Though Tom Owen soon will retire from his seat on Louisville Metro Council, the longtime legislator will continue to be a voice for the community’s preservationist movement.
Owen is a populist, a storyteller, a streetcorner evangelist. For Louisville, those streetcorners are the streets and alleyways of Old Louisville, Butchertown, Germantown, Portland, Cherokee Gardens, Hikes Point – wherever there’s a building worth saving, a culture worth preserving, a neighborhood history worth bringing back to life.
“We’ve asked Tom to reflect on his career, with an obvious emphasis on his significant efforts toward preservation and history,” says Steve Wiser, president of the Louisville Historical League.
That might include his efforts as a 26-year member of, first, the Louisville Board of Aldermen and, starting in 2003, the Metro Council. Owen is uniquely qualified to address the personality of Louisville as a city of neighborhoods given his district includes so many distinct areas, including Cherokee Triangle, part of the Original Highlands, Tyler Park, Bonnycastle, Deer Park, Douglass Loop, Belknap, Bowman, Alta Vista and Braeview, along with the cities of Strathmoor Manor, Strathmoor Village, Kingsley and Seneca Gardens.
And as chairman of the Public Works, Bridges and Transportation Committee and a member of the Planning, Zoning, Land Design and Development and Appropriations committees, he was well-positioned to fight the good fights for conservation, environmentalism and historic preservation.
Before that, Owen was a history professor and archivist at the University of Louisville, where he preserved volumes of written records at the school’s Ekstrom Library for academic research and public use.
All of which makes Owen a good fit for the annual lecture series that commemorates the work and values of Jason Fenwick, the local archaeologist, architectural historian and preservationist who died in 2000, at age 53, of liver disease.
A Mississippi native who studied anthropology at the University of Kentucky, Fenwick was later staff archaeologist on the Kentucky Heritage Commission (now the Kentucky Heritage Council); then the Kentucky state curator who coordinated the restoration of the executive mansion for Gov. John Y. Brown.
Before his death, Fenwick also worked for the National Parks Service in Washington, D.C., as an architectural historian involved in the historic tax credit program.
After Fenwick’s death, the Louisville Historical League set up a fund in his name and began the annual Fenwick Lectures, starting in 2002.
“We’ve tried to focus on the theme of preservation, which defined Jason and his work,” says Deborah Stewart, who was president of the Historical League at the time and still sits on the board.
Over the years, those lectures have featured architects, writers and artists such as glass sculptor Ken von Roenn.
“Tom is an appropriate choice because he embodies the spirit of curiosity and tenacity that not only honors the past but also builds on it for the future,” Stewart says. “His focus on the community comes from his unique perspective. He has contributed so much.”
While Owen has the academic and historian creds, he is not a writer and no longer merely a professor of history. Quite the opposite, says historian and educator John Kleber, who along with Owen edited “The Kentucky Encyclopedia” and “The Encyclopedia of Louisville.”
“What I credit Tom for is stepping outside the lectern and onto the streets of Louisville,” Kleber says. “At some point, the city of Louisville became his classroom and the citizens of Louisville became his students.”
Kleber is referring to Owen’s walking tours of various Louisville neighborhoods, pointing out the significance of this building or the historical relevance of that one, or the history of this streetcorner site.
“They’re on the educational side,” says Wiser, “but they’re colorful, animated, participatory. Tom likes to make history relevant, to put it into terms people can relate to – how all that history impacts today’s world.”
Plus, notes Wiser, there’s the entertaining, expressive delivery of information that gets his followers flocking to these tours, that has led to Owen being called The Pied Piper of Louisville History.
“You don’t fall asleep during a Tom Owen presentation,” Wiser notes.
Of course, the entertaining Owen tours were for more than mere entertainment. “It’s important for people to walk the neighborhoods and appreciate the city’s historic buildings,” says Allan Steinberg, one of the founders of the Historical League. “Not only do people – especially young people – begin to understand where our communities come from, but they also become aware of the heritage of our great buildings … and the implications of tearing them down.”
Kleber echoes that sentiment. “When Tom points to a building and tells us its history, he has in a sense preserved that building. If it’s in danger, he may have rallied people to support that building or that street or that neighborhood.
“Most important,” adds Kleber, “we learned from Tom that history resides not only in people, but also in buildings, streets and alleys.”
And there also was this: Like his familiar bike rides around town – always with a helmet affixed to his head – his neighborhood tours were walking tours, on foot, another low-carbon-emission event.
Due to an unexpected scheduling bump, this year’s Fenwick Lecture will give people the additional opportunity to see the newly renovated Speed Museum.
The event is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 4, at 2 p.m., at The Speed Museum, 2035 S. Third St. Doors open at 1:30. The presentation is free, though any voluntary donations will go to the Fenwick Fund.
A question-and-answer period will follow Owen’s presentation, after which the museum will be open to attendees.
“What they’ve done to the original building is phenomenal,” Wiser says of the renovated museum. “And the lower level now houses the Kentucky Collection, a lot of historical artifacts – an appropriate follow-up to a lecture series like this one.”