ky120: Jefferson County Courthouse (Louisville, Ky.)

Jefferson County Courthouse – Louisville, Ky.

The Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville has probably one of the more interesting stories behind its construction. It’s a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of historic buildings.

Shryock Design for Jefferson Courthouse
(Photo: Clay Lancaster Slide Collection; KDL)

Construction began on this building – Louisville’s fourth courthouse – in 1837. The original architect was none other than Gideon Shryock, the notable architect profiled on this site a number of times. But Shryock’s original design isn’t really reflected in what you see above. The building was to have a six-column Doric portico, a cupola and additional porticos on the side.

Legend has it that the building was designed to draw the state capitol away from Frankfort, but such efforts were obviously unsuccessful. This movement’s primary proponent was Senator James Guthrie. The ultimate failure of making the building the new state capitol led to the building being known as “Guthrie’s Folly.”

The most interesting thing about this building is how it was affected by financially difficult times, in this instance the panic of 1837. I think it’s easy to categorize financial difficulties in the construction world as some sort of modern invention, but the empty Centrepointe lot in Lexington has historic company. Shortly after construction began, Shryock was either fired or left the project. In financially tough times, construction stalled. The building was only partially finished when the city and county governments took up occupancy in 1842. The courthouse stood unfinished until 1858, when construction was taken over by Albert Fink, a bridge designer and engineer for the L&N Railroad. Fink simplified Shryock’s design and almost all of the current elements are his. When the courthouse was completed, the Louisville Daily Journal called it an “elephantine monstrosity.” Ouch.
Jefferson County Courthouse, ca. 1930
(Photo: Herald-Post; KDL)

It’s amazing how things can change. During urban renewal efforts in the 1940s, there was discussion about demolishing the building. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright offered a defense of the building, stating that though these are not the sorts of buildings that should be built today, it was important to preserve them.

The building was renovated in 1905 after a fire, and another major renovation was completed in 1981, in which many inappropriate architectural alterations were removed. The building was listed on the National Historic Register in 1972.

To me, the most interesting thing about this building is how easily it gets lost in downtown Louisville. Though once stood as the center of the community, it is totally overwhelmed by the skyscrapers that now surround it. I had read about its history years ago, but was confused when I was downtown and couldn’t find it. A couple of months ago, I was in downtown Louisville and realized that I had walked right in front of it. Crazy.