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The International Writers Magazine: Kentucky

Tiny, Perfect Louisville
Gerald Levitch

Regional American museums get no respect – or hardly any, at least from art lovers.  Nobody goes to Nashville, for example, to explore its art collections. 


Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a tiny museum that might offer shelter in bad weather, but not a lot of sustenance otherwise.  But if you think that’s also going to be the case with the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, you’re in for a very pleasant surprise. 

Speed Gallery Tucked away in a quiet corner of the University of Louisville campus, the Speed is one of those tiny, perfect collections that can be comfortably viewed in a couple of hours, offers a tidy, concise history of western art, and holds some real treasures. Inside the handsome 1927-vintage Greek Revival building, there are rooms-full of one-of-a-kind marvels that allow you to take a quick spin through French impressionism with a Monet, a Matisse, a Cezanne, and a Gauguin, then a quick dash through 20th century modernism with a Picasso, a Man Ray, and a Paul Klee.  Scupture includes a shiny Brancusi (photo by S.Lyon) and a sleekly elegant Henry Moore. 

In another room, along a single wall, you’ll find an atmospheric genre painting by Jan Steen hanging next to an early Ruisdael landscape.  A couple of frames away is a portrait of a presumably wealthy Dutch burger’s wife by Rembrandt (it’s the mate of another Rembrandt portrait in the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena) – possibly the only Rembrandt for how many thousands of square miles?  And there’s a representative van Dyck, a Rubens, and even a luscious, pink-cheeked Cranach (the Elder, ca. 1530).

Old money from tobacco, bourbon distilleries, baseball bats, and horses, and new money from companies like Humana Inc., Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.), and UPS accounts for Louisville’s prosperous air (and its museums’ generous endowment funds).  It’s one of those small, old American cities, a bit like Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, that has managed to hold off urban redevelopment and preserve a surprising amount of its rich historical flavor. 

You get a sustained taste of that in the Old Lousville part of town, where you can take a walking tour past some 1,400 homes in a forty-eight block area.  Tree-lined streets with gas lamps set off what the locals claim is America’s largest collection of Victorian homes.  Two of the highlights are the fountain in St. James Court and the Filson Historical Society, whose clubhouse is a handsome example of turn-of-the-20th century upper class residences.  It’s open to the public, and includes a small museum. There are guided historical and architectural tours, and even a Ghost Tour. 

For fanciers of atmospheric architecture, there’s a dueling pair of grand old hotels, the Brown and the Seelbach.  They don’t make grand hotels like these anymore.  The Seelbach even has the literary distinction of making a cameo appearance in “The Great Gatsby.” 

Seelbach Regarding Daisy Buchanan’s wedding, Fitzgerald wrote “she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before.  He came down with a hundred people in four private cars, and a hired a whole floor of the Seelbach Hotel ….
The Beaux Arts Baroque exterior is matched by a luxurious lobby that warrants a march-about to ogle its over-the-top decorations on every surface and dark, vintage murals on the high walls.  The Ratskeller is a gaudy underground space that looks like it’s been plucked out of a Bavarian cathedral cellar, lined with rare Rookwood Pottery.  And the old Billiard Room (now the Oakroom diningroom) provided period scenery for the film, The Hustler, starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Seelbachlobby

The Brown is an equally splendid and nicely restored relic, with a life-sized statue of the rotund founder standing guard outside his palace entrance.  A Georgian Revival exterior trimmed in stone and terra cotta is matched by its two-storey lobby with a hand-painted, coffered ceiling.  But the real attraction is the “Hot Brown” at the English Grill. 

Known far and wide at divers Kentucky diners and dives as “a heart attack on a plate,” the original was invented by the hotel chef back in 1926 as a late-evening, after-dinner-dance snack.  Basically an open-faced turkey sandwich, topped with a cheesy Mornay sauce, more cheese, and a couple of thick crispy bacon slices, it’s definitely not for low-cholesterol dieters.  Cheese on turkey with bacon isn’t one of those intuitively right culinary combinations that makes you want to snap your fingers and shout “Of course!”  But it turns out to be a surprisingly tasty dish, though probably better-suited for lunch, when you have a few hours to walk it off.

Which gives you a good excuse to explore more of Louisville on foot.  The Speed isn’t the only impressive regional museum in Louisville.  Also downtown is the Muhammad Ali Center, dedicated to promoting the legacy and values of a local homeboy-made-good.  And you can’t miss the six-story tall baseball bat that leans against the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory at the corner of Eighth and Main.  But, dare I say it, all baseball bats basically look alike to me, so I skipped along to the site of another “big stick,” which is even more famous.

Just a pop fly from the 120-foot slugger, you’ll find Teddy Roosevelt’s celebrated “big stick” in the Frazier International History Museum, a few display cases away from Geronimo’s bow and arrows, and a pair of ivory-handled Colt pistols, formerly the property of General George Armstrong Custer.

Now, at last, you can answer the burning question:  Just how big is Teddy Roosevelt’s “big stick”?  The answer is really big, really heavy, and it had a heck of a kickback.  As Teddy’s son Kermit describes the .450 calibre Holland & Holland Royal Grade Double Rifle:  “it shoots very accurately, but of course the recoil is tremendous.... so severe that it became a standing joke as to whether we did not fear it more than a charging elephant!” In 1909, a group of Roosevelt’s British admirers bought the custom-made rifle as a gift.  And the Frazier has several more of Roosevelt’s “sticks.”

The Frazier is actually two museums in one.  It started with the firearms collection of Owsley Brown Frazier (grandson of the founder of liquor giant, Brown-Forman).  But it also houses a permanent branch exhibition from the Royal Armouries, the U.K.’s oldest museum.  This section houses an impressive collection of U.K. and European arms, armour and an impressive serious of life-sized historical tableaux, featuring various scenes of battles won and lost, with appropriate costumes, guns, knives, swords, and assorted spears and arrows.

With live performances by storytellers, and a series of video theatres, the Frazier is a kid-friendly museum for military buffs, gun nuts, and history enthusiasts who will relish the sight of some very unusual treasures – at a museum and in a location that’s about as far off the usual beaten path as you can get.

In a crowded landscape of holiday getaways, Louisville makes a fine argument for taking a side-trip off the beaten path.  Not only does it have a wealth of fascinating sights to see, interesting new foods to try, and one of the prettiest countrysides in all of North America, but it’s central enough to be within drivable distance of many American cities.  And it’s priced at a very affordable discount (the 5-star Seelbach averages C$170 a night; the Brown averages $160), which is cheap, cheap compared to the usual big-city vacations.    

Speed Art Museum, 2035 South 3rd Street, Louisville, KY 40208-1803, (502) 634-2700,

Frazier International History Museum, 829 West Main Street, Louisville, KY 40202, (502) 753-5663,

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory; 800 West Main St.; Louisville , KY 40202; 1-877-7-SLUGGER (877-775-8443),

Muhammad Ali Center, 144 North 6th Street, Louisville, KY 40202, (502) 992-5329‎ – (502) 584-9254,‎

Seelbach Hilton Hotel, 500 South 4th Street, Louisville, KY 40202, (502) 585-3200,

The Brown Hotel, 335 West Broadway, Louisville, KY 40202, (502) 583-1234,

The Grand Walking Tour, $15.00 per adult, departs everyday except Sunday at 1 pm and takes 2 hours. The Ghosts of Old Louisville Walking Tour departs every Friday evening at 7:30, takes 90 minutes, and costs $25 for adults.  Call the Visitors Center in Historic Old Louisville at 502-637-2922, to make tour reservations or to schedule a private tour.

The Filson Historical Society, 1310 S. Third Street, Louisville, KY 40208
(502) 635-5083,

© Gerald Levitch August 2010

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