A Personal Memoir
They didn’t call it “Old Louisville” then. It was just your street - South Second - the 1300 block. As a little girl in the late ‘30’s and 40’s you didn’t know your neighborhood was “in decline.” Sure, yours and most of the other big brick and stone buildings were rooming houses and apartments, but that was where everyone you knew lived. The only people you knew who had whole houses to themselves were your mother’s friends who lived out in the country - a place called St. Matthews. Your playmates’ families rented apartments, just as yours did, from owners who lived upstairs or downstairs.
Landladies were authority figures who admonished you about galloping over their iris beds or forgetting your door keys; but they did not mind if you played endless make-believe games in the ample back yard. They hired men to cut the grass and prune the fruit trees that you liked to climb. When your mother asked you to pick some mint for iced tea, you always found a few aromatic sprigs beside the weathered wooden fence.
The landlady did not object either when your family of three slept in one bedroom, to make one or two of the apartment’s drafty, high-ceilinged rooms available for boarders who quickly became part of the family. You all gathered in the tiny “breakfast room” for dinner after work, or late Sunday breakfasts.
The Towers, a mini-turreted movie house on Oak, between Third and Fourth was where your mother walked you to see Shirley Temple movies. After the show, the chandeliers lit up and if the man on the stage drew your ticket stub from the wire cage, you could win jewel-colored dishes. Your mother had heard of someone who won $5.00 in cash.
As a grade-schooler you walked down Second to Gavin H. Cochran, at the corner of Hill Street. In winter your knees were chapped because you hated your leggings and by the end of the day around your nose and mouth was smudged dark from the coal soot in the bitter air. In fifth grade two of your classmates, a boy and a girl, were refugees from Europe, there being many Jewish families in the neighborhood. The newcomers awed you with their knowledge of German, French and perfect English, always getting the best grades in class. Resentment struggled with compassion in your 11-year-old heart.
Now you were old enough to walk with your friends to the other neighborhood movie house, the Ritz, which squatted next to the railroad tracks at Second and Gaulbert. Trains sometimes drowned out bits of Abbott and Costello’s disputes, but there was always a double feature and a serial.
One door from the corner of your block, at Second and Magnolia, was Nick’s Pharmacy, where you could page through Screen Guild and Hit Parade magazines until someone ran you off. There was a juke box at Nick’s, too, and you could hear the naughty Andrews Sisters’ hit, “Rum and Coca Cola,” and pretend not to listen as you tried to glean forbidden knowledge from the words. On Saturday afternoons at the soda fountain, you and your girlfriends dawdled over cherry phosphates next to working men enjoying an Oertel’s ’92 or Falls City beer. Gladys, behind the fountain, knew all of you by name. Simon’s Pharmacy, at Second and Burnett, was another place where regulars, young and old, socialized on Saturdays, once the noon whistles signaled the end of the five-and-a-half-day work week.
Over on Third Street, the houses were more impressive and sat further back from the wide sidewalks of the avenue, quieter than Second because the streetcars did not run there. Behind one of the big houses was an old covered well with water for sale that was supposed to be good for you but smelled like rotten eggs. One day you squandered a nickel to share a small paper cup with two friends, just so you could see who made the worst face.
When you tired of back yard games, Central Park was nearby for pumping on the swings until the squeaky chains wouldn’t go any higher; or, you could play Nyoka of the Jungle astride the smooth iron lions, or “explore” the thick bushes edging the park.
On the southeast corner of Fourth and Magnolia stood the gray stone house where Victor Mature, the actor, stayed when he visited his proud hometown. The door was flanked by tall robins-egg blue vases, and you gawked, willing “Samson” to appear between them, but the glass-paneled door remained firmly, aloofly closed.
The September after you graduated from sixth grade you proudly swaggered past Cochran every morning to head two blocks down to Halleck Hall, at Second and Lee. Louisville Junior High School, grades seven through nine, was on the first two floors of the building; the third was occupied by Louisville Girls High. The confusing, crowded hallways of the H-shaped building were a terrifying puzzle that first year, and your face grew hot when the halls emptied and you knew you were late to class.
High schools were not co-ed then, so upon graduating ninth grade most of the girls moved upstairs to Girls High and the boys left for Manual or Male, traditional football rivals. Girls who had boyfriends or brothers at one of the boys’ schools liked to sport ribbons; red and white for Manual, purple and gold for Male, held in place by little bronze football pins.
Much later still, your school day trip extended another two blocks down South Second, past Halleck Hall, all the way to where the street butted into those vaguely pyramidal white stones which edged the north side of the Uof L campus. By that time, though, loaded down with freshman books, you boarded new buses which were gradually replacing the noisy, sparking streetcars. In loafers and ponytail, you rode unseeing, past your old schools and hangouts, thinking of the future, another life, another place.
Now, several lives and places later, browsing the Internet, you find the Old Louisville web site and your breath catches with recognition at the photographs. The turrets, dormers and stonework of these beautiful buildings presiding over the old sidewalks are more acutely familiar than any place you have known since. It was here that you walked and skipped and roller-skated. There was boundless time then for daydreams about the “castles” so near as to be almost part of you, yet still so mysterious.
You read about the history, grand architecture, and decades-long struggle to preserve the area. But it does not take long to realize it is not your old neighborhood they want to restore, but one much more grand and elegant. No question, that is a good thing.
There was a time, though, between the graceful years of carriages and calling cards, and the ugly ones of boarded windows and paranoia, when Old Louisville was a not a bad place to be a kid.
Other memoirs by
Betty Jeffers Marlowe:
© 1999 Betty Jeffers Marlow, all rights reserved
Comments? You can email Betty Jeffers Marlow at