Sunday, October 5, 2008

House Haunting

Out for a drive around Louisville last summer, I was on the impoverished West side and ran across a spectacular old house--really spectacular. But it was practically a ruin, hugely neglected and nearly falling in on itself. There was, incongruously, a tax service operating out of the ground floor (I thought at the time that the business was still functional, but now I'm skeptical), while the upper floors had broken windows and the roof was missing sections of shingles, and the whole structure looked like decades had passed since the last time anyone put a penny into the place. The idea of a structure like this one getting away from someone, of this encroaching gangrene forcing the owner to gradually close off more and more of an old mansion as the earth began to reclaim it, gave my nostalgia whore nerve a hell of a tweak. What a demonstration of entropy in action.

Unfortunately, I didn't pay very close attention to my location, nor did I take any photos, and on subsequent lazy drives I could never find the place again. But the memory of the house haunted me. Over this past winter I read something in the local paper about an old mansion slated for demolition and the hubbub to try to save it and I wondered if it might be the same building.

Well, driving around yesterday (we do a lot of this, as there is quite a bit of free time to fill), I finally happened upon it again. If it looked 75% gone before, it was 90 or 95% gone this time. The tax service, whose sign was still there, was long closed, the ground floor windows now covered in plywood. The yard was like an Aztec ruin and, when you got up close to it the place just seemed heartbreakingly beyond redemption. It would take an obscene fortune to restore it, if it could even be done. Every single element need a complete overhaul. It would require a renewal to the last brick, but complicated by needing to retain what was left. But man, what bones. It's just not the kind of house anyone would build today. I snapped a few photos, and then came back to the apartment and searched online to see if I could figure out what it was.

Turns out, the house is quite famous around town and beyond, and that newspaper article I remembered was indeed referring to this house--one of many references listed at the Louisville Courier-Journal. Owned by the city, the 1860s "Ouerbacker mansion" was offered for sale for $1 to anyone who was willing to restore it. And apparently in late June a Louisville architect, Scott Kremer, stepped in right before the wrecking ball swung. From the local paper:

The grand but deteriorating Ouerbacker mansion at 1633 W. Jefferson St. — described by the city as one of the finest residences ever constructed in the Russell neighborhood — could be saved. It was built in the 1860s and was used for a tax business for about 70 years, starting in the 1930s. It was taken over by the city because of unpaid taxes and has been included for the last two years on the Louisville Historical Leagues list of most endangered properties.

The mansion is named for a prominent coffee merchant, Samuel Ouerbacker (1841-1922), who lived there. Ouerbacker was the son-in-law of Alexander Gilmore (1826-1891), a steamboat captain who also lived there. For part of the 1920s and 1930s, it also was the home of the Rev. George C. Clement, a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

The Louisville & Jefferson County Landbank Authority's request for proposals says that it is "one of the relatively few remaining examples of the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture" in the region and that the "distinguished Louisville architectural firm of Clarke and Loomis designed the building's facade."

The wrap-around facade is thought to have been added later, Wiser said. Arthur Loomis also designed other well-known Louisville buildings, including the Conrad-Caldwell house on St. James Court in Old Louisville, the original University of Louisville Medical School building on Chestnut Street and the original J. B. Speed Art Museum building.--

A Google search for "Ouerbacker mansion" yields quite a few results, including the new owner's plans to restore it and donate it for public use. In addition to donating the property to Mr. Kremer, the city also ponied up $100,000 to stabilize the structure, as its dilapidation caused the cautionary shutdown of a day care center next door. A writer on the Save This Old House blog opens his post this way: In the three and a half years I've been writing the Save This Old House column, I've never come across anything as jaw-dropping as the Ouerbacker mansion in Louisville, Kentucky.

One of the strikes against the house is that it's no longer in a swanky part of town. Louisville's money all went elsewhere a century ago, and now the mansion is conspicuous amid warehouses and rotting churches and abandoned frame houses and trash-strewn lots. Given that a restoration of the house will not in itself resuscitate the neighborhood, I can see why someone would not want to throw their personal $2 million at the place. Well, here's hoping it all comes good.

For other lovers of decay and dilapidation and abandonment, here's your treat for the day.

There are a couple interior photos here and here.

And here's a fun almost-hundred-year-old photo with the house in the background:

Let's hope I can do a follow-up in a year or two with the place gloriously restored.


Malaise Inc said...

That house reminds me of Boldt Castle, which was severely run down when I toured through it as a child. There has been a continuous effort over a long period of time to restore it to it's turn of the century glory.

It is a beautiful old mansion with a wonderful, but sad, story. Which can be found here.

wunelle said...

The castle is fantastic, near as I can see! There aren't too many photos on the site, but the boathouse and other ancillary places are spectacular.

It is a similar story, though Boldt Castle is a much more ambitious undertaking than the Ouerbacker house.

You haven't seen the castle recently, then?

Malaise Inc said...

I was up there about 15 years ago and again 3 years ago. The restoration had made alot of progress in the intervening years. The boathouse, which was decrepit and structurally unsound 15 years ago was fully restored and beautiful. Alot of progress had been made on the castle as well.

CyberKitten said...

Seriously cool house!

Why am I reminded of the Adams family?

dbackdad said...

Very interesting house and post. Let us know if you ever hear anything more about the restoration process.

Jon said...

Truly a great house, I would love to have a hand in the restoration. And I'll bet the woodwork inside is or was very well done, as with most houses of the day. The Congdon mansion in Duluth comes to mind.

Hussey said...

A real image of dream house for me. But still some additions to be made to be perfect for me. Still really beautiful house.

Melissa H.B. said...

The house was incredible on the inside. Even though the owner, an extended family member, did not maintain the property during the life of her ownership of the business, you could only imagine how it was in it's glory. There were a few modifications on the first floor for the business to close it off from the back portion which my extended family once used as their residence. Also, the second and third floors were turned into a few apartments.

William Stachour said...

I drove past a couple months ago now and it looks further and further gone. So sad.

J gamer said...

I know it has been a while since you posted your information on the Ouerbacker house, but I just now came across your blog. I have recently been researching the house because it came up in conversation a few weeks back and I thought I would do a little digging into the status of the house. My dad, his brother and sister with their parents (Rhetta and Jim Parrish) lived in the Ouerbacker-Clement house in the very late 60's until early 1980's. They lived there while working for Mr. Holland of Holland Tax Service. I remember many visits to the house in the 70's & early 80's. My Grandparents first lived in the front left-side of house then in the early 80's until they moved to the back part of the house. My grandfather himself did most of the work to the back part of the house before residing there until they completely moved out after Mr. Holland retired and closed the tax service. All rumors are true as to the house being haunted. The third floor is the most haunted part of the house and one particular room especially. I cannot remember the exact number on the door. Each of the rooms were numbered. At some point, I believe it was used as apartments in the 1930's until Holland took over the house. My mom and dad both experienced hauntings. The one who witnessed most of the hauntings is my aunt, my dad's sister. Her room at its own bathroom and the water was always turning on by itself at all house. She heard lots of eerie noises and different strange things occurring. She even had a friend stay a night and ended up running out of the house during the middle of the night. Needless to say, my grandfather had to take her home. When my grandparents worked for Holland Tax Service, Mr. Holland's office was as you walked in and to the right. Next to his office was another larger office lined with workers, desks, and typewriters. My Grandparents ran Holland Tax Service during all of that time. Eventually, Holland Tax Service came to an end because of Mr. Holland's age and health. When they moved out, they moved to their own house close to Churchill Downs and started their own tax service: Parrish Tax Service. Thank you for your interest in the house that is a huge part of my early childhood.

William Stachour said...

I was excited to see it finally getting a rehab, but it appears to have been about 80% complete and then the plans abandoned. The house is being lived in again, but it appears to have become a multi-unit rental--surely not what was envisioned when it was rescued from the wrecking ball a couple years ago. Still, at least it's still there!