a house on Mulberry Street in the center of Schnitzelburg that she listed for $278,000. With two stories and 2,400 square feet, the house is much bigger than most homes in the neighborhood. The original unpainted wood-and-tile mantels remain and the shutters are intact. The team Broghamer worked with on the house, BVC Design, put in a claw-foot soaking tub and what Broghamer calls a “blinged-out” shower — spacious, two heads, sleek tile — to raise the value even more. Her crew works on the old shotguns from the inside out, adding insulation and replacing old electricity, plumbing, roofs and HVAC systems. They’ll move walls around for a more desirable layout. “Large square footage can live very small and small square footage can live very large if it’s well-laid-out,” she says. The Mulberry house was in the same family for almost 100 years. At the open house, which drew about 75 people, Broghamer talked to a 90-year-old woman who remembered getting piano lessons in the place when nine or 10 kids lived there. A little over a year ago, a widow sold it to DSO Holdings LLC for $78,000. Now it’s one of the most — if not the most — expensive houses in the neighborhood. “As soon as I put this one pending, a bunch of houses went up over $200,000,” Broghamer says. On April 11, after several offers, the house sold for $265,000.
“You can see people, younger people, moving (into the neighborhood),” Broghamer says. “They’re excited about it. This is like the Highlands used to be, but more affordable” — although the high demand has people in bidding wars and each house lists higher than the last. “I don’t think it will make it unaffordable because there’s always going to be someone who can afford that,” Broghamer says, “but to the buyers that we had last year in this area, yes. I took so many phone calls on this house. They see the size, they see it’s renovated and they want to know how much. I ask, ‘What’s the price range you’re shopping in?’ ‘About $150,000’ — which I get, because nobody would expect last year to pay $200,000 right here. You’ve now got two-bedroom, one- to two-bath houses selling for $179,000 to $200,000 and they’re selling right away. We’re probably gonna scare away some of the buyers that would have looked here, but you know what’s gonna happen is they’re gonna start moving into another neighborhood and they’re gonna start increasing the value in that neighborhood and improving those properties.”
There’s already increased interest in the Smoketown/Shelby Park neighborhood. Some of it, according to several people that I talk to, has to do with churches and volunteer groups encouraging investment in the neighborhood. In 2010, Travis Provencher bought a house on South Jackson Street from the bank for $6,000. It needed, well, everything, but the rare shotgun had a historic front, brick exterior and original millwork. He moved in and has since put $150,000 into it, not including the value of his time and labor. He added a two-story addition to the back, bringing the square footage to 2,570. “It’s the quality of what you find in Norton Commons,” says Provencher, a Nashville native who says he was a green builder before it was fashionable. He looked at comparable real estate and is putting it on the market it for $257,000. It seems high for the area, but at $100 per square foot, it’s considerably less than where Germantown is right now, which is approaching $200 a square foot. According to the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors, February 2016 home sales in Jefferson County were up 26 percent from February 2015. Germantown trails behind Bashford Manor, Old Louisville and Tyler Park, the three neighborhoods with the fastest-rising home values, according to Kentucky Select Properties.
Hank Oechslin started buying properties when he was younger. In the ’70s he bought four houses between Hickory and Texas on Lydia Street and paid between $8,000 and $13,500 for each. “Shotgun house went up (for sale) last week, corner of Texas and Lydia — $202,000 they’re asking for it,” he says. “Me being in the game, I don’t miss a real-estate transfer. 1124 E. Burnett just sold for $230,000. Was nothing but a shotgun. I went to school with them kids. They were about the poorest in the neighborhood. The man next door to them is 91 years old and he’s very shook up. He’s been there for years and years and had a swing on his back porch, could see all the way up to Texas and had a good view. They added that room and blocked him. He’s very disturbed. It’s changed the landscape of Germantown. The culture of Germantown has changed.”
He and Nancy say that most of the new bars and restaurants are too expensive for the residents of their generation. “They go to Check’s and buy a beer for $1.75. Why go 50 feet further (to Monnik) and pay $5 for it?” Hank says. “When I was a kid, I’d stand on a chair and play the pinball machine where Lydia House is now. Habensteins were the original owners, opened about 1939.” (The place actually goes back to 1892, when it was a grocery.) “I talked to (Lydia House owner) Emily (Ruff),” Hank says. “She had a bag of garbage. I said, ‘Looking good, Emily, have those garbage cans full.’ Anytime you’re in business, I’m pulling for you. She’s been there a little over a year. They call that the hump in the tavern business. You wanna get over the hump.”
“I went in there…” Nancy begins saying.
“Their prices are high,” Hank says.
“Oh, they’re high,” she says. “I stopped in; I thought I’d try their food. I ordered a Reuben sandwich and a cup of soup. Nothing to drink. It was $11-something. I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s the special.’ I got home and thought, oh, I haven’t had a Reuben sandwich in years, sauerkraut and everything. I get home and it was half of a sandwich — half — and a little bitty old cup of soup. That’s not my style. I’m going to Check’s. And it didn’t even taste like a Reuben. It had a different kind of meat and everything.”
“Do you wanna do the good coffee or the cheap stuff?” a guy working the counter at Lydia House says on a dreary spring morning. The good coffee is French-pressed from Seattle, he says, and the other one is just some generic brand.
“I’ll have plain old coffee and an ice water,” Susan Brunton says and we sit down to talk about the neighborhood.
Brunton and her husband bought their house on Lydia Street for $87,500 in 2001. “Everybody seems to think (the neighborhood changes) are universally, 100 percent wonderful, but there is a downside,” she says. “You have someone that’s been renting here for years. They’ve only been paying $650, maybe $850; now the rents are $1,500 for little tiny houses. You’ve got older people with fixed incomes. Their property taxes have gone through the roof. It’s not all great. It’s tempting to sell, but to go where? Plus, all the time I’ve spent volunteering and investing in the neighborhood, if I did leave I wouldn’t want to go far.”
She started Go Green Germantown in 2010 to help beautify the area and make it more environmentally friendly. She wanted to have a neighborhood tree, to plant a bunch of a species that could be a good attraction to the neighborhood, much like Audubon Park’s Festival of the Dogwood. After doing some research, she decided on the redbud, which grows a taproot that stretches down like a carrot instead of spreading out and buckling up sidewalks, something she calls “bad tree PR.” She has made T-shirts, one of which she’s wearing, to raise funds for the plantings. Sometimes she’ll get several volunteers but often it’s just her and her husband out planting. So far she’s helped plant 121 trees, 94 of them redbuds. She’s trying to come up with something fun to celebrate the planting of the 100th redbud and is thinking next spring could be the first Schnitzelburg Redbud Festival. “Like a mini St. James with artists,” she says. “I wish (the late) Councilman Jim King were here to see it. Man really loved trees.”
Brunton, 48, and her husband have had two children since moving to the house and always thought that maybe they’d buy a bigger one in the neighborhood, but now they can’t afford to. (Public schools, depending on the section of the neighborhood, are Bloom and Shelby elementary, Highland and Meyzeek middle, and Seneca, Atherton and Shawnee high.) She’s been staying home with her kids before her four-year-old reaches kindergarten and her husband works for DIRECTV (he has installed the service at several of the new businesses). “There’s a couple on this block looking into the cost of putting on a camelback,” Brunton says. “I guess I’m naive. I said, ‘What’s that cost? $20,000? $30,000?’ They said, ‘Maybe for the bathroom.’
“Dinks, I think they’re called. Dual income, no kids,” she says. “Yeah, $14 sandwiches, $5 beers, bring it on. But that’s out of the range of a lot of people who have lived here for a long time. I was talking to somebody about a $200,000 shotgun and he said, ‘You’ve been busting your ass for 12 years in this neighborhood. Don’t complain now.’ Jesus, is there something in between boarded-up homes and $200,000 shotguns?”
Zach Driscoll shares Brunton’s mixed feelings about the neighborhood’s surging prices. He and his wife bought a house on Goss a year and a half ago for $95,000. She works at the Quills at U of L and he’s a musician in several bands and often plays at nearby Zanzabar and the New Vintage, so the location is ideal for them. They haven’t yet moved in because they are adding a two-story addition on the back and have had issues with permits and sluggish construction, so the cost of renting and paying mortgage has put a strain on them. “A house on this street just sold for $230,000. Two years ago there’s no way you would have gotten $200,000. I don’t care how nice it is. As soon as somebody hears they’re gonna open some fancy lofts down the street, they’re like, ‘Oh, we can sell our house for triple what its worth.’ That kind of attitude really bothers me. But on the other hand, nobody wants to buy a house and lose money on it.”
I meet Danny McMahon, the owner of Danny Mac’s Pizza, at the AMVETS Post No. 9, which houses his business. The 42-year-old grew up playing in the Germantown baseball league, which has been around since 1952. Six years ago, he started the Germantown-Schnitzelburg Facebook page to try to gather history about the area. He’d go down to the U of L Archives, look through photos and post them to the page, which has become a hyper-local news source for many. Everything gets posted, from lost pets to sketchy activity to fundraising events. The page now has about 13,000 followers — for an area with about 7,000 residents.
But he says he has started to realize that his efforts to improve the neighborhood may have unintentionally led to some of the negative aspects of its growth. He and several others mention the parking problem. For a patron from another neighborhood visiting any of the bars and restaurants, it may not seem like a problem. But for the residents without driveways who have always been able to park outside of their house, it’s beginning to be an issue, especially for older folks. “Certain lots have gotten aggressive about only allowing their customers to park,” Brunton tells me. “This was always a friendly, working-class neighborhood, not where you sold $12 sandwiches and had your neighbors towed.”
“Really, there’s only one new bar,” says Mike Morris, an attorney who’s office is at the front of his home on Goss. “They’re just replacing others. It’s like a generational change. I laugh and tell people: Look, there’s articles in Hauck’s Handy Store, old newspaper articles, they talk about George Hauck. He was the young guy who came back from World War II and took over the store from his parents and renovated it. He was the new thing back in the ’40s. Flabby’s? Where Lydia House is? That was Flabby Devine, old Flabby Devine, but at one time Flabby was a young guy that was doing something different in the neighborhood. Maybe not different, but fixing it up and doing something a little different than what was there before. The previous generation has gotten to the age where they’re retiring, so the natural flow of things is people are gonna come in, younger entrepreneurs, and someday maybe Laura and Nash Neely at The Post or Emily Ruff at Lydia House, they’ll be icons in the neighborhood because they’ve been there so long.”
Morris, who is on the Schnitzelburg Area Community Council board, was a realtor in the neighborhood back in the ’80s and remembers articles about Germantown being the up-and-coming place for young people. “To me, it’s always been that way,” he says. While the lofts might have helped increase property values (and cause growing pains), Morris sees it as a good thing for the neighborhood. “It’s gone from the biggest eyesore to the biggest gem,” he says. “Instead of sucking the life out of the area around it, it’s bringing up the area.”
Hank Oechslin may have his complaints, but he admits that he doesn’t blame investors and businesses trying to make a dollar. “If I were younger I’d be out there with them,” he says.
Mark Foxworth says that, from an architect’s standpoint, it’s nice to see things get renovated. “We used to joke that what was nice about Germantown is it was so quiet. You go to the really wealthy neighborhoods and people are always working on their houses ’cause they can afford to. Couldn’t do that in Germantown. For so many years it was really quiet. Not so much anymore.”
Nora Christensen says she doesn’t much like the construction noises but that the neighborhood feels safer now, with fewer packs of idle youth that had been known to break into people’s houses. “There were two houses for sale on this street the same time mine was and I went dumpster-diving,” she says. “There were all these Catholic photos in the garbage and it was this changing of philosophy. (The neighborhood) does seem to have lost some of its history. I guess that’s progress, but it seems kind of sad that a phase had ended.”
The first redbud Susan Brunton planted was at Mo’s Food Mart on Goss. They named the tree Rosie, Brunton says, after the queen of the Schnitzelburg pageant that Danny McMahon held at the AMVETS post. The redbud would have been taller, except a guy who came to Mo (Makhtarei Mohammad) trying to make a few dollars trimmed the tree and did a poor job, so its growth is stunted. Casey was second, on Hickory Street, named after a lady’s dog that had passed away. The third, on Mulberry Street, is named Amelia after someone’s baby. The tree at the AMVETS post is Susie, named after the post’s first female commander, Susie Siewart Bruner.
Brunton drives around and checks on many of the trees she’s helped plant, pruning them if needed. “Eiderdown had (a redbud) and chopped it down when they put in a patio,” she says. “They put in a row of trees after they chopped ours down. None are redbuds. After you plant a tree for somebody, it’s theirs and you walk away.”